It is the problem that just will not go away, periodically to be revisited when there is some incident that demonstrates its difficulties all over again. It is, of course, the impossibility of finding some sensible accommodation on the issue of places of refuge; a formula or procedure that will prevent the saga of the chemical laden Maritime Maisie being repeated, time after time.

Earlier this month, the chairman of the London P&I Club, John Lyras, raised this impossible subject once more, noting in his annual report that 12 years on from the Prestige incident, there has been a depressing lack of progress.

The objections to having a damaged ship brought into a place of shelter, let alone a port, will not go away. In some respects, modern shipping does itself no favours, with its scale economies making ships bigger than ever. This ensures that the spectre of some damaged giant sinking, with its attendant chaos and mess, will always be in the minds of those who have the powers to reject the salvor’s proposals. The cargoes that are carried in bigger and bigger volumes, whether it is containerised chemicals aboard a ship with a deep-seated fire burning or a badly damaged tanker with a weakened and problematical structure and pollutants (or worse) aboard, will almost certainly persuade shore-side authorities to reject the distressed ship.

Ideally, such decisions would be taken by experts, who could validate the salvor’s assessment of the problem and consider the situation objectively. The models of the UK’s Secretary of State’s Representative (SOSREP) and the Australian equivalent have often been cited as a sensible way forward. But those who live on the coasts which may be affected by such a situation are reluctant to see other, more remote, authorities involved, with the very understandable and perhaps human view that those with the most to lose should be part of the argument. It is also undeniably easier to say no and force the problem to go elsewhere. In many places, there is suspicion of centralised decision-taking, in others, votes in upcoming elections intrude into these technical areas.

During the arguments over this vexed subject, which followed some particularly notorious case, it was suggested that a place of refuge could be selected to serve a region and all the necessary facilities would be concentrated there. This commended itself to some, but the selection of such a port, or sheltered spot were instantly a matter of great controversy, with local objections vociferous and sustained.

The argument then shifted to the appointment of a decision-maker, able to weigh all the various arguments in the balance and to take the necessary decision as to accept, or reject the vessel. It is probably true to note that despite the endorsements of bodies like the European Maritime Safety Agency, those who would have to surrender their powers in favour of the chosen decision-taker, have tended to object to this course of action. The impasse remains.

Author:  the Watchkeeper                                  Source: BIMCO.