Analysis: what does maritime law have to say about the ship which ended up on the rocks off the Cork coast? 

Last month, a Cork jogger made the first reported sighting of the cargo ship MV Alta since the derelict was encountered in the Atlantic by the Royal Navy in August 2019. The HMS Protector had attempted to contact the crew but to no avail: the 10 sailors had been rescued almost a year earlier over 1,000 miles from Bermuda, after their ship had lost propulsion while traveling from Greece to Haiti.

On that occasion, October 2018, the Alta had been drifting for three weeks, its crew had run out of food and a tropical storm was approaching. The owners were apparently negotiating with a salvage company while the men were taken to Puerto Rico. Later unverified accounts claimed that the ship had been hijacked and towed to Guyana. Whatever the truth of that, the Tanzania-registered, 2,295 ton Alta drifted through busy shipping lanes and close to gas platforms off the Cork coast to end its final voyage on rocks near Ballycotton. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Seascapes, a report on the MV Alta

It had begun life in Norway 46 years earlier, changing hands on a number of occasions, for the last time in 2017 to an entity named Alta Sg LLC. Ships such as the Alta are subject to a raft of international regulation, much of it emanating from the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the maritime agency of the United Nations, and the European Union (EU) is also active in this area. Following the Erika and Prestige tanker incidents in 1999 and 2002, a European Maritime Safety Agency was established and measures to improve the inspection and monitoring of ships in EU waters were implemented.

It is therefore disquieting that the Alta apparently left a port in the EU but was unable to reach its destination. Notwithstanding that the reported voyage from Greece to Haiti is out of keeping with the normal trading pattern of a small cargo ship, a well-run vessel should be capable of repair by its crew. Why would a reputable operator leave its employees adrift for three weeks?

From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, maritime expert Michael Kingston on the investigation into who is responsible for the MV Alta

A vessel which cannot perform its contracted voyage is not seaworthy. Unseaworthiness has been held to result from defective propellers (Snia v. Suzuki (1924)) or even a lack of documentation (Ciampa and Ors v. British India SN Co (1915)). The incompetence of the ship's crew may amount to unseaworthiness: in Hong Kong Fir Shipping Co. Ltd v. Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd (1962), an alcoholic chief engineer who was incapable of maintaining its machinery rendered the ship unseaworthy.

An otherwise competent crew can be incompetent through a lack of information. For example, in The Star Sea (1995), the owner failed to ensure the ship's captain was familiar with its firefighting system. In many instances, crew negligence results from failure to provide proper management systems. In 1993, the International Safety Management Code was introduced into the 1974 Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea and established safety management systems to be established by the operator. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's The Weekend on One, former RTÉ marine correspondent Tom MacSweeney on ghost ships

Although we do not have a full picture as to how it got here, we do know that thousands of tons of rusting steel now need to be removed from the Irish coast. To deal with such problems, the IMO adopted the Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks in 2007. The responsibility to remove the wreck rests with its owner (Art 9) and it is liable for the costs incurred (Art 10). Ships must carry compulsory insurance policies or other financial security to cover wreck removal (Art 12) (liability for wreck removal is also commonly covered by ship's Protection and Indemnity insurance policies). The Convention entered into force in 2015 following ratification by sufficient signatory states: Ireland was not one of those states.

The relevant Irish legislation is found in the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Wreck) Act 1993 which gives effect to the 1989 Salvage Convention. Section 41 provides that the Minister of Transport, Tourism & Sport has the power to appoint an official known as a Receiver of the Wreck to organise the process of dealing with it. The 1976 Convention on Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims was enacted into Irish law by the Merchant Shipping (Liability of Shipowners and Others) Act 1996 and the Sea Pollution (Hazardous Substances) Compensation Act 2005. Section 11 of the 1996 Act provides that the right to limit liability shall not apply to claims in respect of the raising, removal, destruction or rendering harmless of a ship which is sunk, wrecked, stranded or abandoned.

From RTÉ lyric fm's Classical Daytime, Diarmuid McIntyre and Cristín Leach walk out in darkness towards the lighthouse on Dun Laoghaire’s East Pier with the memory of Dorothy Cross’s 1999 Installation Ghost Ship to guide them

However, a ship’s actual owners can be difficult to identify amongst a plethora of international registered companies. While reports  suggested that a person purporting to represent the owner contacted the Irish authorities, their motivation is unclear.

Leaving aside salty tales of pirates in the Caribbean and the Bermuda Triangle, time is moving on quickly for the Alta. While it might be relatively easy to remove the intact ship, it will inevitably become more difficult and more expensive and there will be environmental concerns if it is allowed to disintegrate. Moreover, it needs to be secured to prevent people boarding, as happened last week. Any prediction as to the State’s ability to recoup its expenses must be pessimistic.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