Did the container ship being towed to the Alang junk yard have permission to sail so close to the coast and sensitive Bombay High oil installation? Who plotted her course? And how come nobody interrupted her voyage
There is now a new landmark off the coast in Bandra, in suburban Mumbai, that joins another outside the Otters Club there, and the city should consider itself lucky that it did not float onto the signature Bandra-Worli Sea Link. It is the MV Wisdom, a 26-year-old container ship, which in the course of its lifecycle has been blessed with 14 name changes, and nobody knows how many owners.
As a matter of fact, the real beneficiary owner of the ship is still not known, at least not officially. Who the real owners and financiers of this ship are will, ofcourse, be known to all and sundry in the by-lanes and backstreets of Mumbai's Ballard Estate. This is the kind of published information, incidentally, which can cause the untimely demise of journalists; or others too, as we have seen recently again. So we stay out of that aspect, though it is certainly important, especially in this day and age of scams linked to stolen assets, hidden in tax havens, appearing in other industries like international sports events, offshore oil exploration, and telecom. This article tries to answer some of the simpler questions.
The first simple question that arises is, what was this rust-bucket, junk, unseaworthy vessel doing so close to Mumbai in the first place. The next question is, who plotted courses so far inland from what the actual course on a voyage from Colombo to Alang should have been. And, certainly, why was she inland of the oil rigs and security establishments in and around Bombay High? Mariners cannot even begin to think of the damage she would have caused if she had gone adrift near Bombay High.
MV Wisdom started life in faraway Hamburg, back in 1984-85, as the container ship Olandia. She bounced around the world with a variety of names, flags and despondent owners as well as charterers. These names often saw a repeat of the name Olandia, but also included Ocean Spirit, Contship Canada, City of Leeds, Oocl Pudong, Vietnam Star, Moringia, India Star, QC Wisdom and finally, Wisdom. Through all this, she bore a constant IMO (International Maritime Organisation) number - 8417558. As a small container ship, logging around 700 TEU, she would eventually see service as a feeder and an uneconomical one at that. Scrapping, therefore, would be a natural outcome.
Rule paramount which is drilled into our heads right in the beginning of our training is: All seaworthy merchant ships have a right of innocent passage through non-inland waters worldwide. However, a ship headed for scrapping, either under her own power or tow, does not come close to land or coast, as far as possible, for multiple reasons. If she does, then she needs to inform the authorities, who will then decide if she is to be provided with what is known as "the right to innocent passage" guaranteed to all seaworthy ships of all nations. Because a ship headed for scrapping is not seaworthy. And if a national authority wishes to, it can certainly deny her the right of innocent passage through her territorial waters, till a point where she has to enter the territorial waters for scrapping, or with precautions to prevent exactly what happened with the Wisdom.
In other words, the Wisdom should simply have stayed far away from India's territorial waters, until she was right off Alang, where she was reportedly destined for, and then made an entry in as direct and straight a course as possible. That is what her entry permissions into India should have stated in the first case.
The first convention that the MV Wisdom broke is that her tug and she entered India's territorial waters knowingly, and consciously, despite being very unseaworthy. We need to know and find out if she sought the required permissions to do so, or just barged right in, and then meandered close to Bandra, subsequently. A tug tow breaking in the monsoons, especially when towing an empty unmanned dead ship with high windage, is not something the authorities should have permitted right off Mumbai. One can, therefore, only presume that she was right off our coast, by some reports just four miles off, without any permissions or clearances. It would have to be total deliberate criminal negligence if permissions were given to this movement, in the way described, with just one tug that seemingly gave up after the towing arrangement snapped.
If she was in any other country, the authorities would have insisted that she had backup arrangements, at least two tugs for the tow and a third one on standby, and very regular monitoring of the situation.
Now, a dead ship under tow is not some sort of high-speed boat, it is more like a very slow combo chugging and struggling along at a speed not exceeding 3-4 knots (about 6-8 kmph), at best, if not even slower. In this sort of weather it would have taken more than a few days just to cross Mumbai harbour, assuming she came close to the coast past Goa, and then along the Raigad/Kolaba coast. She would have been picked up on every small and large shore radar screen, every naval and coast-guard ship, every offshore supply vessel on duty in and around the Bombay High platforms, and even the radars on the platforms and rigs. Most of all, despite the heavy seas and monsoons, she would have been visible to the naked eye from more than a dozen light-houses along the coast, including assorted naval batteries.
In addition, every other ship underway in and around the area would have picked her up on their radar screens, and stayed miles away. Any ship at anchor that this combo came within miles of would either raise anchor and flee, or raise a strong protest on the radio to the tug as well as the port authorities. As seafarers, we know how unpredictable and dangerous such derelicts under tow can be, and it is just not worth it being anywhere near them. Anywhere would mean that if I was on another ship, I would keep a very safe distance, which means steer at least five miles clear distance away, regardless, even more if I was a tanker or other kind of big ship.
Every one of them would have seen a double-blip on their screens. Any one of them could have challenged the tug-ship tow on simple VHF radio, and asked them to move further from shore, as well as establish identity. Every one of them could have filed a report with the many radio and marine stations all along the coast, of a tug and tow operating too close to the coast and representing a possible hazard. It is likely that some did, but whether they did or not is unknown; and even if they did, what happened next would be unknown. Something similar happens when un-roadworthy trucks are winked past on our roads, to give you an idea of what really may have happened, since there is no other logical reason why nobody seems to be aware of what was happening till this 13,000 tonner landed up aiming for the Bandra-Worli Sea Link.
The grapevine is, with hindsight, that this was a deliberate attempt to push a ship on to the Sea Link. Grapevine is seldom reliable and it does seem far-fetched, but it is an angle that will need to be investigated. If those who are investigating can find the real owners, that is.
The bigger issue, however, is that the Indian coast is rapidly becoming a dump yard for the junks and overage ships. And the Wisdom is just another example of this malaise; the solution to which has been debated and written about repeatedly, but never implemented, for a variety of reasons.
For all the coastline we have, our authorities have simply been unable to put up a simple Vessel Tracking System (VTS) along the coast, and appear to be nowhere near to doing so either. The bigger issue that the Wisdom brings out with shocking precision is simply that despite all the fuss after the 26/11 attacks by boat from Karachi, our coastline is as open as it was. Never mind small fishing boats, huge ships like the Wisdom can sail through, without being stopped or challenged. Think about it.
And if you challenge this too much, then you are in danger of meeting the same fate as other journalists who dig too deep, into matters pertaining to anything which might upset the status quo, of what really happens in offshore India. Or, being called "anti-national", as this writer has been, lately.
(Veeresh Malik is a qualified mariner and writer. He is also consulting editor with "Sailor Today".)