Safe Port Umm Qasr. 11 days aground. Last updated 09-Jun-2015

…it is obvious that if it is unsafe or (perhaps) the owner has good reason to doubt its safety, he may possibly be entitled on the ground of other provisions or considerations of the contract between the parties to refuse to proceed. In either case, of course, the owner takes the risk of being able to establish a legitimate basis for his refusal. Thus it might be that what entitles the owner to refuse to proceed is that an order to go to an unsafe berth is an illegitimate order not because of any implied warranty of safety but because of an obligation not to nominate an impossible port (or berth) which, if persisted in, might amount to a repudiation, or at least to a frustration of the contract.
Mediterranean Salvage & Towage Ltd v Seamar Trading & Commerce Inc (The Reborn) [2009] EWCA Civ 531, per Rix LJ at para 58.

Port of Umm Qasr, year 2009.

This story happened some years ago, so there is a fair chance that things at Umm Qasr are better (or much better) today then they were in May of 2009. Anyway, my goal is not to discuss or grudge someone’s fault but to show all events as I saw them at that time, describe my actions and results achieved. Most probably that someone in my place would have acted differently and were more successful.

Position and function. 9.235

The Iraqi port of Umm Qasr (30° 03´N 47° 56´E) is situated on the W bank of Khawr Umm Qasr. The port is the main general cargo port of Iraq, also handling grain, cement, containers and RoRo cargoes.

Admiralty Sailing Directions.
Persian Gulf Pilot. NP 63, 14th edition 2008.

Product tanker under my command was of 35,800mts summer deadweight and she was ordered to load 16,565mts of gasoil in Ruwais, UAE, for draft of 6.85m EK in BW Umm Qasr. SW Draft of 6.85m was our draft with full immersion of propeller, so 6.85m BWAD was even less than normal ballast draft. Vessel was on time-charter to one prominent tanker operator (acting as disponent owners) and further sub-chartered for this voyage.

Information available

From disponent owners (i.e. timecharterers) side I was provided with the tide table at Umm Qasr (see below) together with loading/discharging orders.


Vessel was expected to discharge her cargo during 10-11 days, with ETA 04 May 2009. From table it was evident that at some time vessel has to leave berth because vessel should not have enough water for our min/max draft of 6.85m.

Limiting Conditions. Controlling depth 9.240

The maximum arrival draught at the channel is 11.5m. Mariners should navigate with extreme caution and seek assistance and information from the port authorities, and consult the latest Admiralty Notices to Mariners.

Deepest and longest berth. 9.241

The controlling authority should be contacted for latest information on berth status and alongside depths.

Admiralty Sailing Directions.
Persian Gulf Pilot. NP 63, 14th edition 2008.

Apart from this concern, some more questions begun to accumulate when I looked at information available in pilot book NP63B and checked depth alongside of this berth #11 on chart (see picture below).


One can suggest that local agent could have assisted me that time with local knowledge and accurate information. But that was not a case. Voyage charterers and disponent owners (time charterers) have had different agents. One from voyage charterers side was representing cargo receivers. This agent never came on board and no messages I received from him neither before, during discharging or at any other time. Another agent, one from the owners’ side was also not very helpful, he was situated in Basrah and has no local knowledge of Umm Qasr port.

Further developments

So, as probably many other masters in my place, I’ve had a bad feeling about all this business in general and about depth at the berth in particular. Therefore when received orders to load vessel ‘ALWAYS COMPATIBLE WITH PORTS AND DRAFT LIMITATIONS BOTH LOAD AND DISCHARGE,’ I sent to all parties the following message:

Please note that no information about safe depth at tanker (petroleum) berth neither in Umm Qasr nor in Khor al Zubair is available from official sources like pilot book NP63, charts and guide to ports. No any information about any tanker (petroleum) berth at either port is actually available. Therefore, I, Igor Sterzhantov, the master of m/t ‘…’, will endeavour to load quantity of 16,565 mts max of gasoil, always subject to charterers’ duty to provide safe berth on arrival at discharge port, and reserve my right to refuse to go alongside the berth nominated, and/or remain there if, because of my adherence to the charterers’ instructions, on arrival at either Umm Qasr or Khor al Zubair vessel’s draft will be more than safe draft at said nominated berth.

Instead of clear answer to my question I was given mobile numbers of some local gentlemen, captains such and such, chief of berth#11, agent representative and some port representative. Without big expectations I called some of them and through bad line and by way of very bad English could understand only that generally everything is OK in Umm Qasr; depth good, port good, all good… And of course nobody sent anything in written.

To prompt some positive action from sub-charterers I sent another message when at anchor:

Please advise document requirements, arrival procedures and time table of high-low water at the berth during anticipated stay alongside. Be notified that without full and clear information regarding entrance passage to the berth and water depth while discharging vessel WILL NOT, I REPEAT, WILL NOT PROCEED INSIDE.

