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Friday, May 1, 2020

Capt and Crew of Bulk Carrier arrested and fined for dropping stowaways in mid-sea

Decades ago – while we were returning from Rajamundry on dead of night – the experienced person advised the driver 1) never stop your vehicle in a dark place in a highway 2) never give lift to a stranger on the way !

Movie heroes are different - from bullets and bombs to murderers, madmen and even meteors – they can tackle easily – a dozen heavily armed men with guns, hero can handle with a grimace and a small wodden log or any other small instrument .. we have seen them fight, on the road, on the truck, on moving trains and even on the wings of an aircraft.   In the movie Sengottai, Arjun would be escorted by the villain’s henchman, he would give the thug a slip, manage to get out of a running place, reach Red Fort and save the Nation.  My friend who heavily criticized this scene, remained mute when Bruce Willis could run on the wings of a moving plane, and neutralize heavily armed villain !  - not connected here is a beautiful photo of a massive Antonov aircraft – look at the no. of wheels !

Sky and Sea are much different than land .. .. Shipping is perhaps the most international of all the world's great industries - and one of the most dangerous. It has always been recognized that the best way of improving safety at sea is by developing international regulations that are followed by all shipping nations. IMO's first task when it came into being in 1959 was to adopt a new version of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), the most important of all treaties dealing with maritime safety.  IMO has also developed and adopted international collision regulations and global standards for seafarers, as well as international conventions and codes relating to search and rescue, the facilitation of international maritime traffic, load lines, the carriage of dangerous goods and tonnage measurement.

You might find this strange but they are real – ‘stowaways’ – the unauthorized passengers on ship (sometimes on aircraft too !) between Jan  2004 and Mar 2015, six stowaways were found on aircraft at UK airports, according to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Another stowaway was found on board a UK airline at an overseas airport.  Figures from the US Federal Aviation Administration suggested that 96 people hid under planes during flights around the world between 1947 and 2012, with incidents occurring on 85 flights. Aviation experts would add that many stowaways don't make it to their destinations, making it difficult to gauge the number of incidences.

A stowaway is a person who secretly boards a vehicle, such as a ship, an aircraft, a train, cargo truck or bus. It is not exactly a free travel hitching on a vehicle as people would do on a train – moving from one place to another (Tamil Nadu has a great example of a person who came to Chennai without purchasing a ticket and raising to ……. ………. ) ~ in most cases, the goal is to escape from one Country and reach a safer country – travelling without visa or permission, or escaping conviction.  In Europe, it is feared that they might risk their lives to somehow contort themselves in to smaller places and hitch a hike on the vehicle, inside the container, inside cargo space, and somehow get along.

The maritime news is that of a  captain and his crew pleading  guilty to attempted murder after throwing two terrified stowaways into a shark infested ocean to avoid catching coronavirus from them. Skipper Cui Rongli watched as his crew built a makeshift raft roping together sealed plastic drums and plywood then stopped his ship to dump the petrified pair overboard in waters off South Africa. Distraught Amiri Salamu, 20 and Hassani Rajabu, 30, were given just a life jacket and two bottles of water each and told which way to paddle with their hands to reach the nearest land.

The MV Top Grace bulk carrier which police intercepted, docked  in Richards Bay, South Africa.  Police boarded the ship  to arrest the captain and crew who have now been charged with attempted murder after casting two stowaways adrift in the Indian Ocean. The two Tanzanian stowaways cast adrift at sea left by the crew with a couple of bottles of  water and  placed in a makeshift raft were rescued and  taken by ambulance to hospital   at Zinkwazi Beach in KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa. With no food to eat and at the mercy of the wind and sea currents they were cast adrift on the high seas fearing being swamped by the waves or their raft falling apart at any moment.

Three days and two nights later the Tanzanian stowaways were washed up exhausted onto a tourist beach at dusk on the KwaZulu-Natal coast of South Africa 50 miles north of Durban. They had drifted through one of the most shark infested areas of the North Coast by the Tugela River mouth where Great Whites, Hammerheads, Tiger and Bull Sharks all gather. They had been buffeted by strong winds but sea currents had carried their flimsy raft to the safety of Zinkwazi Beach, although they had to swim the last stretch over a rocky reef.

