Seaworthiness Relativeness of standard

‘Seaworthiness varies according to the place, the voyage, the time of year, the nature of the cargo, and even the nature of the ship herself (Brett, L.J., Turnbull v Janson, 1877, 36 L. T. N. S. 635); and has thus a relative and not an absolute standard.
Encyclopaedia of the Laws of England, A. Wood Kenton, 1898, Vol.VIII

A relative and flexible term

Seaworthiness can also be described as a relative and flexible standard because its degree which the vessel is required to maintain depends on many things such, for example, as: the nature of the trade and on the particular voyage on which the ship is about to embark ; on the particular stages of that voyage and on the nature of the ship itself.

A merchant in old times about to send out a vessel, if he did his utmost to fit her for what was then a perilous voyage, fulfilled his duty to his co-adventurers who risked their goods, and the crew who risked their lives, on board the vessel; if he did so to the extent which was then usual and of course in the transaction, he could not be expected to do more than was then practicable ; but a modern shipowner, who was to send a ship on the same voyage no better fitted than the ancient vessel, would not fulfil his duty to either one or the other, for the very reason … that the standard of seaworthiness had been raised, …
Per Blackburn J in Burges v Wickham (1863) 3 B & S 669 at 693-4

Moreover, duty to provide a seaworthy ship at common law also includes the second aspect, namely, cargoworthiness, which is an undertaking that the vessel should be reasonably fit to receive and carry the cargo and deliver it at the specified destination, see Empresa Cubana Importada de Alimentos ‘Alimport’ v Iasmos Shipping Co SA, (The Good Friend) [1984] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 586. However, such extension of concept of seaworthiness must not be artificial where that term is used in relation to the carriage of goods by sea. Therefore it was held in The Aquacharm [1982] 1 Lloyd’s Rep. 7, that a temporary or minor impediment, such as the necessity for lightening, which might occur in the course of many voyages or at any rate at many ports of discharge, did not render a vessel unseaworthy. On the other hand, where the condition of the ship constituted a major and permanent obstacle to the completion of the contract voyage, it will constitute unseaworthiness.

There are also extraneous factors which go beyond only physical state of the vessel, such as sufficient and a competent crew to man the vessel and proper certification as applicable to her trade. For example in Alfred C Toepfer Schiffahrtsgesellschaft GmbH v Tossa Marine Co Ltd (The Derby) [1985] 2 Lloyd’s Rep. 325, it was held that wording of NYPE 1946 form that "vessel … to be ready to receive cargo … and in every way fitted for the service …" also covers:

… the requirement that the vessel must carry certain kinds of documents which bear upon her seaworthiness or fitness to perform the service for which the charter provides. Navigational charts which are necessary for the voyages upon which the vessel may be ordered from time to time are an obvious illustration. For present purposes, however, we are concerned with certificates bearing upon the seaworthiness of the vessel. The nature of such certificates may vary according to the requirements of the law of the vessel’s flag or the laws or regulations in force in the countries to which the vessel may be ordered, or which may lawfully be required by the authorities exercising administrative or other functions in the vessel’s ports of call pursuant to the laws there in force. Documents falling within this category, which have been considered in the authorities, are certificates concerning the satisfactory state of the vessel which is in some respect related to her physical condition, and accordingly to her seaworthiness. Their purpose is to provide documentary evidence for the authorities at the vessel’s ports of call on matters which would otherwise require some physical inspection of the vessel, and possibly remedial measures - such as fumigation - before the vessel will be accepted as seaworthy in the relevant respect. The nature of description of such certificates, which may accordingly be required to be carried on board to render the vessel seaworthy, must depend on the circumstances and would no doubt raise issues of fact in individual cases.

Undertaking of seaworthiness is neither a condition nor a warranty and an extent of it was once compiled by Diplock LJ in Hong Kong Fir Shipping Co. Ltd. v Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd. [1962] 1 All E.R. 474 in the following words:

The shipowner’s undertaking to tender a seaworthy ship has, as a result of numerous decisions as to what can amount to "unseaworthiness", become one of the most complex of contractual undertakings. It embraces obligations with respect to every part of the hull and machinery, stores and equipment and the crew itself. It can be broken by the presence of trivial defects easily and rapidly remediable as well as by defects which must inevitably result in a total loss of the vessel.

Consequently the problem … is, in my view, neither solved nor soluble by debating whether the shipowner’s express or implied undertaking to tender a seaworthy ship is a "condition" or a "warranty."

… whether that undertaking is a "condition" or a "warranty"; for the true answer, as I have already indicated, is that it is neither, but one of that large class of contractual undertakings one breach of which may have the same effect as that ascribed to a breach of "condition" under the Sale of Goods Act, 1893, and a different breach of which may have only the same effect as that ascribed to a breach of "warranty" under that Act.

The right of the charterer to treat the contract as discharged depends on whether the breach of the obligation to provide seaworthy ship goes to the root of the contract.

Thus a short account of the law as it stands is that the state of seaworthiness which shipowner is required to comply with, is relative to the nature of the ship and to the particular voyage contracted for. In Burges v Wickham (1863) 3 B & S 669, Cockburn CJ, at p.683, clarified that implied contractual obligation to make the vessel as seaworthy as she is capable of being made, must be taken to be limited to the capacity of the vessel in prevailing conditions and circumstances of each individual case:

… while, by the law of England, there is … an implied warranty of seaworthiness, the term “seaworthiness” is a relative and flexible term, the degree of seaworthiness depending on the position in which the vessel may be placed, or on the nature of the navigation or adventure on which it is about to embark.

It also varies with the particular cargo contracted to be carried, and with the particular stages of that voyage so on the completion of each stage she must have the degree of fitness which is required for the next stage(Read more here: Doctrine of stages).

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