A general cargo vessel on a single charter voyage from Asia to West Africa grounded on the South African coast due to an engine failure paired with lack of decision making efficiency by the involved ashore and on board as time was paramount.
Laden with about 15 000 t of rice in bags, the vessel was on her first voyage after having been laid up for quite some time in insolvency. The ship managers and owners were convinced that the financial situation of the insolvent ship would improve to allow long due crew payments and urgently required spare parts and repairs. All senior officers were aware of the situation and had taken care to keep the vessel running by applying the vessel’s crew skills and ingenuity.
On approaching Southern Africa the engine temperatures rose. The reduction of revolutions did not assist in lowering the temperatures and after a scavenge air fire was suspected and consultation with the shore management and engine manufacturer, it was decided to switch off the engine and look for possible solutions.
Drifting at a first safe distance to the dangerous coast line, the root search continued which was aborted when the distance to shore reduced and weather deterioration was expected. A new problem arose when the engineers were not able to restart and a solution could not be found.
In the meantime, with ongoing communication between the ship, the management and the always involved insolvency administrator, time passed which was not available. In the course of back and forth discussions it was decided to charter an Offshore Supply Vessel available which commenced for the powerless, drifting vessel. On arrival the weather had as expected deteriorated and a connection between the OSV and the vessel in distress after many attempts could not be established. Only at this moment did the master inform the South African rescue coordination authorities of the imminent danger of grounding and the required help. This was too late and as a consequence the grounding in a nature reserve could not be avoided. The vessel’s crew was airlifted off the stranded ship and the South African officials took over the situation. After pumping out as much oil as possible and airlifting it off the ship, the salvage tug pulled the Antigua & Barbuda flagged vessel off the beach out to sea where it sunk at approximately 1000 m depth.
During the conducted investigation a relation between the vessel’s casualty and insolvency could be established. The insolvency administrator had, over quite some time taken over all decision making that involved finances and thus also in this situation the vessel’s managers did only in the last moment make an urgently needed decision, namely to charter a tug to tow the vessel to port. There was also a strong reluctance by the captain to make use of his overriding authority and ensure safety is upheld. The master was used to not being allowed to make decisions, so that he did not question the shore behaviour.
The lesson learnt in this casualty is the need to, also in a situation of insolvency, have a clear chain of command. The position of each involved party must be clarified and set in the insolvency contract to not cause overreliance on the other. The decision making in emergency situations should not involve insolvency administrators, but only parties with the given expertise and experience (e.g. insurer).