Shocked locals saw them pair wading through the surf and paramedics said they were suffering from hypothermia, thirst and hunger having been given no food and little water to survive.  The police launch was  sent to intercept the MV Top Grace, the Bulk Carrier at Richards Bay, South Africa. The 600 foot long ship was impounded when it docked at Richards Bay further north up the coast where  officers boarded the vessel and  arrested the ship's captain.

When the South African Maritime Safety Agency received news of the stowaways being abandoned to their fate in the Indian Ocean they contacted the bulk carrier MV Top Grace by radio. The castaways had remembered the name of the ship and that the crew were 'Chinese looking'. The Chinese skipper and six crew Lin Xinyong, Zou Yongxian, Tan Yian, Xie Wenbin, Xu Kun and Mu Yong all admitted attempted murder at Durban Magistrates Court.  The Master of the ship Captain Rongli was fined £4350 and each of the crewmen £2175 in a plea bargain agreement which was ratified by the magistrate Garth Davis.  Captain Rongli was told he would be sent to prison for four years if he did not pay up.

Prosecutor Vishalan Moodley said the seven men pleaded guilty in terms of 'dolus eventualis' in that they knew there was a possibility the stowaways might die or perish at sea. The court heard the bulk carrier built in 2016 arrived at Durban harbour from Singapore and while at anchor the two Tanzanian's climbed the anchor chain and stowed away. The 35,000 ton Hong Kong registered ship sailed on March 26 and the following day when 25 miles out to sea to the two stowaways 'popped up' on the main deck. The magistrate heard that the stowaways refused to give their nationality but were given food and water and isolated in a room while the crew worked out what to do. The Captain and crew of the ship   were wary of the men and asked them to wear face masks in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. 'The men refused to wear the face masks so were put in a separate room as their Covid-19 status was unknown and there was a fear by the crew about the virus'.

The court was told the following day a decision was taken to throw them off the ship and the crew built a makeshift raft made out of plastic drums and plywood and rope. The MV Top Grace sailed to within three nautical miles off the South African coast and lowered the pair by ladder into the flimsy raft rocking in the seas 60 feet below. They   provided the men with life jackets and the crew acted in a threatening manner banging the vessel's decks as they descended into the raft. The ship pulled away leaving them once they were on board the raft. The accused admitted that their actions could have resulted in serious injury and even the loss of life' she said.

Defence advocate Willie Lombard said in mitigation Salumu and Rajabu had been given life jackets and water and could see land when cast adrift and suffered no external injuries. He said: 'There were many mitigating factors and if the crew had wanted to be cruel they could have dropped them in the high seas much further out without life jackets'. The stowaways have been detained by the South African immigration authorities and are awaiting the results of Covid-19 tests and still face possible criminal charges. It is believed the Chinese captain and crew have paid their fines and are free to sail back to China having arrived in Durban last month with a full cargo from Singapore.

Under Maritime Law any stowaways must not be mistreated and must be landed at the next port of call and the shipping company is responsible for all the costs of repatriation.  The Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic, 1965, as amended, (The FAL Convention), defines a stowaway as "A person who is secreted on a ship, or in cargo which is subsequently loaded on the ship, without the consent of the shipowner or the Master or any other responsible person and who is detected on board the ship after it has departed from a port, or in the cargo while unloading it in the port of arrival, and is reported as a stowaway by the master to the appropriate authorities".  The presence of stowaways on board ships may bring serious consequences for ships and, by extension, to the shipping industry as a whole; the ship could be delayed in port; the repatriation of stowaways can be a very complex and costly procedure involving masters, shipowners, port authorities and agents; and the life of stowaways could be endangered as they may spend several days hidden, with the risk of suffocation and without any water / provisions.

Inhumane act, some may jump to say – but what would people normally do ? – would they risk keeping the strangers who had surreptiously gained access to the vessel to remain alongside till their next port of call, risking the possibility of dreaded disease or act in the manner they did ?  Opinions may differ.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

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