On the night of Monday 29 August 2022, the vessels “OS 35” and “ADAM LNG” collided during the manoeuvre out of the Bay of the Port of Gibraltar.
What happened was a textbook collision, as there was physical contact between the two ships and certain damage was caused after the collision: ‘Collision is defined as a collision involving ships, vessels or naval craft, resulting in damage to any of them, persons or things’.
In this regard, the Brussels International Convention of 23 September 1910, for the Unification of Certain Rules Relating to Collision, states that its consequence extends: “to compensation for damage which, either by execution or omission of a manoeuvre, or by non-observance of the regulations, a vessel causes to another vessel or to persons or things on board the latter, even if there has not been collision”, demanding as an indispensable requirement to determine that a accident between two vessels is collision, that damage is caused. For its part, the Spanish Maritime Navigation Act of 2014 complements this legal concept, extending its regime to damages produced in navigation accidents in which there has been physical contact or not, such as those that may be suffered in the event of omission or execution of a manoeuvre.
Fortunately, and despite the seriousness of the events, it should be noted that there were no fatalities. The ship that suffered the most damage, the bulkcarrier “OS 35”, ran aground near the port in shallow waters, precisely to avoid putting the safety of its crew at risk, to avoid polluting spills, and to affect the situation of the cargo as little as possible.
Nevertheless, from an environmental point of view, significant risks were caused because, contrary to the initial information given by the “OS 35”, the vessel was indeed suffering from small fuel oil leaks. These leaks, after intense work by experts, were identified and sealed after several days. This situation has undoubtedly also had an impact in Spain, and in particular in the Campo de Gibraltar area.
Although a priori, by analysing the trajectory of the ships involved, it might seem easy to identify who is responsible, it is not always easy to delimit. In those cases, in which the fault is shared by both ships, both the 1910 Convention and the Spanish Maritime Navigation Act provide for a system of graduation of liability; that is to say, a system of graduation in proportion to the degree of fault actually produced by each ship, the only exception being the case in which it is impossible to determine the degree of fault of each party. Only in that case would the presumption of liability of the shipowners in equal shares come into play.
Leaving aside the responsibilities yet to be delimited and possible administrative sanctions that the vessels or their owners may receive, more than a month after the accident we can affirm that one of the most controversial aspects of this incident has been precisely the determination of sovereignty over the waters in which it occurred, which is not clearly defined.
This collision has particularly affected the United Kingdom (Gibraltar) and the Kingdom of Spain, both signatories to the Treaty of Utrecht. The acceptance of this Treaty by both states determines the mutual acceptance that Gibraltar, together with its port (castle, city, inland waters and harbour), are under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom. However, what it does not determine, and what Spain therefore objects to, is that Gibraltar can generate maritime spaces outside its jurisdiction.
But we should not forget that, regardless of which state ultimately determines sovereignty over the waters in which the incident occurred, international law imposes an obligation on both states to cooperate, inter alia to protect and preserve the marine environment (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).
The gas tanker “ADAM LNG” is currently sailing normally after having entrusted its emergency repairs to a Spanish shipyard. However, the vessel “OS 35”, which undoubtedly bore the brunt of the collision, and which has been the subject of full public attention due to its spectacular situation, is still being managed by the Gibraltarian authorities after being sunk and stabilised in a controlled manner so that it cannot move and turn with the waves, the tide and/or the wind. As of today, it remains in position after having discharged all its fuel, as well as the polluting substances it had on board, but there is still much to be done and decided on this collision.
This, however, has reminded us of the relevance and magnitude of merchant ships and their mission, carrying out complex and risky work daily as they sail the world’s waters.