Is a passage plan optional?

A recent Admiralty Court decision in London gave shipowners, operators and Masters a timely warning as to their collective responsibilities to seaworthiness.
Words: Capt A. Croft MBA, AFNI

In brief, a container ship grounded leaving port due to ignorance of shallow ground warnings in a port fairway which should have been no go areas for a ship of this size and draft. The London court denied compensation under marine insurance as it had determined that:

  • The vessel’s passage plan was defective with respect to the failure to appraise no go areas making its subsequent passage unsafe
  • The passage plan made the vessel unseaworthy. The court found that effective passage planning, and seaworthiness are linked
  • The unseaworthiness of the ship was the cause of the grounding as the Master did not know of this danger in his subsequent action to leave the fairway
  • Due diligence to ensure seaworthiness was not properly exercised by ships officers. The Safety Management System did not excuse the owner from liability as ships’ officers are employees (servants or agents) of the owner

How does this ruling potentially affect large yachting operations?
Although marine insurance is of generally little interest to Captains of superyachts, this ruling now makes a new emphasis on the proper preparation of passage plans and also, in its execution, and monitoring. A failure on part of the Captain or his officers potentially exposes any otherwise well-run yacht to Port State detention and other penalties.

By merely being in a Port State’s waters, with a passage plan on board which does not clearly incorporate ALL currently available updated corrections and notations to paper or electronic charts, a yacht may be deemed unseaworthy and unsafe to proceed to sea. However, in yachting there are some other relevant points to bear in mind.

Extract of SOLAS Regulation applicable to small vessels and pleasure craft
Regulation 34 applies to all vessels but the degree of voyage planning may sensibly be less for small vessels and pleasure craft. There is still a need for prior planning, but the plan need not be written down. The following should particularly be taken into account when planning a boating trip: See solas/solas_v/Regulations/regulation34.htm Although Regulation 34 only applies when proceeding to sea, small craft users should adhere to the voyage planning principles when also sailing in categorised waters.

Master’s Liability
Secondly, and in addition, under SOLAS V, if the Master is responsible for the Passage Plan, and the Plan is found incomplete or deficient, then the Owners may have a claim on their insurers based on ‘Crew Negligence’. See further information at: solas_v/Regulations/regulation34_1.htm which gives the Rule on the Master’s Discretion…and which rather forbids interference from the Owner or Manager.

Whilst the lack of required certificates and supporting documents may render the vessel unseaworthy, it is as well for us to recognise the various conditions under which SOLAS V may not apply – e.g. tonnage limits of 150GT for all voyages and 500GT for International Voyages, and to also appreciate the various relaxations which flag-states may have agreed for smaller vessels flying their flags.
For example, The UK Codes of Practice which are accepted as equivalence to the technical requirements of SOLAS, and their appreciation that (quote) ‘degree of voyage planning may sensibly be less for small vessels and pleasure craft’ (unquote).

The PYA recommends that the recent court ruling on the Container Vessel LIBRA case should be presented in the yachting sector as more of a reminder to those in yachting who should take note of the need to apply the professional statutory requirement to APPRAISE, PLAN, EXECUTE and MONITOR all movements of their vessels at all times…..even when moving anchorage position!