When Rena grounded on Astrolabe Reef in the early hours of 5th October, a complex legal process was set into motion which will likely last a decade or more. All around the world, lawyers, insurers, salvors and surveyors will have reached for an A4 lever arch file and written ‘Rena File No.1” on the spine. Many hundreds more A4 files will be filled in the months and years to come.
One of the truly ancient principles which will likely be applied to the Rena’s salvage is General Average. General Average is another maritime peculiarity dating back to early Greek times. Even now, every voyage by a cargo ship is termed a ‘maritime adventure’ to which the ship’s Owner, Cargo owners, Master and Crew are deemed participants.
When heavily laden sailing craft were plying the Mediterranean, storms and running aground were an accepted peril of the maritime adventure. In the teeth of a storm, it was common practice for the Captains to jettison part of the cargo thereby lightening the vessel so as to make it safely to port (less a few amphora of wine). When choosing which cargo to jettison, Captains and crews were often not too picky - self-preservation ruled.
Provided the vessel made it to port, the hapless cargo’s owner would be informed of the loss of their precious goods. One party had borne the loss of their goods in order to ensure the successful delivery of the other cargo and the preservation of the ship. The Greeks put their mind to this inequity of one party suffering loss for the collective benefit of the other participants to the maritime adventure.
The principle debated, and now enshrined in maritime commerce, was that the losses of one should be compensated by the collective beneficiaries of the successful voyage. There are a few rules though to maintain fair play in the unscrupulous, rough-and-tumble of shipping.
A General Average claim must, among other things, be voluntary, timely, reasonable and successful. When the Owners of the Rena were alerted to the vessel’s grounding, one of the first thoughts would have been ‘Can we declare General Average?’
After all, if their actions successfully save the majority of the containers but result in the loss of their ship on Astrolabe Reef, then aren’t they entitled to be compensated under the principles of General Average? A powerful incentive when you consider the combined value of the ship and 1,300 containers at the time of the grounding.
Crane Barge Smit Borneo under tow to the Rena salvage site from Singapore:
Kees Drent, Shipping News Clippings 13/11/11
If General Average is declared, every container successfully unloaded to the barge ST-60 will strengthen the Rena’s Owners case that their actions met the test of being voluntary, timely, reasonable and successful. Just imagine you are passenger in a taxi which T-bones another car and the taxi driver demands you contribute to the repair bill! General Average in a nutshell.
Interesting if the ‘cut and thrust’ of maritime commerce, law and salvage lights your fire. No mention yet of a dolphin, penguin or cormorant in this Blog, which I will leave to my reader from the Ministry of the Environment (you know who you are).
The Antipodean Mariner
15th November 2011
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