Exxon Valdez (1989)

March 1989: the US-flagged Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil. The Master faced a number of charges, including operating the vessel while intoxicated, a charge that the jury rejected. However, he was found guilty of negligent discharge of oil and was fined $50,000 and sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service in Alaska. His licence was suspended temporarily.

Erika (1999)

December 1999: Malta tanker Erika broke in two 60 miles off the coast of France spilling 31,000 tonnes of oil into the water and eventually sinking. Due to hurricane-strength gales that followed, the oil was scattered across a large portion of the French coast and adversely affected wildlife. Criminal charges were brought against not only the owners and operators, but also against the Master. They were all charged with causing pollution at sea and endangering the lives of others. Although the Master was eventually found not guilty, this result did not transpire until 16 January 2008, some eight plus years later.

Prestige (2002)

November 2002: Bahamas-flagged, Greek-operated tanker owned by a Liberian company and chartered by a Swiss-based Russian oil company. While carrying 77,033 metric tonnes of two different grades of heavy fuel oil, one of its 12 tanks burst during a storm off Galicia, in north-western Spain. Fearing that the vessel would sink, the Captain requested permission to enter a Spanish port, which was denied. For the next six days, the Captain continued making unsuccessful requests of the Spanish, French and Portuguese authorities to enter their ports. Six days later, the ship split in half, sinking approximately 250 miles off the coast of Spain and spilling a significant amount of oil that continued to leak over the days and weeks that followed. The 70-year-old Greek Captain was arrested and jailed, charged with hindering salvage of the vessel and causing the break-up of the tanker. He was held for 85 days in a high-security Spanish prison before being released on a €3m bail. He was prevented from leaving Spain and had to report to the police twice daily. After one year, 10 months and 17 days of being prevented from leaving Spain, the Captain was permitted to return home to Greece upon his government’s guarantee that he will return to Spain for any trial that may follow. Spain’s investigation was concluded in June 2010 and the criminal cases in Spain is still pending.

Zim Mexico III (2006)

March 2006: Containership Zim Mexico III knocked down a container crane when manoeuvring in the port of Mobile, Alabama, after the bowthruster failed, killing an electrician working on the crane. The elderly German Master was charged under the US Seamen’s Manslaughter Act, facing up to 10 years in prison if convicted. He was refused bail and remained incarcerated until being eventually sentenced to “time served” on a lesser charge of simple negligence, and released 11 months after the incident.

Hebei Spirit (2007)

December 2007: Hong Kong-registered crude carrier Hebei Spirit was anchored when it was hit by an out of control crane barge causing heavy pollution to the South Korean coastline. The Captain and Chief Officer, both Indian nationals, were arrested and charged with criminal negligence for causing marine pollution. An initial investigative report compiled by the South Korean government indicated that blame for the oil spill was shared between the tug captains, the barge captain, and the officers of Hebei Spirit. After a series of hearings and appeals, the South Korean courts ultimately reversed the conviction under the Criminal Code, but maintained the marine pollution conviction. The men were released on 11 June 2009 after 550 days in detention.

Nissos Amorgos (1997)

February 1997: the Greek tanker Nissos Amorgos struck bottom while being piloted down the Maracaibo Channel and some 7,000 tonnes of oil escaped. She was one of three tankers to run aground in the waterway within a period of six weeks. The Master claimed that the tanker had struck a submerged object during the pilot-assisted passage. The Venezuelan navy carried out a survey of the channel and preliminary findings pointed to underwater bank collapses in the Channel, as well as the presence of widespread silting and a number of large “metallic objects” on the bed of the waterway. Nevertheless, the Venezuelan authorities kept the ship arrested for nearly five months, and detained the Master for an additional month without charges subsequent to the release of the ship. The Master was eventually charged and a lengthy series of court proceedings followed. The trial court found the Master guilty of negligence in causing the oil spill, but after a series of appeals, the Criminal Court of Appeal dismissed the conviction on procedural grounds in 2005. No action was taken against the port authorities who were responsible for the state of the Channel, or the pilots.

Virgo (2001)

August 2001: Cyprus-flagged Virgo was sailing through the high seas near the US shore when it is alleged to have collided with a fishing vessel which sank. Three fishermen drowned. The US charged the seafarers with involuntary manslaughter, and sought to have them extradited from Canada. During the following 18 months, the seafarers were prohibited from leaving Canada while the US, Russia (the state of the seafarers’ nationality), and Cyprus (the flag state) engaged in diplomatic discussions regarding the appropriate forum for criminal proceedings. The seafarers were eventually allowed to temporarily return to their native Russia while the appeal pertaining to extradition was pending. In 2006, the US abandoned its extradition efforts, allowing Russia to commence a criminal investigation and proceedings.

Tasman Spirit (2003)

July 2003: Maltese tanker which grounded at the entrance to Karachi Port, Pakistan, while carrying 67,800 tonnes of Iranian light crude oil and 440 tonnes of heavy fuel oil in the aft bunker tanks. The tanker ran aground in pilotage waters as it approached the port, subsequently breaking in half and spilling a considerable portion of the cargo of crude oil. The vessel’s Master, chief officer, third officer, chief engineer, second engineer, third engineer and the quartermaster, as well as the salvage master, were arrested and charged with conspiring to ground the tanker with criminal intent to cause pollution and injury. They were detained for eight months facing criminal charges. After compensation agreements were negotiated, Pakistan dropped the criminal charges and the seafarers were released.

Coral Sea (2007)

July 2007: The Croatian Captain, Croatian Chief Mate, and a Filipino bosun were arrested when 51 kg of cocaine were found in a cargo of fruit discharged in the port of Patras. They were charged with smuggling cocaine, despite no evidence being laid against them. The Master and Chief Officer were found guilty and initially sentenced to long periods of confinement. The Chief Officer was subsequently released after more than a year in prison. He suffered severe mental problems and committed suicide. The Master was released after more than 17 months in harsh confinement and acquitted, but he was deported from Greece which made it initially impossible to resume his career with a criminal conviction remaining on his record. He was awarded the ‘Man of the Sea’ Award in 2008 in Lloyd’s List Greek Shipping Awards.

Tosa (2009)

April 2009: The Panamanian flag VLCC MC Tosa was on a voyage from South Korea to Singapore when a Taiwanese fishing boat is believed to have capsized, resulting in the death of two fishermen. Reports indicate that the Tosa was at least one hour from the position of the capsize and no evidence of a collision existed on the hull of the vessel. The ship was escorted from the high seas under Taiwanese Coast Guard escort under suspicion of having collided with the fishing trawler. The watch keepers, the Second Officer and AB, as well as the ship’s Master were arrested. The Master, who was off duty and asleep at the time of the incident, was prohibited from leaving Taiwan for nearly two years. He was initially charged with involuntary manslaughter but was later absolved of all charges and released.