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Article: Stowaway threat to shipping

News & Insights 26 October 2020

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An incident off the UK coast on 25 October 2020 brought mainstream media attention to an issue that has long been present for international shipping.

Incident off UK coast 

The dramatic events of Sunday evening 25 October 2020 off the UK coast brought mainstream media attention to an issue that has long been present for international shipping. Namely that seafarers continue to work in challenging conditions with security threats being a very real and persistent issue. Whilst this incident was not apparently characterised as a hijacking, it was a significant enough of a security concern that British special forces were tasked with securing the ship and detaining several violent stowaways. 

The incident off the UK coast apparently followed a mayday call by the Master of a tanker that was due to dock in Southampton, whose crew had reported threats against their lives from seven stowaways. The stowaways are likely to have boarded the ship in Lagos, Nigeria where the ship had sailed from several days previously. When the stowaways became violent, the crew were said to have secured themselves in the ship’s citadel whilst awaiting help from ashore. British special forces boarded the ship and secured the ship and crew. According to the local police, there were no reported injuries and the incident was not being treated as a counter-terrorism incident.
The incidence of attacks against the crew of commercial ships has unfortunately seen an increase over the past year. In fact, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) recently reported a rise in piracy and armed robbery on the world’s seas in the first nine months of 2020 (including a 40% increase in the number of kidnappings reported in the Gulf of Guinea, compared with the same period in 2019[1]). Whilst it is rare for security incidents to occur in the English Channel, a similar incident was reported as recently as December 2018. The majority of incidents occur in more regular piracy hotspots and the IMB’s Live Piracy & Armed Robbery Map[2] provides a useful insight into the hotspot regions that include the Gulf of Guinea, waters off Somalia, Singapore Straits, Indonesia and parts of the Caribbean and South America. Thankfully for the crew of the stricken tanker, their pleas for assistance were acted on swiftly and all crew were reported as safe. Most such security incidents do not take place off the coast of a sovereign state with a special forces team (whose base was coincidentally very close by) but occur away from the public eye and in the waters of states with limited or weak security infrastructure. 

Loss prevention 

Stowaway claims can be numerous and costly. Since 2010, The Standard Club has experienced 517 stowaway claims. These claims have involved 1040 stowaways and resulted in costs totalling over US$11m. 

A stowaway is regarded as a person who: 

  • is hidden on a ship or in cargo that is subsequently loaded on the ship
  • is on board without the consent of the shipowner, the Master or any other responsible person
  • is detected on board after the ship has departed from a port, during its stay in port or in the cargo while unloading in the port of arrival
  • is reported as a stowaway by the Master to the appropriate authorities.  

Individuals may stowaway because of economic pressure, political unrest, opportunism, desire for adventure or criminal purposes. 

The club has previously produced a Stowaway bulletin including a detailed analysis of the underlying issues associated with stowaway cases. The bulletin also includes guidance for members on how to try and prevent stowaways boarding and/or sailing with a ship. The key risk mitigations steps include: 

  • not relying on port security
  • Master to be provided with the latest knowledge from local agents / Chief Security Officer
  • Master to ensure all crew are aware of the threat of stowaways before arriving in port
  • keep a vigilant account of all people boarding the ship including checking identification
  • ship’s staff to regularly patrol and check ship’s spaces, doors locked, seals in place, check containers if possible (and consider using local 'security staff' augmented by ship’s staff)
  • ensure the ship is equipped with securing wire, tape, padlocks, seals and taped stickers to show spaces have been sealed and inspected
  • ensure all outside doors, hatches, accesses to holds, spaces, store rooms, electrical and machinery spaces on all decks including funnel decks and poops are locked and sealed where possible
  • ensure good lighting on all deck spaces and on the outboard side of the ship

The majority of stowaway incidents for the ships entered in the club came from West Africa, South Africa and waters of the Red Sea. There are other significant areas including Italy, west coast of South America (Chile, Ecuador, and Peru) and  East Africa (Mombasa and Dar-es-Salam).

Of those stowaways embarking in West Africa, the significant points of embarkation include ports in Ivory Coast and Ghana. Other places of embarkation include Nigeria and Cameroon. 


The club can cover the costs of repatriating stowaways under rule 3.4. The cover includes port and other charges solely incurred for the purpose of landing and repatriating the stowaways, plus the net loss in respect of fuel, insurance, wages, stores and provisions. Club cover may also extend to immigration fines levied by authorities in subsequent ports for having a stowaway on board in breach of local immigration laws (rule 3.16.2). A minor geographical deviation from a ship’s contracted route to disembark stowaways would usually be considered reasonable but members are encouraged to contact the club on a case by case basis to confirm the cover position. 

Early notice to the club allows prompt advice to be given on the available options for repatriation and the possible consequences of trying to arrange this at each potential port of call. In liner trades it may be possible to retain the stowaways onboard and repatriate them upon the return call to the port of embarkation. Diversion to a nearby port en-route may also be cost-effective if no return to the port of embarkation is anticipated in the immediate future and when the ship is still within a reasonable distance to a suitable port. Some shipowners even arrange ship to ship transfers if a suitable sister ship is going to the port of embarkation or at least towards the same area. Generally though, the ship will continue its intended voyage and when it reaches the next suitable port of call, the club will liaise with its network of correspondents to ensure the stowaways are removed and repatriated as swiftly and cost-effectively as possible.

The club's correspondents are used to dealing with these issues and are practised at: 

  • liaising with immigration authorities
  • arranging security guards
  • liaising with embassy/consulate officials to obtain temporary travel documents
  • obtaining medical treatment and suitable clothing, if required/necessary 
  • arranging repatriation by the most cost-effective method, e.g. land, sea or air

The club recognises that the costs and delays incurred by shipowners can seriously impact their commercial operations but repatriation is a complex process and often unique to each country. The basic rule though is that the greater the distance to repatriate, the greater the cost. Accordingly, it will always be the case that prevention is better than cure.


Members are encouraged to review their stowaway procedures and assist Masters and crew in preventing stowaways from boarding. Should any stowaway gain access to the ship, then the Master and crew should be aware of how best to respond and from where they can get further support. Early notice to the club is strongly advised.

[1] ICC News - Pirates are kidnapping more seafarers off West Africa
[2] Live Piracy Map

Category: Maritime Security

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