The importance of passage planning – UK P&I Club comments

Following an $800,000 ruling by the English Admiralty Court on a case of a grounded container vessel, Ben Johnson, Senior Claims Executive at UK P&I Club, advises on the importance of passage planning.

Despite logistical and technological advancement within voyage planning, human error and poorly executed processes can risk cargo, the safety of crew, and make any resultant claims void – costing shipowners substantial amounts in lost revenue.

A large container vessel ‘CMA CGM LIBRA’ laden with cargo with a value in excess of US$500 million, as well as about 8,000 tons of bunkers, grounded on a shoal while sailing out of Xiamen port in China through a recognised dredged channel marked by lit buoys. The vessel’s Owners (CMA CGM) alleged the shoal was uncharted.

About 8% of cargo interests refused to pay cargo’s contribution to General Average expenses of approximately US$800,000 on the grounds that the Master was at fault for the grounding.

The court found that: the absence of an adequate passage plan was causative of the grounding; the vessel owners did not exercise due diligence to make the vessel seaworthy as required by the Hague Visby Rules (Article III Rule 1); the passage plan prepared by the second officer did not refer to the existence of a crucial Preliminary Notice to Mariners alerting mariners to the presence of numerous depths less than charted in the approaches to Xiamen; the passage plan did not refer to any “no-go areas” which had not been marked or identified on the chart

Ultimately, cargo interests successfully defended the vessel Owner’s claim and were not required to contribute the $800,000 in General Average.

The incident occurred in 2011, when there was no SOLAS requirement for the vessel to carry electronic charts. If this incident occurred in 2019 then, provided the passage plan on the electronic chart includes a reference to the notice, it may not be defective and as a result the vessel may well have been seaworthy at the commencement of the voyage. It is worth noting that the display format of such Notices to Mariners do vary between system types and may not be displayed automatically.

Whether ultimately the use of an electronic chart would have prevented the grounding is a moot point but it is notable that the Master did state in evidence that he would not have made such an alteration if he had known of the warning.

This is an important decision which highlights the utmost importance of careful and accurate passage planning by the navigational officers on board. Poor passage planning can lead to groundings, collisions, the endangering of crew, as well as significant financial costs for ship owners.