The Indian Ocean island of Mauritius is still reeling from the devastating oil spill caused by the Panama-flagged, Japanese-owned vessel, The Wakashio. More questions are now being asked about the cause of the incident as the original claims start to unravel.
The first day that the Panama Maritime Authorities landed in Mauritius on September 8, they claimed that the captain had ordered a change of course to “find internet or a telephone signal.”
While this captured many headlines, most in Mauritius were doubtful about this account, given that internet connectivity was easily available even 12 nautical miles off shore, where most vessels on the busy shipping lanes pass by the island.
Many tourists who travel to Mauritius (around 1 million a year), are able to access the internet many miles offshore on catamarans to share photos of themselves on several of the dolphin and whale watching tours or visits to the outlying islands of Mauritius.
Free, unlimited satellite internet available on ship
Such a story about the ‘search for Wi-Fi’ now appears to be even less credible given a statement from Wakashio operator, Mitsui OSK Lines to Forbes this week, that revealed that all crew on Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL) vessels have access to unlimited, free satellite internet while on board and at sea.
This means there was no need to be searching for any coastal internet connectivity or telephone signals, given this was a MOL-operated vessel.
In a statement to Forbes on October 6, a spokesperson for MOL said “Our fleet has the most updated internet connection that Inmarsat provides, and it is not charged to the crew either, and this has been so since last year.”
Inmarsat is the world’s leading maritime satellite internet provider and has global coverage using its large network of internet satellites. It was the satellite company that famously picked up the last signal of the missing Malaysian Airlines MH370 in 2014 in the Southern Indian Ocean. So internet coverage would have been extensive across the entire Indian Ocean given its network of 13 geostationary internet satellites.
This is the second time that the Panama Maritime Authority – with whom the Wakashio was registered – have made inaccurate statements about the grounding. On August 12, the Panama authorities issued a detailed statement about how the captain and first officer had supervised efforts to navigate poor weather conditions around Mauritius. However, three days earlier on August 9, Forbes had already published satellite analysis that showed clear weather and no apparent maneuvering (words used by the Panamanian Authorities) to change course due to the state of the sea.
Beyond raising credibility issues about the ability of the Panama Authorities to conduct a thorough investigation (and even more questions about the level of detail in the August 12 Panama report), questions continue to be raised about why the Wakashio was so close to the coast Mauritius.
It certainly appears increasingly unlikely that it was to locate any internet signals, if the MOL-operated vessel had access to a fully functioning satellite internet communications network.
Seaborne internet has been a key issue for seafarers during COVID-19
Since Covid-19 restrictions were imposed on the maritime industry, internet connectivity has been a key issue for seafarers.
Over 400,000 seafarers have been stranded on vessels around the world, separated from their families and loved ones. This sense of isolation has been flagged as a major issue, with many seafarers being prevented from disembarking from their vessels around the world.
The issue of stranded seafarers has forced the Pope and the UN Secretary General to intervene in the industry, calling it a ‘humanitarian crisis’ unfolding across the world’s oceans.
One of the key demands from seafarer organizations and trade unions has been for greater internet connectivity during the COVID-19 period whilst many mariners are stuck on board vessels feeling isolated.
Internet as a Human Right
At the end of March, some of the biggest seafarers organizations and trade unions called for data and satellite calls to be made free during the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19 restrictions that were preventing crew changes, and prolonging stays on board vessels.
It has been shown that crew internet can significantly reduce emotional stress on board. A major report in 2018 revealed the shocking impact of poor internet connectivity on crew morale and productivity on ships around the world, and raised this as a major priority area for shipowners to address.
COVID-19 has only accentuated these pressures, with extended tours of duty.
In a statement to Forbes on October 6, the Executive Director of the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network, Roger Harris, explained the pressures seafarers are facing during COVID-19 by not being in contact with loved ones.
“Seafarers are becoming psychologically and physically fatigued as many of them have now been onboard vessels for longer than a year, with little or no shore leave. Separated from their friends and families many are becoming depressed and increasingly frustrated that they cannot return home.”
This exemplifies the points made in a 2016 report from the Human Rights Council of the UN General Assembly that declared access to the internet to be a basic human right. Seafarers rights should be counted too, especially given the importance of maritime trade to the global economy.
Minimum standards expected
Roger Harris also laid out the minimum expectations of ship operators to provide internet connectivity for the crew.
