Ship Safety in Port Departure

Ship arrived and stayed at the port in safety the chartered ship must also be able to depart from it safely. In this respect it is interesting to note that quite apart from being unsafe in arrival the port of Manchester has been held to be unsafe in departure. In the case of the ‘Inissboffin’ the ship discharged at Manchester with the consequence that the draught was less and freeboard greater. The result was that the ship could not safely clear the canal bridges on the return to the Mersey. Also in the case of “The Sussex Oak” the vessel not only sustained ice damage on the inward passage on the Elbe but also on the return from Hamburg. In the same manner that the charterers were held liable for the damage on the approach they were also responsible for and had to pay for the additional damage on the return passage. The main question which has arisen in respect of the danger in the departure from a port is when does the charterers’ responsibility end? This difficulty arises particularly in the case of long river passages from a port to the sea. In two cases the problem arose and the results are slightly different. The first was “The Hermine’ [1979]” which concerned a passage on the Mississippi River. The main question that had to be decided in this case related to a period of delay in which the vessel was trapped by silting of the River. In order to answer this question it was assumed by the court that the departure was unsafe but the judges expressed some doubt that an obstruction 100 miles down the river from the berth could be considered to have caused unsafely in departure.  A couple of years later in a case called “The Mary Lou’ [1981]” a long departure passage was again considered in the context of a safe port claim. It should be pointed out that this was, in fact, a claim under a voyage charter but with a range of ports rather than a named one; it is unlikely that a time charterparty case would be treated differently. Again, the vessel was damaged as result of silting whilst on the departure voyage down the Mississippi. The grounding that caused the damage took place in the Southwest Pass which vessels of this particular size had to navigate. The arbitrators who first heard the case found that the port of New Orleans was unsafe despite that the fact that the incident giving rise to the losses had taken place 100 miles from the port. The charterers appealed to the High Court where Lord Mustill upheld the decision of the arbitrators. He said: “Certainly it is not easy to accept at first sight the idea that hazards existing nearly one hundred miles away can be treated as features of the port. But, logically, the distance should make no difference, although the further away the obstacle, the less likely it will be that there is no alternative route which will enable the ship to reach the port in safety. In the present case, however, there was no such alternative; the Southwest Pass provided the only means of access.” These decisions leave some doubt as to whether all cases of damage during river passages will be decided in favour of owners. They also raise questions about the adoption of alternative routes to and from ports. If a particular port has two means of access, one of which is shorter but potentially hazardous and another which is longer but generally safe, then if a vessel takes the first alternative and suffers damage as result, will the port be considered unsafe? The answer may well depend on the identity of the party which gives the order to use the shorter route. If it is the charterers then they would almost certainly be liable for any damage suffered. If, on the other hand, it is the ship owners who order the more risky passage then it may be arguable that they must accept the consequence of their action because they had a safe option available.