I also sent to disponent owners printout of charted depth alongside, stressing their attention that it shows only 3.4m. Head-owners backed me up same day in the following words:

With ref to below master’s mail owners regret to learn that attending agency (whichever) is not at all following master’s request for clear tidal/port information nor giving any assistance respectively clear instructions to the master.

View above owners have no choice but to keep charterers fully responsible for all costs and consequences which might arise from agents/charterers failure of not giving clear information /instructions to the master.

It goes without saying that master will not enter the port until clear tidal/draft/port information have been given.

And finally sub-charterers replied that:

We note owners last which we forwarded to agents. As an observation, from the guide to Port Entry which owners included with their message, we note the depth of water on berth 11 is 8.0 to 9.0 m.

As an observation, from my side, "Guide to port entry" is not so very reliable guidance as many of masters know. 15-20 years ago, this guide was almost completely based on someone’s previous experience, so it was like a collection of captains letters to editor, sometimes with quite accurate information, sometimes not. As to Umm Qasr port all information represented in guide was subject to such notice: ‘We are unable to verify the following information at the time of going to press.’

There was some further correspondence with many words but little of information and finally from my and owners (head and disponent owners) side I sent to sub-charterers a message that I consider that message (quoted above) from agent that depth alongside berth 11 is 8.0m to 9.0m as written warranty of min depth alongside.

Berthing and/or grounding

Vessel on 08.05.09 at 1112LT left anchorage and was aground port side alongside berth 11 immediately after completion of mooring operation on 08.05.09 1800LT, which happened to be evening low water that day. Sounding were taken between 1900LT and 19200LT on 08.05.09 shown that vessel lies aground by its left part of hull, approx from aft to midship. Slight list to starboard was also noted. After assessment of situation and communication with head owners berth was declared unsafe and decision made to leave the berth immediately and go to anchorage. This decision was supported by time charterers. At 2100LT notices were given to sub-charterers and their agents, who were responsible for tugs/pilot arrangements. Neither charterers nor their agent replied on my and head/disponent owners numerous requests. Therefore without tugs and pilot vessel had to remain at the berth. Initial depths around the vessel as taken on 08.05.09 were: 5.80, aft part port and 6.2m aft part stbd, midship 6.5m. Some mud from port side, was probably pushed out by vessel’s hull, so it can be said that estimated depth of water on 8th May was around 6m at the aft – i.e. more or less corresponding to charted depth.

That night around 50 tracks were gathered at the jetty to receive cargo, but no discharging commenced. I tried to get pilot and tugs until late evening, but it was clear that there is no chance to get in touch with an agent – he never replied my calls – and without agent it was not possible to leave the berth.

Sub-charterers of course expressed their surprise next day, that vessel was not able to get pilot and leave the berth, saying that ‘at no point did [they] as charterers prevent the un-berthing of the vessel.’ But all this was a part of game, which crystallised by the noon time on the next day, 9 May 2010. Some representative of harbour master, friends of agent and just ‘important’ persons of unknown authority visited vessel, have small talk with me, as far as their limited command of English allowed and left the vessel in silence. Nobody knew where the agent is and how to get him on board. So, by the language of silence and half-words I was told that everybody knows everything but no any movement from locals I can expect in support of my actions. Our gasoil was a vital cargo and was designated and actually carried by trucks to Bagdad, so no one would shift vessel outside.

The rest of this story very short – after consultation with owners, we decided to proceed with discharging at least to lighten the vessel. Discharging commenced on 09 May 1400LT. Vessel’s draft was gradually reduced up to 6.0m aft, but on the evening low water vessel was touching ground until 15th May.

In total it was utilised approximately 350 trucks to accommodate our cargo. Those trucks had to be loaded and then go 800 km to Bagdad, there discharge their cargo and come 800 km back. So that was slow and long discharging and then long waiting for trucks to come back. From time to time there were other delays like sandstorms, night gun fire and some similar events when no cargo operation was possible. Eventually vessel completed discharging and left berth on 19th May.

Fortunately, there was no damage to ship’s hull as under water survey, done in Fujairah, shown.

Instead of epilogue

If the safety of the port is in doubt, it seems better to suppose that the charterer must bear the responsibility of his choice, if it is a wrong one, and if the master is not prepared to take the extreme step of declining to lift the cargo because of the dubious security of the port. To place the master in the position of having to decide at his peril whether to take the risk of a doubtful port or berth as an alternative to refusing to come in and lift the cargo operates to the undue advantage of a charterer who in fact has named an unsafe port.

For if the master of the ship decides not to frustrate the entire adventure but to take the risk, then on that construction of the clause the master would, by his decision, relieve the charterer of all responsibility; whereas, had the decision of the master been the contrary, the charterer would, because the port was unsafe in fact, be liable for all the damage flowing from failure to provide a cargo according to the conditions of the charter.
Per Dixon CJ in Reardon Smith Line Limited v Australian Wheat Board (The Houston City) [1954] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 148 at 153

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