Master is a man not a mouse… Last updated 09-Jun-2015

‘… it is his duty, not only to navigate the ship in favourable weather, but to protect her in adverse weather through all perils; and even in shipwreck, to exert himself to save as much of her and her cargo as he can. However courageously or efficiently this duty may have been performed, or however great the danger he may have incurred, he is entitled to no extraordinary remuneration.
Lord Tenterden, Treatise of the Law relative to Merchant Ships and Seamen 10th ed., 1856

Every master handles daily bunch of messages, orders, requests, etc. Some of instructions rather simple, but some require careful attention and master often in doubt whether his decision to obey is a correct one. Understandably, there is no universal rule applicable to every situation but, as a general guidance, I’d like to offer citation form judgment of Mr. Justice Donaldson (later Master of Rolls Lord Donaldson) in Midwest Shipping Co. v D. I. Henry,(The Anastasia) [1971] 1 Lloyd’s Rep. 375.

In that case the master received orders from the charterers to return back to a port in circumstances where the master did not consider this advisable for various reasons, one being that, on charterers’ instructions, he had lied to the port authorities about his destination and another being that there would be insufficient water to cross the bar. Only after the order had been twice repeated did the master comply with it. Charterers claimed off– hire for the time lost as a result of the master’s delay in compliance with orders. The umpire held that there was no breach and the master had acted reasonably in delaying. On appeal in the High Court Mr. Justice Donaldson held that the right test had been applied by the umpire, saying that the master is "a man not a mouse", a person of certain standing and significant experience, so his acting or non-acting is a matter careful consideration:

In this connection it is important to remember that the master of a merchant ship occupies a civilian post. He is not the captain of a naval vessel who might well be expected to comply instantly with an order and seek verification or reconsideration afterwards. Furthermore, he is not receiving the instruction from somebody who is his professional superior, as would be the case in the services. He is the representative of his owners and also to some extent of the charterers. He occupies a post of very great responsibility, and he occupies that post by virtue of long training and experience. If he was the type of man who would immediately act upon any order from charterers without further consideration, he would probably be unfitted for that post. It seems to me that against that background it must be the duty of the master to act reasonably upon receipt of orders. Some orders are of their nature such that they would, if the master were to act reasonably, require immediate compliance. Others would require a great deal of thought and consideration before a reasonable master would comply with them.

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