Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Search and Rescue on the Agenda for Shipping Groups After Bulk Freight Vessel Founders

Irish Sea Tragedy Concerns Whilst African Facilities to be Improved
Shipping News Feature

EUROPE – AFRICA – Search and Rescue is very much in the news this week with transport union group the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) calling for the shipping industry to address concerns surrounding the deaths of six Russian sailors in November who drowned after the bulk freight vessel Swanland foundered in the Irish Sea. Meanwhile plans are in hand to greatly improve the chances for merchant ships in trouble whilst off a major part of the African coastline.

After placing on record its deepest sympathy for the families of the bereaved seafarers the ITF states that its Russian affiliate, the Seafarers Union of Russia, is providing moral and financial support to the families and also communicating with the company as it questions them about the circumstances leading up to the tragedy.

The ITF is seeking answers as to why the Swanland, flagged in the Cook Islands but managed in the UK by Grimsby based Torbulk, reportedly broke up without warning in gale force conditions. The union statement notes that investigations are under way by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) and points to the UK Government’s cuts to the Coastguard, and the termination of the existing contract to Emergency Towing Vessels, commenting that in their view this incident highlights the urgent need for the UK government to ensure there are sufficient resources to effectively police the UK Search and Rescue area.

Rumours abound regarding the condition of the 35 year old vessel which, according to her former skipper had a weak hull due to uneven cargo loading techniques over her working life. One of the two survivors from the sinking reportedly said he ‘saw her break in half before my eyes’ before he was plucked from the sea by a rescue team which included Prince William as one of the helicopter pilots deployed.

Meanwhile search and rescue off the African coast is a topic under discussion by authorities including the International Maritime Organization (IMO) which says this week that a further key link in the plan to provide effective coverage in the region now that a search and rescue sub-centre that will operate in conjunction with the regional Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Cape Town, South Africa has been commissioned.

The commissioning of the new facility on the 11th December, a ‘sub-centre’ at Antananarivo, Madagascar, was undertaken by IMO Secretary-General Efthimios E. Mitropoulos, together with Madagascar’s Minister for Transports, Benjamina Ramarcel Ramantsoa and Mr. Jérôme Sambalis Director General of the Agence Portuaire, Maritime et Fluviale (APMF).

The facility, which will operate as a joint maritime and aeronautical centre, marks an important step in a process that began at a conference on Search and Rescue and the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, convened by IMO in Florence, Italy, in October 2000. African Governments represented at the Conference agreed on a regional approach to the provision of SAR services in western, southern and eastern parts of the continent as well as in island States around Africa.

To that effect, they adopted a resolution inviting the African countries bordering the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, as well as the nearby Atlantic and Indian Ocean Island States, to establish five regional centres and 25 sub-centres to cover their entire coastline for search and rescue coordination purposes. The establishment of appropriate facilities off the coast of Africa was seen as a key component in the implementation of the Global Search and Rescue (SAR) Plan, the final part of which had been agreed thirteen years ago in 1998 at an IMO Conference in Fremantle, Australia.

The commissioning of the Antananarivo facility brings the number of sub-centres now in operation to 15. In March 2011, the fifth and final African MRCC was established in Rabat, Morocco, joining those previously commissioned in Mombasa, Kenya (2006); Cape Town, South Africa (2007); Lagos, Nigeria (2008); and Monrovia, Liberia (2009). Speaking at the inauguration of the Madagascar MRSC, Secretary-General Mitropoulos stressed the importance of having a working and cohesive system for rescuing mariners in peril saying:

“Manning the Antananarivo Centre on a 24‑hour basis, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, will require vigilance, professionalism and a sharp reaction to events, it will not be an easy task! May those who serve in it live up to our expectations, in thus discharging their responsibilities, they will have the blessings of all those who will owe their lives to the prompt and effective execution of their duties. They and their families will be in their debt forever.”

With the completion of the five regional MRCCs, IMO is now using the experience gained in the successful establishment and operation of these centres in Africa as an example for other regions to follow. The Organization is currently embarking on a similar project for seven countries in Central America, involving the creation of two regional MRCCs, covering areas of the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea respectively, together with five associated sub-centres.