“Curiouser and curiouser”

One cannot help but feel a certain affiliation to poor Alice (in Wonderland) when one reads the latest statement from the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) regarding the beaching of the MT Phoenix off Durban. With hints at a deliberate beaching; the possibility of a mystery stowaway still hiding onboard; uncertainty as to the true identity of the owners and even that the vessel was scrapped in India last year – the situation is certainly becoming “curiouser and curiouser”.

Describing the attempts undertaken by the Smit Amandla to reconnect a tow – the SAMSA statement intimates that the casualty was less than cooperative and that the crew seemed inexperienced in the basic actions required to stabilise the vessel’s position.

“It would not be the first time that an unscrupulous ship owner was prepared to sacrifice a vessel in attempt to realise the insured value,” SAMSA states.

I am not sure, however, how this relates to the fact that Lloyds Casualty Intelligence can find no record of the vessel, but reports that a vessel of “the same type, size and name” was scrapped in India in November 2010. Curiouser and curiouser indeed.

That there is uncertainty about the vessel’s owners is a little confusing. In a previous statements SAMSA is clear about their communication with the owners. Who were they communicating with if there is now doubt as to who actually owns the vessel?

And then – just to add a little more human drama to the situation – it is suspected that a stowaway may still be hiding on the vessel. Alerted by missing medical supplies, the salvage crew believe that there is still another person on the vessel and the South African Police Services will search the vessel shortly.

On a more positive note, operations to remove the pollutants from the vessel seem to be progressing and it is expected that the remainder of the fuel will be removed by tomorrow. In addition the vessel’s bow is being strengthened and preparations are being made to reconnect her to the Smit Amandla.

Oh – and just to make things a little more interesting – the Smit Amandla was called to stand-by as another tug towing a bulk carrier requested assistance off the Durban coast.  With main engine problems the Mahaweli faced gale force south westerly winds with eight metre swells. Fortunately she regained her engine power and was ordered to clear the coast.

It certainly seems that the Salvage Season has started in South Africa!




Is Durban getting her own Seli 1?

With no P&I Club cover and very little hull insurance, the MT Phoenix is currently resident at Salt Rock north of Durban. Are we looking at another Seli 1 scenario? The South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) has issued a statement saying that the owners of the tanker (which was on its way to the breakers) are “currently not responding to any communication” – a situation that should leave the vessel’s new neighbours with some real concerns.

It’s a situation that has prompted some in the industry to call for South Africa to seriously consider the benefits of appointing someone within the relevant government departments with similar jurisdiction to that of the UK’s SOSREP (Secretary of State Representative) for Maritime Salvage and Intervention.The position (and its almost unilateral powers) has gained respect in maritime circles following a number of high profile incidents off the UK coast.

The popular thinking in this regard is that, if South Africa had such a person with the requisite jurisdiction, the MT Phoenix would now be sitting safely in the port of Durban undergoing repairs before being sold at auction under the ruling which SAMSA was granted by the High Court on 22 July.

A SOSREP, you see, can override all decisions and make a call that should (theoretically) prove to be in the best interests of the environment and the safety of all concerned. He can force a port to act as a Port of Refuge in such situations where the risks of bringing the vessel into a safe haven are weighed against the risks of keeping her off port limits.

But with the lack of required insurance in place, the vessel anchored off port limits and, according to industry sources, attempted to undertake repairs at anchor. With no time to move her further out to sea or a mandate to force her into the port ahead of the storm, it is a sad consequence that she is now beached and vulnerable to further weather conditions.

It is a position that will make her hard to salvage and thus unlikely capable of recouping the expense that she is about to incur. And so the fact that “purchasers for the vessel have been identified” may prove irrelevant.

Fortunately the crew have been removed, but even their story is not without poignancy. Due to be repatriated, they will allegedly not be able to claim their wages as their remuneration was based on the successful delivery of the tanker to the scrappers!