Rescue of persons in distress at sea is a longstanding humanitarian duty
The rescue of persons in distress at sea is a longstanding humanitarian duty. It is also enshrined in the UN International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, or SOLAS and SAR in maritime parlance.
Under the conventions, ships are obliged to immediately come to the aid of people in distress
Under the conventions, ships are obliged to immediately come to the aid of people in distress, after which it is incumbent upon the relevant member state to bring the survivors ashore to a safe place as soon as possible. A ship’s captain should be able to save those in distress at sea with confidence that the relevant authorities will assist him readily disembark the rescues.
All this did not happen when the Danish-flagged Maersk Etienne saved 27 persons from a distressed boat in the Mediterranean Sea.
At first, Christian M. Ingerslev was relatively unfazed. Rendering aid to those in distress is part of life at sea. And since June 2014 Maersk Tankers has been involved in 16 of such operations, rescuing a total of 2,031 persons.
Rescue operation in the Mediterranean
So, when the call came on August 5 that a company vessel was at a standstill after being called to a search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean, it did not set off any immediate alarm bells.
“As with past incidents, my first and paramount concern was for the people involved: the rescuees, our crew and our customer. We needed to ensure the safety of all on board, as well as inform and advise the customer on developments,” says the CEO. “My task was to support those in charge of controlling the situation; the confidence in my team’s ability to crisis-manage never wavered.”
Maersk Etienne situation
Tommy Thomassen is Chief Technical Officer at Maersk Tankers and no stranger to unexpected circumstances at sea. “We have a robust and well proven response setup to deal with such situations. We followed our procedures and manuals down to the last comma but could not have predicted how the Maersk Etienne situation would evolve.”
Or devolve, as it so happened. A situation that ordinarily took seafarers and the company a few days to resolve mutated into one of the longest political standoffs in European maritime history.
The crew and the 27 survivors were left stranded for an unprecedented 38 days, with no authority willing to allow the ship to call port and permit the safe disembarkation of the rescuees.
It left the team onboard and the company with a highly unusual crisis on their hands, pushing them to think and act outside the remit of their duties. It is not the role of a merchant vessel to ensure safe disembarkation for the rescued persons but while the relevant authorities dragged their feet Maersk Tankers stepped in to push for a solution.
Wellbeing of the survivors
The prolonged situation enhanced frustration onboard the Maersk Etienne and was proving detrimental for the psychological wellbeing of the survivors – resulting in three rescuees jumping overboard. Urgent action was needed.
To search for solutions the company cast its net wide.
“We needed to explore a whole host of different and untried options, says Head of Communications for Maersk Tankers, Kis Soegaard. “And so, we did.”
Ministers and authorities were contacted in pursuit of a political answer to the crisis while the media flocked to report on the situation. Ultimately it was a charity ship belonging to the Italian non-governmental organization Mediterranea that came to support.
Following a health assessment from the medical team onboard Mare Junio the survivors were transferred to the NGO ship to ensure much-needed psychological and physical care. The persons rescued by the Maersk Etienne in early August finally stepped on terra firma in mid-September, disembarking in Pozzallo, Sicily.
“But the onus cannot be on ship managers and owners to find a way through what is essentially a political quagmire,” says the Chief Technical Officer. “We are not legislators – international conventions exist to navigate such incidents; as a shipping company, it is not our job to enforce conventions.”
Broader migrant crisis
The Maersk Etienne situation has raised the hydra of the broader migrant crisis facing the European Union. It appears that existing treaties are either inadequately enforced, or, they fall desperately short of guaranteeing merchant ships disembarkation of rescued persons to a place of safety. The question is, what are policymakers doing about it?
The latest EU migration pact came out in September of this year, days after the most protracted stand-off experienced by a merchant vessel. It failed to deliver reassurances to commercial vessels and their crew that they will be allowed to put rescued persons ashore.
More than four months have now passed since Maersk Etienne was called to assist people in distress in the Mediterranean – and still, the shipping industry awaits a political solution. Merchant ships and owners continue to grapple with the worry that a repeat of the Maersk Etienne ordeal can happen anytime.
“We trust that when we are performing our humanitarian and legal obligations that others will also do the right thing,” says the CEO. “What is most disconcerting,” he continues, “is that there was lack of political action then, and there is no solution now.”
Finding a long-term solution
There may yet be a ray of hope. The Maersk Etienne predicament could be a watershed moment for the industry. The crisis did not just send shockwaves throughout Maersk Tankers but also the industry at large, realizing that we are all vulnerable to a similar incident unfolding.
“The attention around this brought the industry together. Finding a long-term solution is now our joint focus,” says Tommy Thomassen who has been invited by partners and organizations to share his learnings from the Maersk Etienne experience.
The most notable work on the issue is through Danish Shipping who are in dialogue with Danish authorities, the European Union, the International Maritime Organization and other relevant parties, vigorously pushing for decisive political action.
In response to the recent migration pact shipowners’ associations and industry bodies penned an open letter to the European Commission, calling on it to ensure the pact is complemented by measures that guarantee safe, prompt and predictable disembarkation for persons rescued at sea by merchant vessels.
The maritime partners reiterated their call last week, requesting remedial action by the Commission. The Maersk Etienne crisis has alerted and rallied the shipping community, who will continue to push for solutions that give merchant vessel crews and owners their rightful voice.