Wakashio captain insists chief officer is to blame for grounding

In his third and latest appearance before a Mauritian court of investigation, the captain of wrecked bulk carrier Wakashio, Sunil Kumar Nandeshwar, has continued to insist that it was the chief officer’s fault that the vessel grounded last July, eventually causing a fuel leak that polluted much of an environmentally sensitive part of the Mauritius coastline.

The captain confirmed that he navigated close to shore to pick up a mobile phone signal so that his crew could contact loved ones back home. But he then said that it was his Chief Officer who ran the ship aground.

The 59-year-old Indian national said that it was his decision to manoeuvre the ship close to land “as a gesture” to the ship’s crew. The Captain noted that the crew was initially due for crew change on January 19th 2020, but due to Covid-19 restrictions, their crew change had been cancelled, and they were therefore working beyond the expiry of their initial contract dates.

Nandeshwar said that if Chief Officer Subodha Janendra Tilakaratna had followed his instructions, the ship would not have grounded at all. He asserted that the vessel’s course was altered, bringing it within 1.5nm of the coast of Mauritius.

Nandeshwar said that he had modified the course of the ore carrier to avoid a tropical depression and to pass as close as possible to Mauritius by heading for an artificial point on the French island of La Reunion.

Asked why he did not intervene to stop the Chief Officer altering course, the captain said that it was because the Chief Officer was an experienced sailor. He also stated that, although the Chief Officer had consumed alcohol, he was not under influence on the night of the accident. The captain said that the consumption of alcohol was allowed on board under certain conditions.

The Wakashio ran onto a reef off Mauritius’ Pointe-d’Esny on July 25th last year while en route in ballast from China to Tubarão in southern Brazil. Although the vessel initially appeared stable, a couple of weeks on the reef in poor weather caused it to break in two.

Nandeshwar noted that he had been a captain for nearly 30 years and that he had commanded some 20 to 25 ships, mostly tankers, before taking the helm of ore carriers. He said that he had never had any accidents before the Wakashio incident.

Mauritius’s Director of Shipping Alain Donat also testified on Monday February 22nd. He described the response after he was informed that the MV Wakashio had grounded. Donat said that the Government of Mauritius lacked the equipment to pull the ore carrier off the reef and was hesitant to take on the salvage on its own, given liability issues that could arise in doing the work.

Donat said he immediately contacted Scott Shipping, a local ship agent, to inquire about the use of the Coral Sea FOS, a salvage tug that has been stationed in the region in response to previous accidents. Donat said that the salvage operation took time because of bad weather and the remoteness of Mauritius.

He noted that equipment had to be sent by charter aircraft because local aircraft lacked the capability to collect it. To get from the local airport to the wreck site, equipment had to then be trucked to Port Louis’ harbour for loading onto the Stanford Hawk, a tug belonging to Smit Salvage, the appointed salvage firm.