Master of APL England Charged with Operating an Unseaworthy Vessel

charges for master of APL England from container loss at sea off Australia
Containers damaged and hanging over the side of the APL England after the incident (AMSA photo)

Published Jan 24, 2022 7:02 PM by The Maritime Executive

Twenty months after the containership APL England lost containers overboard in a storm, a court in Brisbane, Australia has entered formal charges against the captain clearing the way for a trial to proceed. The prosecutor failed to make the case for one set of charges against the captain for pollution but the court agreed the captain should face charges of operating the ship in an unseaworthy condition. The charges were filed against the captain while the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau continues its investigation and is yet to release a final report on the incident.

The charges were brought by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority against Mohd Zulkhaili Bin Alias, a Malaysian citizen age 44 who was in command of the APL England, a 67,000 dwt containership with a capacity of 5,700 dwt. The vessel was sailing from Ningbo, China to Melbourne, Australia when it encountered gale-force winds and heavy seas about 46 nautical south-east of Sydney, Australia on May 24, 2020. At daylight, the officers determined that the ship had lost 50 boxes overboard while a further 63 were damaged, some hanging over the side of the vessel, but remains aboard. They later determined that 23 of the containers lost overboard were empty, while one contained a dangerous cargo, dry powder fire extinguishers, and the others had furniture, medical face masks, shields, and various other goods.

During the hearing in Brisbane Magistrates Court on January 24, prosecutors had sought to confirm charges of operating the ship in such a manner to cause pollution or environmental damage and a second charge of dumping garbage into the ocean. Prosecutors argued under the law any plastic put into the sea was garbage while the defense said that it was loaded as cargo and that the ship had not discharged waste into the ocean. The court agreed with the defense dropping the charges of pollution.

The prosecution, however, substituted a charge that the vessel was unseaworthy when it put to sea and the court agreed with that charge. The captain remains free on bail in Malaysia awaiting a trial date.

Supporting the prosecution’s case, the preliminary report from the ATSB highlighted heavily rusted lashings on the vessel that failed due to wastage, wasted container guides and deck structure, failing lashing eyes, and failed container foundations. ATSB transport safety investigators boarded the vessel to survey the damaged container stacks, inspect the container lashing equipment, download the vessel data recorder and video recording system, and interview the crew when it docked in Brisbane after the incident. 

“Generally, the ship’s lashing equipment appeared in good condition. However, many of the ship fittings including lashing eyes, lashing bridges and deck structures were found to be heavily corroded and wasted,” said ATSB Chief Commissioner Greg Hood.

In addition, ATSB’s examination of the container stowage arrangement showed several potential issues. They found missing twistlocks and the use of “high cube” as opposed to standard height containers in the ship’s aft-most container bay, which they believe affected the security of the stow above the container cell guides. They also reported that the loading computer’s lashing and forces checks did not show any conflicts for this arrangement.

The ATSB preliminary report said that the vessel had slowed during the storm but that morning underwent a series of very heavy rolls, to about 25 degrees either side of upright. A steering system alarm sounded, followed by an engine room alarm that showed main engine piston cooling oil low inlet pressure, prompting an automatic shutdown. The crew recovered quickly and restarted the engine with the ship underway sailing with the weather about 10 minutes after the incident.
Prosecutor believe that the ship was "not safely loaded" in China. The charges of unseaworthiness related to the load not being securely and properly tied down to meet the "ordinary perils of a voyage."