Pratibha Cauvery, 31 years old, already in bad shape, with unpaid crew, no provisions, no diesel, no stores, no drinking water, is outside Chennai harbour. What are the options with the captain? Very little, given the current way maritime laws are implemented
I started my maritime career with a private Indian shipping company, now defunct, called Seven Seas Transportation (SST), as a cadet on a ship called the Satya Kamal. In due course I moved from cadet to second officer to chief officer (on dispensation) all between 1973 through mid-eighties. It was a part of the JK Group then. Boom to bust in shipping, would be a better way to describe the timeline, and the ‘Satya’ ships of SST were no exception.
SST owners knew how to look after their people. They also knew how to run their ships. But commerce does not give exemptions on these heads, and the shipping recession of the early and mid-eighties saw many shipping companies go under, with ships stranded all over the world. Unpaid crew, no money for fuel or food, maintenance not possible without stores, and soon you have a problem under your command if you are the captain. This is the situation Pratibha Cauvery finds itself in.
This was the situation in which MV Satya Kamal found itself. Ordered to head for anchorage awaiting instruction off Gujarat, the Captain instead brought the ship to Bombay, and made a due representation to the offices of the Director General of Shipping (DGS) and Mercantile Marine Department (MMD). In such circumstances, what else is the captain supposed to do?
By law, the captain has the right to approach the shipping authorities, and demand that the ship be auctioned “as is where is” to pay off the creditors. First lien here is always is for unpaid wages. Get your money, pay the crew, hand the ship over to the receivers, move on with your lives.
That’s what the master of the MV Satya Kamal did in the mid-eighties while in Bombay Harbour with the full support of the maritime authorities of that day, same DG Shipping Office from Jahaz Bhavan in Ballard Estate, despite the owners being powerful people and also from Mumbai. The ship was sold within 60 days, handed over to the duly appointed receivers legally, the crew paid off, and other creditors were told to take it up with the company. All under the Merchant Shipping Act of India.
Today, what can the master of a ship in similar dire straits, like the Pratibha Cauvery, expect if he approaches the DG Shipping for help in auctioning off the ship to ensure crew payments? Briefly, at the very least, his maritime career will be over. But that’s not all. He will be summoned for enquiries by all and sundry, in the course of which he will be paid nothing. He will face threats and more. And the ship will not be auctioned freely and fairly.
So, he stays on the ship, and keeps his mouth shut.
But what happens next, onboard, since the master/captain is on the ship, is supposed to be in charge and responsible for everything? Here's what you can expect:
Whatever authority he had, has been totally eroded onboard because he has not been able to provide even the basics to his complement. DGS is not giving him any support, nor is MMD, if he had approached them. The company has stopped responding. Unlike in an aeroplane, the captain cannot simply walk off, handing over to ground or shore staff. He and his crew will be detained before he crosses the port gates for wilfully abandoning ship and crew therein, and if lucky, taken back to his ship, if not, thrown into jail, unbailable. As an Indian, he is an alien in his own country, with no rights. He is good enough to command an Indian ship, sail her all over the world and around India, but he is a security threat if he wishes to go ashore and lodge a simple written complaint.
The Pratibha Cauvery arrived at Chennai Port about three months ago. The ship is over-age. The port safeguards itself by taking 150% of possible port charges and sends a pilot to bring her in for cargo discharge. The first physical contact then is by the pilot, who goes onboard and gets a few minutes to check the real status onboard vis-a-vis a document called the “Pilot Card”. If there are discrepancies, he informs the Port Control, which then dispatches extra tugs to bring the ship in. The marine authorities are informed of the deficiency—in this case it is the MMD in Chennai, which is a subordinate office of the DGS.
Anything further to do with the ship has to be done under the orders of MMD. In the worst case scenario, if it is a dead ship with no power, then once cargo work is over, the port authorities will place a few more tugs on duty to take her “cold tow” without engines to the anchorage area, and leave her there. A ship cannot block valuable berth space meant for cargo work.
(To be continued in part II)
(Veeresh Malik had a long career in the Merchant Navy, which he left in 1983. He has qualifications in ship-broking and chartering, loves to travel, and has been in print and electronic media for over two decades. After starting and selling a couple of companies, is now back to his first love—writing.)
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