Actions of Mauritius Coast Guard watch officer under microscope in Wakashio disaster

A Mauritius Coast Guard watch officer has come in for criticism during the investigation into last year’s grounding of 2007-built, 101,932 gt, Panama-flagged ore carrier Wakashio (IMO 9337119) at Pointe-d’Esny, resulting in the worst environmental disaster ever to hit Mauritius.

The officer, Constable Ujoodha, looked at his screen only once even though he saw that the vessel was 11.5nm from the coast, when it should have been 20nm away.

He did see that the MV Wakashio had deviated from its course, but ignored it and chose instead to concentrate on other administrative work, the investigation heard

Constable Ujoodha was the officer in charge of the radar surveillance of Mauritius’ territorial waters at the headquarters of the National Coast Guard (NCG), in Fort-William, Port-Louis, at the time of the accident on July 25th 2020.

Summoned before a special Court of investigation Constable Ujoodha was criticized for his “negligence”. During the 180 minutes of his hearing, he admitted that he only looked at the radar screen once, at around 18:05 local time, about two hours before the ship grounded.

When he looked at the screen the MV Wakashio was 11.5nm from the south-eastern tip of the Indian Ocean’s island, 8.5nm nearer the coast than it should have been.

Constable Ujoodha said that he was not overly concerned because after the procedural checks with the Anti-Drug and Smuggling Unit and the French authorities on the neighbouring Reunion Island, the vessel was not considered as suspicious or a threat to the security.

However, when 65 minutes later he found that the ship was only 6nm away he asked radar station at Pointe-du-Diable to establish radio contact with the captain of the Wakashio.

The Chairman of the Court of Investigation, ex-judge Rafeek Hamuth, asked the officer why he chose to turn to the radar station of Pointe-du-Diable to make contact with the captain when the coast guard stations of Blue-Bay and Mahébourg were the closest to the ship. “It seems that you failed to assess the situation?,” Ujoodha did not respond. “You have not followed up with the Pointe-du-Diable station. You are admitting you were negligent,” former Judge Rafeek Hamuth said.

Constable Sujeebhun from the Pointe-du-Diable radar station, had indicated that he unsuccessfully attempted to contact the captain of the ore carrier seven times before 18:15 He maintained that he did not take his eyes off the radar screen, but that he did not think that the MV Wakashio was a threat. At 19:10 he called NCG HQ, alerting them there of the situation. In his opinion, the captain was probably busy with other communications, which would explain why he did not respond to his calls.

Marine engineer Jean-Mario Geneviève, one of Rafeek’s assessors, asked about Sujeebhun’s interpretation of the images on his radar screen. While Constable Sujeebhun maintained that the vessel was parallel to the lagoon of Pointe-d’Esny, Jean-Mario Geneviève reminded him that the screenshots in the court’s possession clearly show that the Wakashio was heading straight for land.

Between 18:00 and 19:25 no message from the NCG was recorded on the ship’s VDR, the Mauritius police stated in October 2020.

During a press briefing on the progress of the investigation, Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Roshan Kokhil had pointed out that this could be explained by the fact that the ship’s VHF was turned off, that the volume had been turned down, or that the NCG contacted the ship on a different frequency, or that the VHF antenna was disconnected.

It was not until about 20:05 that the Coast Guard station in Blue-Bay, near Pointe-d’Esny, was able to speak to the captain. The investigation has not shown any mishap from the NCG in the handling of the situation on the night of the accident.

Later in the Court of investigation, another officer of the NCG revealed that of the four radar stations on the Northern, Eastern and Southern coasts of the island, only the Pointe-du-Diable post was fully operational. A third officer admitted it was a member of the public who had alerted the NCG about the grounding.

A fourth officer based in Blue Bay said he tried to approach the ship on a dinghy, but could not do so due to low tide and high waves on the other side of the barrier reef. This officer has also been criticized for having tuned his VHF on a frequency used to communicate with the HQ of the NCG and not the one which could be used to get in touch with an incoming vessel.

Captain Alan Stephen, former inspector for the Mauritius Ports Authority (MPA), the organization managing the Port-Louis harbour, claimed that the Mauritian authorities did not take ample measure of the situation after the grounding. He regrets the fact that, although the ship’s captain revealed the presence of 4,000 tons of heavy oil on board, booms capable of catering to an oil leak of up to only 10 tons had been deployed in the lagoon.

Stephen, now a lecturer at the Mauritius Maritime Academy, asserted that the Ministry of the Environment was to blame for the oil spill, not the Ministry of Shipping. Stephen recalled a similar accident with the MV Benita in 2016 in the same region, and wondered why buoys with solar-powered lights were not installed in the south of the island.