Places Of Refuge

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What happens when a ship in distress requires a “place of refuge”?

In the aftermath of the incident involving the fully laden 31,068 dwt stricken Tanker Castor unable to find a sheltered place to effect cargo transfer and repairs for some 35 days after developing a structural problem in the Mediterranean Sea en route from the Romanian port of Constanza to Lagos, Nigeria. The ship suffered damage to the hull resulting in a 24m crack (below) running from port to starboard halfway along its length.

The ship was deemed to present a serious risk of explosion and rupture of the hull and the authorities of Morocco and Gibraltar prohibited its entry into waters and ports under their jurisdiction. Castor then sailed towards the vicinity of the south-eastern coast of Spain, accompanied by a tug with which the tanker’s owner had agreed to effect transshipments of the cargo under a commercial salvage contract. Following inspection of the ship by the Spaniards, authorities described the situation as one of extreme seriousness due to the high risk of explosion, and recommended that the ship should not enter any port and should keep at a distance from the coast to minimize the consequences of a possible catastrophe. Following the incident, the American Bureau of shipping withdrew the ship’s certificates.

Bringing the ship close to the Spanish coast for unloading, either by transshipment to another ship or by discharge to land installations was rejected as presenting a higher risk for the population, coastal properties and the environment than transshipment on the high seas. Spain stationed a helicopter, two salvage vessels, a maritime rescue rapid intervention craft as well as a Spanish Navy patrol boat in the area.

After units of the Spanish maritime rescue service had evacuated the 26 crew members, ship owners, salvage operators and other interested parties were informed that appropriate measures should be adopted to ensure that the ship withdrew from its current position and remained at a distance of at least 30 nautical miles from the Spanish coast, in the light of the unacceptable risk posed to Spanish coastal interests. Eventually, after being similarly unable to find shelter off Algeria, the Castor was towed to a relatively sheltered spot off the coast of Tunisia where her cargo was safely unloaded.

IMO Secretary-General William O’Neil suggested, that the time had come for the Organization to undertake, on priority, a global consideration of the problem of places of refuge for disabled vessels and adopt any measures required to ensure that, in the interests of safety of life at sea and environmental protection, coastal States reviewed their contingency arrangements so that such ships are provided with assistance and facilities as might be required in the circumstances.

The incident sparked a great deal of concern about the provision of refuge for ships in distress and IMO Members were urged to place the issue of offering refuge to disabled ships high on the Organization’s agenda.

The basic policy of the Spanish Government was the safeguarding of human life at sea and the combating of pollution in waters under its SAR responsibility, in compliance with its international obligations, and that it had accordingly proceeded to the successful rescue of the whole crew of the damaged ship. The Government had also an inescapable obligation to defend the safety of its coastal population and of property and environment along the Spanish coast, which should not be put at risk as a result of a commercial operation for the salvage and recovery of the ship’s. cargo. Spain endorsed the call for action to establish sheltered waters on terms acceptable to coastal States, stressing also the need for IMO as a matter of urgency to approve and facilitate preventive action such as the improvement of port State inspections, the responsibilities required of classification societies and the withdrawal from service of single hull oil tankers.

Ships in a situation such as that facing the ‘Castor’ do not need or want to proceed to a port, what they do need is access to relatively sheltered waters so that whatever operations must be performed to make them and their cargoes safe can be done with the minimum of risk to either the ship, the coastal State, the environment or indeed to the salvers themselves. One can very well understand the reluctance of coastal States to put their citizens or their coastlines at risk. At the same time, for the international community not to have some form of structured arrangements in place to cope with a ship in distress like the Castor is clearly not satisfactory and is a matter which we must address.

                                                                                                                                     – Darryl Rosario Release,
(with inputs from : IMO )

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