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Two Wakashio crew were on board for more than a year

Pandemic crew-change prohibitions meant three of the 20 crew were on extended contracts when vessel grounded off Mauritius on July 25

The actions of Wakashio’s crew during the three-hour period when Automatic Identification System vessel-tracking showed it deviated from a major shipping lane in the Indian Ocean are now central to an investigation

TWO of the 20 crew of the Panama-flagged, 203,130 dwt capesize bulk carrier Wakashio had been on board the vessel for more than 12 months, unable to disembark when their contracts expired because of restrictive quarantine rules worldwide.

The master of the vessel extended his six-month contract by three months on May 1, nearly two months before the vessel grounded on July 25 off Mauritius, a spokesman for Japan-based owners Nagashiki Shipping told Lloyd’s List.

The crew’s action during a three-hour period from midday GMT on Juy 25 when the vessel deviated from a major shipping lane passing by the island will be crucial to investigators trying to determine the cause of the grounding on the reef.

The ship spilled more than 1,000 tonnes of bunker fuel and split in half over the weekend, creating a major environmental and ecological disaster in the pristine waters off the island.

Analysis of the vessel’s Automatic Identification System data from Lloyd’s List Intelligence show that around midday GMT the vessel’s navigational pathway was the same as taken by 78 other bulk carriers over 15,000 dwt during 2020.

The trading lane sailing past Mauritius is a key seaborne route for iron ore shipments to China from Brazil, which supplies about a third of the country’s 1bn tonnes of imports each year.

Wakashio’s next AIS signal at 1343 hrs GMT showed navigating much closer to the Mauritius coastline. Analysis shows that no other bulk carriers had taken this pathway so close to the shore while traversing on the Brazil–China route via the Indian Ocean, according to AIS data interrogated going back to January 2018.

The master, first officer and chief engineer noticed the vessel had stopped moving and was stranded at 1925 hrs local time, the Panama Maritime Authority reported on August 16. That was 1525 hrs GMT, nearly two hours after the vessel had first deviated from established shipping routes.

The master of the Panama-flagged tanker had held his rank for 24 years, according to the shipowner. The positions of the two crew members who had been on the vessel for more than a year were not known.

While the cause of the grounding remains unknown and is being investigated, Panama’s maritime authority said the ship faced “adverse weather conditions near the coast of Mauritius” and that “it was necessary to perform various manoeuvres to change course due to the state of the sea”.

Crewing crisis

The three seafarers are among an estimated 300,000 people whose employment agreements have been extended longer than the usual expiry periods because of difficulties changing over crew.

About 10% of crew worldwide had served 12 to 17 months on extended contracts, according to recent International Chamber of Shipping estimates.

Difficulties conducting crew changes in key hubs such as Singapore and Hong Kong because of high costs, airline schedules, and prohibitive coronavirus immigration and health restrictions has emerged as one of the biggest pandemic challenges for the world’s maritime community.

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