Vessel Remains in Detention After Iraq Collision

file photo
file photo: Umm Qasr

By The Maritime Executive 04-23-2018 06:25:09

The managers of the Royal Arsenal bulk carrier have voiced concern about the vessel’s continued detention at Umm Qasr in Iraq following a collision with a vessel owned and operated by the General Company for Ports of Iraq (GCPI) in August 2017. 

The incident occurred when the Handymax vessel, with the compulsory Iraqi pilot on board supervising the navigation, collided with the dive support craft Al Misbar, which was being used to ferry port employees from an offshore oil terminal. The Al Misbar overturned, and many of the 23 passengers and eight crew were trapped in the hull.  Despite the rescue efforts of the GCPI salvage teams, 21 people died. 

Since the incident, no quantified claims have been filed at Court or requests for security presented and the vessel has been forced to remain at Umm Qasr. Iraq's Transport Minister, Kazem Finjan, has directed that compensation be paid to the victims' families, which in addition to a cash payment from the GCPI includes land for a new home and employment at the GCPI for a family member. Accrued retirement benefits will also be paid.

The families have made large claims for additional compensation from the Royal Arsenal, whilst the GCPI have failed to quantify any of their alleged claims. The latter appears to be compounded due to the report that the reinsurers of the Al Misbar have raised issues in relation to how she was operated and managed as she was not a designated transportation vessel.

The Master of the vessel Royal Arsenal was detained pending further investigation and released on bail after three days. 

Little substantive progress has been made before the local Courts and in appeals to the Court of Cassation in Baghdad, say the owners who are now commencing proceedings before International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in Hamburg based on breaches of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea by the Iraqi authorities.

Roy Khoury, Managing Director of ship managers the Blue Fleet Group, said: “It is deeply regrettable that a functioning maritime state such as Iraq who wishes to be regarded as such by the international maritime community is so dysfunctional and unable to address such claims properly and in accordance with international practice and the UN Conventions. We felt that other operators should be made aware of the problems and losses we have incurred because we traded the vessel to an Iraqi Port. 

“Our crew and representatives have not been able to leave Iraq, even for a crew change, and faced threats of violence. Moreover, the vessel has been placed at anchor in a narrow tidal channel in close proximity to passing ships, and the GCPI are oblivious to the dangers this creates.  

“This is in clear violation of Iraq's obligations under UN treaties. Despite the Transport Minister declaring last August that he was going to be personally involved, so far his involvement has been ineffective and no one at the GCPI is prepared to make a decision. As a result, we are unable to either post security or resolve the claims to the benefit of the claimants and allow the vessel and her crew to depart Iraq.”

Details of the Collision

On August 19, 2017, having discharged a cargo at Umm Quasr, Iraq, the Royal Arsenal set sail in ballast with the pilot on board destined for new owners in China. She collided with Al Misbar in the ship channel between Iraq and Kuwait. This narrow waterway has a strong current and the area where the collision occurred is known locally as the "Devils Channel." 

Prior to the collision, the Al Misbar was identified on radar and called on VHF with no response. The vessel had lifesaving equipment on board for 16 persons. The working crew was 12. At the time of the incident, 32 were on board and navigation was being handled by the boat master’s assistant who was standing in because the master was on leave. The vessel was transporting passengers from the floating crane barge  which was working at one of the offshore oil export terminals. 

In keeping with the collision regulations, the Royal Arsenal made a slight turn to starboard to keep in the channel, and the Al Misbar should have passed along the port side of the Royal Arsenal. However, she veered to port across the bow of the Royal Arsenal shortly before the collision. The Iraqi pilot and master of the Royal Arsenal took evasive action, but the Al Misbar was struck by the bulbous bow of the Royal Arsenal and capsized. 

The Royal Arsenal stopped and dropped anchor as quickly as possible but was unable to use her lifeboats to assist because of the speed and strength of the current. Another GCPI vessel was nearby and other vessels came to assist from Umm Qasr.

After the collision, the Royal Arsenal returned to Umm Qasr port for a judicial investigation. This has still not been completed, and the GCPI has filed a report which states that the Royal Arsenal was 75 percent liable for the incident despite the navigation (and other regulatory) breaches of the Al Misbar

The owners and West of England P&I Club have made it clear that they wish to settle all the claims arising from the incident, not just the individual claims, on a basis which reflects the merits and the failings of the GCPI. To date, discussions to date have not been successful since the demands of the claimants have far exceeded the value of the Royal Arsenal.