Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Good Samaritan Requirement

The USS Kidd comes to the rescue of the fishing boat Al Molai. US Navy photo.

Twice in the last week, US Navy ships have rescued crewmembers from Iranian fishing vessels in the Persian Gulf. In the latest incident, 13 Iranian fishermen who had been attacked by pirates were rescued in what Iran called a “humanitarian gesture,” this despite the rising tensions between the US and Iran in the area.

There is a long tradition of one ship going to the rescue of another in distress. In more recent times, this tradition has been codified. Under Regulation 33 in of the International Convention for the Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) Chapter V:
The master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance on receiving a signal from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so. If the ship receiving the distress alert is unable or, in the special circumstances of the case, considers it unreasonable or unnecessary to proceed to their assistance, the master must enter in the log-book the reason for failing to proceed to the assistance of the persons in distress [and] to inform the appropriate search and rescue service accordingly.
A captain who fails to respond to a distress call can face fines and even jail time. The Moscow Times recently reported an incident in which a captain faced two years in prison for failure to give aid:
     The captain of a vessel that passed by the sinking Bulgaria cruise ship without stopping to help rescue drowning passengers was fined, but avoided jail time, Interfax reported.
     A district court in Tatarstan ruled that Yury Tuchin failed to provide help to victims of the July disaster on the Volga River, in which 122 people died when the 55-year-old Bulgaria foundered in a storm.
     Tuchin, skipper of the Arbat dry cargo ship, pleaded guilty to not stopping to collect survivors, but said he had only done so because his ship risked crushing the lifeboats.
     The prosecution asked to jail the 60-year-old sailor for 14 months and ban him from working on ships for three years afterward, but the court only fined Tuchin 130,000 rubles ($4,200), the report said.
No one is obligated to put his or her own vessel in danger to assist someone else. In my own case, I went to the aid of a small craft stranded on some rocks on a falling tide. The captain there wanted my ship to tow his boat off, but I considered it too dangerous to get that close to the rocks. Instead, I sent the Chief Mate and some crew members to stand by in a skiff in case the stranded boat needed to be evacuated. While the captain of a vessel in distress  -- or, often, the search and rescue authority in a given area – has the right to “requisition” other vessels for emergencies, a captain’s ultimate responsibility is to his or her own ship.

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