Search and Rescue (SAR) of persons in distress at sea is one of the noblest acts that is undertaken by coastal nations in a systematized manner.
The Indian Coast Guard (ICG) – A National Authority for Maritime SAR services in Indian Search and Rescue Region (ISRR), which spans over an area of 4.6 Million Sq Km. Rescuing over 8000 precious lives in the past three decades stands testimony to the SAR efforts of the Indian Coast Guard, thereby reposing confidence and carving a niche’ among the Maritime Community.
Availability of a suitable SAR unit to reach the distressed vessel, is at times restricted due to vast distances and severe weather conditions. In order to overcome the limitation, the Indian Coast Guard requests potential Merchantmen, traversing the seas, to reach the area for rendering possible assistance to the Mariners in distress that are beyond the immediate reach of the SAR resource agencies.
The Captain of the Merchantman has an obligation to render assistance to those in distress at sea regardless of their Nationality, States or circumstances in which they are found. This is a long standing Maritime tradition as well as an obligation enshrined in the International Maritime Law. Compliance with this obligation is essential to preserve the integrity of Maritime Search and Rescue services.
The Captains of the ships, though obligated to render assistance to fellow Mariners in distress at sea, are also to prudently undertake such rescue act without jeopardizing the safety of their own vessel. Over the years, global economy has shifted its dependence on sea-borne trade and in the ever-increasing pace of delivering cargo on time, even a slight deviation from scheduled arrival causes enormous costs to the shipping companies. The Captain of the ship, however has the authority to override all such issues, whenever he encounters any distressed person at sea, seeking assistance.
In yesteryears, whilst traversing through the International Sea Lanes, a ship used to encounter severe legal problems in handing over people rescued during transit, belonging to a third country, at the next port of call. Such procedure involved serious immigration vetting and repatriation efforts.
To cite an example, in 2001, the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa rescued 483 Afghan refugees from a distressed fishing vessel in International waters and was refused entry into Australian ports. Moreover, a threat was issued to prosecute Captain Arne Rinnan, naming him as a human smuggler. The brave Captain, sensing the serious condition of the refuges onboard, declared a state of emergency and proceeded to enter Australian territorial waters without permission and anchored near Christmas Island.
The Norwegian Government gave him the highest Civilian honour, as reward for handling the toughest incident with sheer courage and professionalism. Captain Arne was also named ‘‘Captain of the Year’’ by the Lloyd’s list and Nautical Institute of London.
The legality of this action has been the subject of debate ever since. The case was studied in detail by the International Community and International Maritime Organisation (IMO) passed resolution A920 (22), which provided guidelines to the member states for measures and procedures to be adopted towards treatment of people rescued at sea. The Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and SAR conventions were accordingly amended to ensure that people in distress are adequately supported, while minimising the inconvenience to assisting ships and ensuring the continued integrity of SAR services.
The Indian Coast Guard has always been proactively coordinating with the Merchantman and other vessels rescuing people in distress and taking over the custody of the rescued people from the Merchant ships even before IMO resolutions were passed in 2002. The ICG has also instituted awards/honours to recognise those Masters who have rendered Yeoman service in saving the precious lives at sea.
Recently, during the peak of South West monsoon, three incidents occurred, wherein Merchantmen swiftly responded and extended assistance to the distressed fishing boats. The case study of such events makes the protraction of the finest traditions SAR assistance of sea by merchant mariners.
On 17 Sep 16, ICG Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, Mumbai received a distress alert message at 1000 hrs from a fishing boat “Sai Datta” with 16 crew onboard in position about 28 Nautical Miles off Mumbai. The ICG ship Samudra Prahari on patrol was immediately diverted and simultaneously International Safety Net (ISN) message was also raised. The Merchant Vessel ‘‘Dependable’’, while on her passage from Mumbai, responded to the message and swiftly arrived at the datum, sighted the fishermen at 1212 hrs in water. The ship undertook all necessary Navigational and Seamanship practices for rescuing the fishermen in the most adverse sea conditions, with the waves over 3 meters high. The MRCC (MBI) contacted MV Dependable and ascertained that they could rescue only 14 crew of the fishing boat and continuing search for the remaining 02 crew. The MV Dependable provided necessary first aid, food and water to the rescued crew. The ICG ship Samudra Prahari, by then, arrived at the scene, took over the rescued crew and relived MV Dependable to continue on voyage. During the entire Rescue Operation, ‘‘MV Dependable’’ exhibited highest level of seamanship practices and extreme courage, despite marginal weather and rough sea conditions. The efforts put forth by ‘‘MV Dependable’’ in rescuing 14 crew from the capsized fishing boat is in the best traditions of the Mariners.
In another incident on 06 Sep 16, Coast Guard Aircraft during its routine surveillance, intercepted distress message from fishing boat “Shree Om Shakti Sai”, which had an engine breakdown in position about 82 Nm Southwest of Daman and requested for immediate assistance. The ICG immediately requested Offshore Supply Vessels Venugopal and Triumph, operating in the vicinity, to provide assistance to the fishing boat in distress. These vessels, without much delay, shaped course towards the datum. On reaching, reported inability to provide any assistance due to its structural limitations and the prevailing sea conditions. Notwithstanding, MV Triumph remained in the vicinity of the ill-fated fishing boat till the arrival of assistance by the Indian Coast Guard ship Sankalp, rescuing the entire crew. The swift response exhibited by the MV Triumph is in accordance with the best traditions of Mariners in extending helping hands at sea.
The third SAR incident occurred on 12 Oct 16, wherein Merchant Vessel Al Khattiya, while on passage to Thailand from Qatar, observed 02 fishing boats adrift about 172 NM Northwest off Agatti Island in the middle of the Laccadive Sea. The Merchant Vessel ascertained the nature of distress and found that the boats were adrift due to shortage of fuel. The Merchant Vessel provided fuel and logistic support to the fishing boats to enable reach the nearest land (Lakshadweep) safely and also appraised MRCC (Mumbai), thus rendering yeoman service in saving the precious lives of 25 crew of the fishing boats.
The rescue assistance rendered by the Merchantmen at sea during the severe Southwest monsoon stands testimony to the highest Maritime traditions, which are still in vogue and reinforces confidence to the seafarers that help will come from any quarters whenever in need. The Indian Coast Guard annually rewards the Captain of such merchant ships during National Search and Rescue Board meetings. In addition, such an action by the ship is also appreciated and recognised in the form of citations presented by the Coast Guard Commander (Western Seaboard).
The Indian Coast Guard, being the Maritime SAR Authority in ISAR, co-ordinates SAR services with all resource agencies, ensuring that the assistance reaches the needy in distress at sea in the shortest possible time, in keeping with its motto “Vayam Rakshamah” which means “We Protect”.
This article was written by: Additional Director General K Natarajan, PTM, TM; Indian Coast Guard Commander (Western Seaboard) and DIG Donny Michael, TM, Chief Staff Officer (Operations), HQ CGC (WS).