“This is the standard that we expect ship operators to meet:
- Free access for a minimum of 2 hours per day
- Free data up to 2.0GB per month and minimal charges for additional data
- Access in a private space, preferably in the seafarers’ cabin
- Access to Skype, WhatsApp, and Viber
- Access to video calls
- Access to free VOIP calls
- Training in use of social media
- Training in cyber security
- Ability to use own devices onboard”
Free internet to seafarers provided by satellite
Since the March 23 open letter by ISWAN and other organizations, maritime satellite internet provider Inmarsat has been working on their satellite internet provision to seafarers as a matter of urgency. Inmarsat Maritime president Ronald Spithout responded positively to the calls for greater internet connectivity access during COVID-19 and met with all parties on March 25 to discuss further ways they could help seafarers
In a statement on June 4, maritime satellite internet provider Inmarsat announced a further extension of its internet connectivity support to crew around the world.
“Inmarsat recognizes the unprecedented situation facing seafarers and their need for certainty in communication, as the global maritime industry responds to the challenges of COVID-19,” said Ronald Spithout, President, Inmarsat Maritime.
“These new initiatives, together with those we have already launched, alleviate one of the core concerns crews face as they go about the business of keeping world trade moving day-in, day-out.”
Grants to support internet provision on ships
Other organizations have been offering grants to ensure greater connectivity on the oceans during the COVID-19 crisis. One of the UK’s largest charitable funders of maritime communities, Seafarers UK have been providing grants to organizations providing welfare services for seafarers impacted by Covid-19.
The CEO of Seafarers UK, Catherine Spencer said, “From paying to provide portable MiFi units for use by seafarers stranded on ships stuck in port, to our ongoing support for vital initiatives such as ISWAN’s Seafarers Emergency Fund, grants made by Seafarers UK are helping to relieve the distress and anxiety suffered by many seafarers, including those caught up in the crew change crisis.”
Role of ship operators in spotlight
ISWAN’s Roger Harris did identify that more needed to be done by ship operators to ensure internet access is provided to crew. In a response to Forbes on October 6, he said, “We believe more needs to be done. We don’t currently have the evidence that ship operators have upped their game although many of the good shipping and ship management companies do provide free or cheap access to the internet.”
He goes on to give the business case for good high-speed internet centering around three important pillars.
- “Recruitment and retention – as the current generation of seafarers now expect near universal and cheap access.
- Health and safety – Seafarers sometimes stay up instead of resting so to access their next day’s allocation of data.
- Improved crew morale – as they are able to stay in contact with family and friends.”
Japan’s MOL is world’s second largest shipping company
The operator of the Wakashio was Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL). It is the world’s second largest shipping company in terms of number of ships after China COSCO. It has offices in over 40 countries, employs almost 9000 directly and contracts with another 6000 seafarers around the world. MOL currently operates 839 ships, which it both owns and charters, and has prioritized investments in advanced maritime technologies and digitalization.
MOL has highlighted the importance of supporting its seafarers as part of its Covid-19 response. This is in addition to celebrating MOL Family Day, and recognizing the importance of an extended family support network to seafarers.
In a statement to Forbes on October 6, a spokesperson for MOL described MOL’s internet access policy on its vessels and when this policy started given the initial outbreak of coronavirus pandemic in China and Japan at the start of 2020.
“Our countermeasures and support started at the end of January. Our fleet has the most updated internet connection that Inmarsat provides, and it is not charged to the crew either, and this has been so since last year. Access to certain Apps depends on the region, but is not restricted by MOL. Training on social media and cyber security take place when crew are ashore.”
So it appears that among the 839 vessels operated by MOL, internet connectivity should not have been an issue for crew.
Evasive response from Wakashio crew employers Anglo-Eastern
The captain and crew of Wakashio were employed by Hong Kong headquartered shipping crew giant, Anglo-Eastern.
Anglo-Eastern is the largest ship management company in the world by number of ships (over 900 vessels) and second largest in terms of seafarers (employing over 27,000 seafarers), with one of the world’s largest maritime training centers, located in India, as well as several more training centers across Asia.
Anglo-Eastern position themselves in their corporate literature as having family-friendly policies for seafarers around the world.
