Published: 22:01 GMT, 07 Apr 11 | updated: 20:59 GMT, 06 Apr 11
Sunken ship in ‘black box’ spat
A ‘voluntary’ salvage job on an expedition cruiseship that sank off Antarctica has put the cat among the pigeons.
One of the world’s richest men has plumbed the depths of the ocean to revive a controversial maritime dispute.
Salvors working for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen claim they have succeeded, using robot submarines, in grabbing the black box from the 2,400-gt expedition cruiseship Explorer (built 1969), which sank 4,000 feet beneath Antarctic waters more than three years ago.
Navigea Ltd, said to be controlled by Allen, is now in federal court in the US Western District of Washington seeking to force the ship’s owners to pay them for its trouble.
The cost of recovering the black box has previously been estimated at between $2m and $3m but not all parties have been equally eager to see it recovered.
The law of salvage, however, may force the Explorer’s owners to pay for a job they would rather have left undone.
Canadian and Swedish-based and Barbados-domiciled owner GAP Shipping Co Ltd has so far resisted the urgings of the Liberian flag state that it fund the recovery of the sunken voyage data recorder (VDR), citing not only the cost but also the possible disturbances that such a recovery might cause to the undersea environment.
If the conclusions of the Liberian flag investigation are correct, the information recorded on the black box may not be flattering to the actions of the owner and master.
The well-publicised and rapid sinking of the Explorer took place on 23 November 2007 after the Det Norske Veritas (DNV)-classed ship struck a “wall of ice” during the hours of darkness. The 100 passengers and 54 crew were all rescued.
The March 2009 flag report on the casualty praised the engine crew and the non-crew expedition leaders for contributing to the safe evacuation of all passengers and crew.
The master was also credited for losing no time in ordering all on board to the boats.
But both master and owner came in for criticism on several other counts — not least for failing to remove the VDR from the sinking ship and for failing to recover it afterwards.
“The master of the Explorer was not familiar with Antarctic ice and made an assessment of the type of ice the vessel encountered based on his limited knowledge and understanding of Antarctic ice,” said the Liberian investigators, who add that he “transited the ice field with an overconfident attitude… and in all likelihood struck the ‘wall of ice’ at a rate of speed that was excessive to the type and concentration of the ice.”
Liberia’s investigators blamed this on the master’s training.
Court filings show that GAP subsequently opposed a recovery of the black box “from a practical and cost perspective”, even though the cost would not be for the owner’s account.
Navigea cites an e-mail from GAP’s lawyers as saying their client was “willing to co-operate with the Liberian authorities” but bluntly declining to pay for the search.
“We cannot find anything which would compel our clients to carry out the operation themselves or fund it,” they wrote in documents cited by Navigea. “For the avoidance of doubt, owners will not be responsible for any costs involved in such an operation or plans.”
Navigea disagrees. It says it recovered the VDR on 8 February and is asking the court to place the salvaged VDR under judicial arrest and to compel GAP to pay a salvage award.
At the time of its loss, the elderly ship had protection-and -indemnity (P&I) cover with the Steamship Mutual Club and hull cover with Copenhagen-listed Tryg¬Vesta, which is said to have paid out only $6m. TradeWinds reported in the aftermath of the sinking that the ship was “massively underinsured”, to an extent that raised doubts about buying a replacement.
The GAP website indicates that it has since acquired the 6,300-gt, 124-passenger Expedition (built 1972, rebuilt 2009).
Navigea has offices in Florida and Seattle and describes itself in legal papers as owning the 9,900-grt Octopus (built 2003), which was used in the operation. That vessel is well known to the public as one of several yachts belonging to the former Bill Gates associate.
The Octopus was touted at the time of its delivery as the world’s largest yacht. Reference sources now put it at number nine, behind two privately owned mega-yachts and six at the disposition of heads of state.
Navigea has pointed out to the US court that the Cayman Islands-flag Octopus is equipped with two “submersible crafts” and is classed with Lloyd’s Register as ice-class 1A.
No further information is currently available on why Allen’s yacht or his company would have been involved in such a treasure hunt, which Navigea’s lawyers describe as voluntary and “a labour-intensive and dangerous mission requiring substantial skill and energy, and subjecting Navigea’s vessel and employees to dangerous Antarctic conditions on the high seas of the Southern Ocean”. They add that the presence of fuel and other potential contaminants on the sunken ship were circumstances that had required “special care”.
By Bob Rust Stamford