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Why ship owners are reluctant to help distress colleagues

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By Godfrey Bivbere

SHIP owners’ reluctance to assist in salvage operations when other vessels are in distress has been attributed to an aspect of the law which empowers the owner of the distressed vessel to sue the rescuer in case of damages to vessel in distress or loss of lives.

Senior Partner of Akabugo and Associates, Emeka Akabugo, noted that most ship owners run away from embarking on a rescue mission for vessels in distress because of fear of legal action.

Akabugo in a statement made available to Vanguard Maritime Report noted that though local and international maritime laws make it mandatory for vessels around the vicinity of a distressed ship to move in and help, the above factor acts as a restraining factor.

According to him, “The practical application of the above-stated law comes with some challenges and obligations which owners of vessels should be aware of.

While the master of a vessel that has received a distress call hs a duty to respond to the distress call, the master and owner of the distressed vessel itself have a corresponding duty to “cooperate fully with the salvor (The ship undertaking the salvage mission) during the course of salvage operations.

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It is not unexpected that a potential salvor will want the owners of vessels to sign off on some documentation in view of legal principles which tend to work against the interest of salvors.

For instance, a salvor, even if undertaking a voluntary or charitable intervention (civil salvage) nonetheless owes a duty of care to the ship in distress, and could be liable in damages for any loss suffered by the ship in distress or persons on board if found negligent in undertaking the salvage operation.

Owners of vessels tend to find themselves in a “catch-22” situation in such instances, and losses running in millions of dollars are known to have been incurred by vessels ostensibly acting to help other vessels in distress.

It is, therefore, understandable if documentation excluding liability and providing indemnity is normally sought before the commencement of civil salvage operations.

In such cases, owners or masters of vessels in distress are expected to make a quick call on the subject to ensure speedy action can commence unless the terms of the required documentation are completely unreasonable in all the circumstances of the case.

It must be stated clearly that local and international laws impose a duty on both states and vessels to facilitate assistance at sea to vessels in distress. Article 98 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea imposes a dual duty on the state to require the master of a ship flying its flag to, among other things, proceed with all reasonable speed to the rescue of persons in distress if informed of their need for assistance.

Recall that Vanguard Maritime Report recently reported the case of a trawler, MV “Orciv” that went up in flames around Bonny area resulting in the death of crew members.

President of the Nigeria Trawler Owners Association Mr Akinsola Amire was quoted as saying – “instead of NLNG to salvage the situation, it was asking for a contract before it could carry out the salvage operations.”

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