The Triton


Beware trend that considers seafarers as criminals


It happens. Be it a big accident or a little accident, it happens. It is nothing new to our industry.

The history of accidents at sea transgresses to the first vessel that took to the water. Those familiar with the evolution of safety at sea since the industrial revolution know that the majority of rules and regulations we have today are a direct result of accidents.

Unfortunately, most regulations are the product of a specific incident versus a proactive initiative. Blame it on human nature, but the old saying holds true: If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. In theory, the development of these rules allows us to operate the most technically advanced and safest vessels on the water.

A terrible trend that has become more commonplace is the criminalization of the seafarer. It has really taken a strong drive by governments since entering the new millennium. The main catalyst for that appears to have begun in 1999 with the accident involving the oil tanker M/V Erika.

In that situation, the Maltese-registered ship broke in two off the coast of Brittany, France, spilling 19,800 metric tons of its 30,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil. Immediately following the crew’s rescue, the French government arrested the captain on criminal charges.

It was not until 2007 — eight years later — that the owner, the captain, and the classification society of RINA were taken to trial for polluting the environment and endangering life. This was a contentious and not very clear case, as the media would present it. The ship was certified for that type of operation, the captain was considered competent, and the owner had assurances from his management company that all was correct.

The unique aspect was the criminalization of the accident. Civil fines can be expected if something improper was done, but now the prospect of jail time was put on the table for someone doing their job as expected.

To cite a more recent issue, we can review the tragic events surrounding the M/V Deepwater Horizon. She was a dynamically positioned, semi-submersible, offshore oil-drilling rig owned by the company Transocean. Built in 2001 in South Korea, the rig was registered in the Marshall Islands and leased to the multinational corporation British Petroleum (BP).

On April 20, 2010, while drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, an explosion that was caused by a well blowout killed 11 crewmen. It ignited a fireball visible from 40 miles (64 km) away. The resulting fire could not be extinguished.

Subsequently, on April 22, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon sank, leaving the well gushing at the seabed and causing the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The resulting litigation continues to this day. Criminal charges and resulting fines were levied against several of the companies involved. There are pending manslaughter charges against two of the BP supervisors assigned to the rig.

In November 2014, Capt. Lee Joon-seok was sentenced to 36 years in jail. Capt. Lee was the master of the ferry named M/V Sewol that sank in the waters of South Korea earlier in 2014. Although he was acquitted of murder, Lee was found guilty of violating “seamen’s law” and abandonment causing death and injury. More than 300 people died; 250 of them were students on their way to a field trip. Nine people remain missing and are presumed dead.

The sentence was the culmination of a five-month trial. A panel of three judges delivered the verdict and the sentence. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Capt. Lee, alleging that he did not use the available equipment such as life rafts, life vests, and announcements to evacuate the passengers. The ship’s owner was convicted of accidental homicide and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Several ship inspectors were found guilty of negligence and sentenced from two to six years in prison.

In early February, an Italian court found Capt. Francesco Schettino guilty for his role in the loss of the cruise ship M/V Costa Concordia. The accident resulted in the total loss of the ship and killed 32 people off the Tuscan island of Giglio in 2012.

Capt. Schettino was the sole defendant in a 19-month trial. Being found guilty of multiple manslaughter charges, he was sentenced to 16 years and one month in prison. He was also found guilty of abandoning the ship while the majority of the 4,200 passengers and crewmembers were still aboard.

The shipwreck occurred on the night of 13-Jan-2012, when the cruise ship navigated too close to the island and ran aground. The court determined that Capt. Schettino changed the course of the ship to perform a “salute” to the island; a risky move supposed to offer a spectacle for passengers and inhabitants of Giglio.

Our most recent example of criminalization comes to us from Hong Kong. Capt. Lai Sai Ming was sailing as master of the high-speed ferry named M/V Sea Smooth. Capt. Lai was found guilty for his actions in an accident between his vessel and a pleasure boat near Lamma Island off the coast of Hong Kong and sentenced to 18 months in jail.

Capt. Lai was sentenced to an additional 18 months for endangering the safety of others at sea, but the terms will be served concurrently. He could have been given a life sentence. Capt. Chow Chi-wai was in command of the pleasure vessel M/V Lamma IV. He had 120 people on board during the collision on Oct. 1, 2012. He was sentenced to nine months for endangering others’ safety at sea. Unlike Capt. Lai, he was acquitted of all 39 charges of manslaughter.

It is widely recognized that yachting remains a unique entity. We have our own special needs when it comes to operating safely while still meeting the recreational needs of the owner and guests.

However, history has demonstrated that the regulations that used to only affect the big ships, eventually (and sometimes painfully) trickle their way into our daily routine. Keep a sharp watch and be prepared.

Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (IYB), an organization that provides flag-state inspection services to yachts on behalf of several administrations. A deck officer graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, he previously sailed as master on merchant ships, acted as designated person for a shipping company, and served as regional manager for an international classification society. Contact him at +1 954-596-2728 or Comments on this column are welcome at


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One thought on “Beware trend that considers seafarers as criminals

  1. Erik H Goodwin

    You sound like it is wrong for these people to be charged with a crime, its not. As seen when the truck plowed into Tracy Morgans vehicle and caused death and injury, he was charged with a crime, same thing has happened with every form of transportation, an accident can still be a crime, and it should be. Lack of planning, lack of maintenance, indifference all can lead to a criminal act. Ignorance is not an excuse and should not be tolerated.

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