Sep 042009

We’ve been asked to re-publish our three-part series on the resignation of Bulgaria’s chief maritime investigator and the enquiries into the losses of MV Vanessa and MV Tolstoy. What Papukchiev has to say is disturbing. He identifies significant shortfall in communications between port state controls, the IMO and flag states, and highlights the challenges faced by maritime investigators in those jurisdictions in which independent investigations are difficult to achieve.

Captain Hristo Papukchiev0001

Captain Hristo Papukchiev

Just one day after being tasked to lead a re-opening of the investigation into the January 2008 sinking of the general cargo ship Vanessa Captain Hristo Papukchiev resigned as chairman of the Commission of Investigation. It was a frustrating end to a mission to enhance safety for seafarers on Bulgarian ships and in Bulgarian waters.

Papukchiev’s story raises issues regarding the country’s commitment to maritime safety, safety investigation, and search and rescue. The issues are not unique to Bulgaria,they are common in those countries where shipping interests wield tremendous political power, power enough to make or break presidents. What makes his story unique is that such tales are usually kept behind well-closed doors but Papukchiev has gone public.

It is probably fair to say that Papukchiev’s frustration, and anger is not aimed at the Bulgarian authorities alone but also at the failure of the international maritime community to give him the support he desperately needed to make change. it was, in particular, a test of the IMO’s commitment to transparency, a test which it failed.


Tolstoy - Fits the template for Black Sea sinkings

For the first time in Bulgaria’s history, on Papukchiev’s watch, Bulgaria filed an accident report with the IMO, in this case the tragedy of the M/V Tolstoy. He expected a response, he expected action, there was none.

The Tolstoy investigation was the first one completed with Papukchiev as the lead investigator. It identified serious regulatory failings, inadequate vessel monitoring and a serious shortfall in Bulgaria’s SAR capability and in VTS operations. It should have led to a serious enquiry aimed at improving the situation, it did not.

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Panama – Rezzak disappearance may be fraud

 casualties, maritime crime  Comments Off on Panama – Rezzak disappearance may be fraud
Jul 042008

Senior officials in the maritime accident investigation department of the Panama Maritime Authority have told Maritime Accident Casebook that fraud is still being considered in the disappearance of the general cargo carrier M/V Rezzak earlier this year. Panama and other states involved in the case including India, Russia and Turkey are planning a $1.3 underwater search for the missing vessel.

Nothing has been heard from the 26-year old, 3009 tonne M/V Rezzak or her 25-strong Indian crew since she disappeared following her departure from the Russian port of Novorossiysk on February 17 with a cargo of 2,800 tonnes of steel billets, bound for Bartin Lamani in Turkey. Several members of the crew’s family believe they may still be alive and held against their will and some claim that the crews’ cellphone were working for sometime after her disappearance.

Another ship, the tug Jupiter 6, with the same manning agent, Pelican, and an Indian crew disappeared in September 2005. The EPIRB of the Jupiter 6 was manually activated some 33 days after radio contacts was lost. In that case, too, there were odd cellphone issues.

The Indian government says that the incident has “shaken”the government’s confidence in its maritime training policy. Kiran Dhinga, India’s Director General of Shipping, asked for a re-investigation of the incident at an IMO meeting last month. She is quoted in the Indian press as saying that following her criticism of the ‘the fundamental safety mechanism of IMO and every safety mechanism ever put in place by it’ : “The secretary general (IMO Secretary-General Efthimios E. Mitropoulos of IMO organised a meeting in his chambers with the delegation of the concerned states and the substantially interested state (India), requesting them to work in close cooperation in tracing the missing ship as soon as possible.”

Engineer Gerardo Varela, chief maritime investigator for Panama’s Maritime Authority arrived in Turkey this week to join another investigator who has been there since February co-operating with the Turkish government. Piracy has been ruled out due to the weather conditions at the time of the disappearance but the possibility of fraud is still being considered.

One of the investigators involved told MAC: “We have not discarded the possibility of fraude, as there is so much information collected which lead us to that hypothesis. For example, a life raft was found with the vessel’s previous name written in the raft’s plastic and not on the outside, where the current vessel’s name must be written. Also, if the Captain knew that there was bad weather in that area, why did he continue to sail in that same area?”

The seaworthiness of M/V Rezzak has been questioned but the investigator says that although a number of deficiencies originally led to the detention of the Rezzak for two weeks, the relevant Port State Control authorised the vessel’s departure after the deficiencies were rectified and verified by its classification society, NKK, a member of the International Association of Classification Societies. Among the items replaced on the vessel was its EPIRB unit, which was not triggered during the disappearance.

Currently, an eight-day underwater search for the Rezzak is planned costing $1.3 and funding for the project is being sought from the four involved countries, India, Turkey, Russia and Panama.

See Also: “Ghostly Goings On – The Rezzak Mystery”

Mar 052008

On 29th February the wife of Indian sailor Afroze Ahmed called the cellphone of electrical engineer Pritam Singh. The phone was answered and immediately went silent. An Indian called Udaynarayan rang his brother Hridaynarayan’s cellphone on the evening of Wednesday 26th February. A voice replied “Hello” then the cellphone went dead. The previous Sunday, the 23rd, an SMS text had been successfully delivered to the cellphone of a ship’s engineer and the cost of the roaming SMS facility been charged to his account.

