What exactly is happening, why and how are derelict ships with suspicious antecedents drifting to Mumbai's shores, so frequently; and more importantly, what can be done about it?
The media is full of reports about how yet another ship is gracing the Mumbai coastline, and reports seem to centre around how a small tanker, the MV Pavit, with a lower freeboard, does not look as impressive as a not-so-large container ship with high cubics and taller freeboard. There is the usual reportage, the expected pass-the-buck kind of response, and the truth of course lies somewhere else. Here are some facts.
# About a month ago, towards the end of June 2011/early July 2011, the Pavit, (IMO number 9016636) with a complement of 13 Indians on board, on a voyage from the Persian Gulf towards Somalia, reported engine trouble and sought assistance after being adrift for three days. Read an account of the rescue operation in the report titled, (Fleet Air Arm helicopter rescues seamen off Oman.)
# The seafarers were transferred to another merchant ship, the Jag Pushpa, and repatriated to India. The Pavit was apparently left to her fate in the waters of the Arabian Sea. There are rumours that the Pavit was acting as a supplier of marine fuel to Somalia to facilitate piracy activity, and that this was one of the reasons why the crew chose to abandon the ship. Why the owner, or the insurers, did not send one of the many ocean-going rescue tugs to tow the ship back is not known.
# The Pavit, in all appearances, is a well-maintained ship. It is not old, either, or decrepit. If an engine failure for three days in mid-ocean meant seafarers started abandoning ships, then probably a large percentage of the world's fleet would have been derelict by now. The simple fact that the Pavit after she was abandoned did not sink, means that there was some intervention by somebody to ensure that she stayed afloat. This was likely by way of a tow as well as some basic minimal repairs in the reported leakage from the stern gland. Incidentally, stern glands leak all the time, and repairing them while at sea is a very normal and fairly simple practice.
# This time of the year, winds and currents do not push ships southwards down from the Omani coast towards India. Quite the opposite, actually, as any basic knowledge of what happens during the south-west monsoon will reveal. Even if it has drifted due to some freak weather, the prevailing tendency would have been to move towards the Gulf of Kutch. To reach without any assistance the coast of Mumbai is absolutely impossible.
# There is no information from the Director General of Shipping on whether an inquiry or investigation was carried out on the Indian crew and complement of the Jag Pushpa as well as the Pavit when they landed in India. There is no information on who the registered agents for the Pavit were, what information they may have provided about the status of the ship after it was abandoned, and most importantly, what attempts were being made, if any, to regain control of the Pavit.
So, what could have been done?
# A dead ship drifting around in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world is certain to have been noticed by a vast variety of ships and reported in. Especially if she was not transmitting any recognition signals on her AIS (automatic identification signals). However, if she was transmitting her AIS, then certainly there was somebody, somewhere who was tracking her as she got closer and closer to the Indian coast; this is standard operating procedure for owners and insurers.
# One of the easiest measures would be for satellite tracking of all ships which are within 12 miles, or even more, of the Indian coast. This data is freely available. The big question is which agency will take this data, analyse it, spot the odd ones out which are not transmitting their AIS signals, or are too close without any business to be there? A proposal that seafarers, who are between exams, to be deputed to handle such information under a Vessel Tracking Scheme has been hanging fire for decades now, as the assorted ministries still try to get their act together.
# Rescue co-ordination, even if done in the Indian Ocean by a British warship, is monitored in India. The Jag Pushpa, by law, is supposed to provide full information on the episode to the Indian authorities. This information then becomes the core of an inquiry and investigation, especially since the seafarers on the Pavit were also Indians, and this could easily have provided ample advance information on the true antecedents of the Pavit as well as the shape of things to come.
Interim, on the basis of educated opinion as well as circumstantial evidence, it can safely be surmised that this ship, also, was somehow brought to within miles of the Mumbai coast and then released. That it landed on the coast of Juhu and not somewhere else, is more a question of nature favouring us again than anything else.