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Lloyds List article: Telling lies about cargo can cost lives – 05 January 2012

News & Insights 5 January 2012

Liquefaction of hazardous cargo has claimed four ships in the past year

Liquefaction of hazardous cargo has claimed four ships in the past year.

Michael Grey - Thursday 5 January 2012

WE KNOW the hazards and the very real risks that certain cargoes can be fatal. The hazardous phenomenon has been recognised, analysed and codified, along with the precautions that really do need to be taken.

But there are still people prepared to risk the lives of others, to play the percentage game. Perhaps it is a game of Russian Roulette to these people, who hope earnestly that the chamber is empty when the trigger is squeezed. Perhaps they just don’t care.

There have always been seafarers who take dangerous bulk cargoes to sea, or people who insist that they do so because the cargo has to get to the steel mills somehow, and if your ship won’t carry it somebody else’s jolly well will.

“Men must work and women must weep, and there’s little to earn and many to keep, though the harbour bar be moaning,” wrote Charles Kingsley.

But Mr Kingsley’s poem The Three Fishers was written in Victorian times, when loss of life at sea was taken for granted. This is the 21st century, when you don’t really expect 56,000 dwt, five-year-old bulkers to roll over and drown their crews.

And yet Vinalines Queen , which lost all but one member of its crew on Christmas Day, was the fourth modern ship to be lost due to cargo liquefaction in just over a year. The last mail I received before Christmas brought greetings cards along with a timely safety alert from the Standard P&I Club about cargo liquefaction, and an explanation of the phenomenon.

Cargo liquefaction is not new, but it seems to have become a latter-day plague, the recent casualties claiming 44 lives. Bulk carrier association Intercargo has made a huge effort to publicise the problem.

Now, the Standard Club has launched a drive to publicise the problem, explaining its causes and the precautions needed to ensure the safety of ships, crew and cargo.

Too many people around the world are prepared to lie like flatfish about a cargo if it is expedient to do so to get it on board ship and away.

Just as there are reptiles ashore who are quite willing to change the name of calcium hypochlorite to something innocuous to bamboozle carriers, so there are people prepared to misdeclare hazardous dry bulks such as iron ore fines and nickel ore as Group C cargoes under the International Maritime Solid Bulk Cargoes Code. But these are Group A cargoes that can liquefy.

The Standard Club names Indonesia, China, the Philippines, India, Brazil, Ukraine and Venezuela as countries prepared to take a cavalier attitude to IMSBC declarations. Keen geographers might note that in most of these countries, when it rains, it pours down in stair rods.

Then again, apart from places where cargo interests are prepared to indulge a certain laxity in cargo declarations, the same loading ports and others can host people prepared to go to any lengths to persuade a doubtful master that his prime role is to do what he is told by the charterers, load the cargo and take it obediently to sea.

It takes a shipmaster of genuine authority, one who has experience and strength of character — not to mention full support from the owners and managers — to resist bullying and blandishments, threats of ‘blacking’ or to end his employment, and to refuse to load dubious cargo.

Does this happen? Damn right it does: you only have to speak to owners, managers and masters in this business who can give you chapter and verse.

The Standard Club advice is practical and to the point. It includes a list of frequently asked questions about the rights of the carrier and the responsibilities of the shipper under the IMSBC Code, along with those of the master, whose absolute right to say “no” the code upholds.

In these cases, the master needs friends in the shape of the club correspondent and an experienced surveyor acting for the owner, not the shipper. It makes clear that where there is doubt, water content of cargo should be ascertained by an independent laboratory and not by some crude ‘can’ test to determine whether cargo is safe to load.

All this is absolutely clear, but the reality may well be a ship fixed to take a cargo out of some rain-sodden ore port operated by the cargo owner who has dug the stuff out of a nearby hill.

Local facilities may be limited and the master can face immense pressure to comply with stevedoring bigwigs brandishing bits of paper in unfamiliar languages.

To an inexperienced shipmaster, unsure of his position, that situation can be overwhelming. It is the jungle, and that is where the law originates. But the real law ought to be on the side of the ship in such cases and, as the Standard Club’s advice makes clear, it is. There are proper procedures, and those procedures are there to be used.

This is 2012 and seafarers’ lives must not be sold cheaply.

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