However, given the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network’s (ISWAN) minimum standards on internet connectivity for seafarers, and the importance of the internet for crews that had been stuck on vessels for months past scheduled personnel changes, Anglo-Eastern would not comment to Forbes on whether their internet connectivity policies met ISWAN’s expectations.
For such a family centered crew employer, it is a little surprising that Anglo-Eastern would not disclose their internet connectivity policies for seafarers engaged by them. However, publicly available company documentation does reveal that Anglo-Eastern “doubled the Internet bandwidth available on board for free personal use during the pandemic.”
Given that Panama Maritime Authorities had highlighted that crew of the Wakashio could have been searching for internet connection and that may have been a cause of the crash in the Panamanian Authority’s minds, it is likely that evidence will be asked from Anglo-Eastern in the Wakashio enquiry to understand whether Anglo-Eastern’s employee internet policies were adequate and responsive enough given warnings since March by seafarer organizations like ISWAN, expanded facilities provided by maritime satellite internet provider Inmarsat, and MOL’s unrestricted and free satellite internet policies to crew since 2019.
Shipowner refusing to address mounting questions
Anglo-Eastern has avoided answering any questions on the Wakashio, even though two of their employees have been arrested – Captain Nandeshwar from India and Chief Engineer Suboda from Sri Lanka.
Anglo-Eastern have instead diverted all media enquiries to the shipowner, Nagashiki Shipping, who have refused to answer any questions on the Wakashio since August 30, 41 days ago.
This is despite the controversy surrounding the change of lawyers for the Wakashio captain, Captain Nandeshwar, whose previous lawyer, a former Deputy Speaker of Parliament in Mauritius, revealed that ‘dark forces’ had surrounded the decision to oust him from representing the 58 year old sea captain on September 2.
Captain Nandeshwar and his deputy, Chief Officer Tilak Ratna Suboda, had appeared in Court this week, being represented by a new set of lawyers appointed by the shipowner and insurer, Japan P&I Club. They had said they wanted to clear their names.
Seafarers have been at the center of the Covid-19 storm
The more attention is paid to the details of the Wakashio grounding and oil spill, the less credible many of the initial narratives appear to be when compared with the facts in the case.
Mauritius is a nation still in the midst of a state of national environmental emergency, several endangered species on a small, protected nature reserve (Ile aux Aigrettes) have now been pushed to the brink of extinction as a direct result of this shipping incident. The global shipping industry has been called a humanitarian disaster by several international leaders.
Yet management and owners of the global shipping industry believe they can operate by closing ranks and waiting out the storm.
They seem to forget that it is the seafarers and crew themselves who are the ones that brave the stormy conditions in the open ocean, while most management and owners stay safe on dry land and earn profits from these voyages.
Over 90% of global trade takes place over the oceans, so these are very high margins in an industry that has been booming in size, but which passes all the risk to the crew, society and the environment that has to bear all the environmental and social fallout from shipping.
This is a clear case of privatizing returns but socializing risk.
Panama-flagged Gulf Livestock 1
Just look at what happened to the crew of the Gulf Livestock 1 last month, with Japan coming in for heavy criticism for a lackluster search effort that the families have argued have been in the wrong part of the ocean. With 40 crew all in life jackets, and 6000 cows, there should have been a lot more debris identified by now.
This is an indication that the search operation is likely taking place in the wrong location.
Even the location where debris was found implies that Japan was only searching around its islands, rather than closer to where drift modelling would suggest the crew would have been in the midst of the sea, swept further by Typhoon Maysak.
The families of the missing crew continue to push for authorities in New Zealand, Australia and Japan to take greater action.
A go-to response: ‘blame the crew’
As former MIT Professor, Jack Devanney. reveals in his classic 2006 maritime accident book ‘The Tankship Tromedy, the shipowners of the Wakashio appear to want to quickly blame the captain and crew, rather than conduct a full enquiry into all the facts of this case.
It is 2020, and there are a lot more tools and technologies available to conduct such maritime incident enquiries than even five years ago.
The mythical ‘search for internet’ story appears to be yet another part of the Wakashio story that appears a lot less credible, given all the internet policies and facilities that ship owners and operators have put in since the start of COVID-19 lockdowns on vessels.
A close investigation appears to be warranted to find out, what really did go on with the Wakashio, and why has the response to the oil spill been so unusual that it has drawn suspicion in itself.
Shipowner Nagashiki Shipping were contacted for a comment to this article, but no media response has been received since August.