Not especially remarkable except that Ahmed, Hridaynarayan and the ship’s engineer are three of the 25 Indian crew still missing in the Black Sea, along with their vessel MV Rezzak since 17th February.

Suspicions were enhanced by the fact that Turkish search and rescue efforts produced several items of survival equipment, lifebouys, lifeboats and the like together with an oil slick. The equipment was marked Asean Energy, a name the ship had not carried for around a decade.

That no bodies or personal effect were found is not particularly suspicious. When the British trawler Gaul vanished in a storm the only debris was a single lifejacket found the following year.

When the Bow Mariner exploded and sank off the coast of Virginia (See The Case Of The Unfamiliar Mariner) the majority of bodies were never found even though search and rescue personnel were on site within hours.

It didn’t help allay suspicions, that the ship’s manning agent, Pelican Marine, was also responsible for supplying crew, who came from the same place as those aboard the Rezzak, to the Jupiter 6 which disappeared with all hands in 2005. Then, too, there was an electronic anomaly – 32 days after its disappearance the Jupiter 6’s EPIRB briefly burst into life.

In that case, too, Pelican Marine exhibited a less than enthusiastic interest in helping the families of the vanished crew members.

Like any other piece of equipment, EPIRBS require maintenance that is often not carried out so the lack of an activated EPIRB on the Rezzak may be down to depressingly common lack of attention to life-critical systems aboard ship. Yes, batteries can suddenly, briefly, come back to life for no apparent reason.

No distress call was sent from the Rezzak, but massive structural failure or over overwhelming of the vessel in the bad weather at the time can happen too fast to send a distress call. Even if the failure did not lead to loss of the vessel immediately it may simply be that in the onboard panic the thought of sending such a call fell by the wayside under stress, as it did to the master of the Bow Mariner.

There has been much talk of piracy. Some have dismissed it because there has been no ransom demand, but piracy for ransom is more a feature of the Somalia coast. Most piracy is little more than maritime mugging – grab the cash, valuables and supplies and run – the curse of south easian waters like the Strait of Malacca, in which case there would still be a ship and crew. The third strand of piracy, in which a ship and its cargo is seized and sold, involves international gangs and big business for whom the $3m worth of steel billets and the scrap value of the vessel itself would be small potatoes indeed, although a ready market could be found in China, whose economy is driving much of the current shipping boom and newbuilds. It would be difficult to conduct such an operation under the weather conditions at the time.

Before the Rezzak left the Russian port of Novorossisk she was detained for 37 deficiencies, which included 11 problems related to stability, structure and related equipment, five related to life-saving equipment, and five related to fire safety. There were three deficiencies relted to propulsion and auxiliary equipment., four more related to navigational safety and one related to radio communications.

The ships class society apparently allowed it to sail to Bartin, Turkey, because three deficiencies could not be resolved in Novorossisk.

The Black Sea is a small inland sea. It wouldn’t be particularly easy for a vessel to vanish but still be floating. However, more advanced pirates will weld and cut the ship’s superstructure, paint it, and give it new documentation, typically from an FOC. Nevertheless, piracy, while possible, appears unlikely.

Fraud is a more significant likelihood – scuttling a ship and its cargo and claiming insurance. It is not unknown in the Mediterranean or the Baltic. One would expect the crew to have ‘miraculously’ escaped before the vessel was lost. It is a possibility being explored by the Turkish authorities and the Director General Of Shipping in India has asked the International Maritime Bureau, a private maritime crime organisation attached to the International Chamber of Commerce, for help, and sent an investigator to Turkey on March 6.

One element of the story would appear to make fraud difficult to hide: crew would have had to be involved. There is no history of the entire extermination of a ship’s crew in such cases, which doesn’t mean it can’t happen or hasn’t happened. A very large percentage of the crew, 10 out of 25, came from one tiny dot of an island, part of the Maldives, the only inhabited island in the Maliku Atoll and the most southerly island in the Lakshadweep archipelago, under Indian administration, Minicoy.

Minicoy boasts little more than coconut trees, a lighthouse and a population of a little less than 10,000. The 10 men who have vanished were almost certainly related to just about everyone else in the community. It is hard to believe that the necessary secrecy for fraud could be maintained in that community.

It is difficult to accept that one’s loved ones, relatives, husbands, sons, lovers have vanish so completely, and entirely understandable that there is a reluctance to believe that the Rezzak went to the bottom taking them with it, to cling to the thought that its crew is still alive. But the sea often takes its own in silence.

To put context into the loss, it is as if 300,000 Americans or Europeans suddenly ceased to exist. For Minicoy it is the equivalent of 10 9/11s, or triple the combined losses of Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined in the dropping of the atomic bomb in World War 2.

Its ‘sexy’ to talk about piracy and fraud, and it’s a convenient excuse to with-hold compensation for the seafarer’s families until the insurance companies pay up, but the chances are that the Rezzak went down with all hands in a storm, a great tragedy for that community, a community that, at this moment, is seeing little help or support.

Seafarers are a community bound together by the risk of work and water. The loss of the Rezzak crew is a loss to us all.