On Ports of Refuge

Vessels in an emergency or dangerous situation while underway, whether due to fire, capsize, explosion, collision, etc., require urgent assistance. This assistance may come from vessels close to the incident, as well as from the rescue teams and coastal state authorities in charge of the area of responsibility for maritime search and rescue (SAR area) in which the vessel is located.

However, once human lives have been saved (always in compliance with SOLAS convention) and the damage and risks have been assessed, the affected vessel will most likely initiate the appropriate procedure to request the ship’s refuge in an appropriate place.

Although historically it has been understood that a place of refuge should correspond to a port, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) changed this interpretation and broadened the term place of refuge to cover all places where ships in need of assistance can take the necessary measures to stabilise their condition or situation, be they berths, anchorages, ports or any other place.

The procedure for requesting refuge in Spain is relatively simple, and special attention should be paid to the provisions of Royal Decree 210/2004 of 6 February, which establishes a system of monitoring and information on maritime traffic.

The Master of the ship, or alternatively, a representative of the operator or shipping company concerned must submit a request for refuge to the competent authority of the country, in our case the Director General of the Merchant Navy, explaining the reasons why the ship requires refuge.

Once the Directorate General of the Merchant Navy has received the request for refuge, it will convene a technical committee comprising at least of the Maritime Master, the Head of the maritime district, the maritime inspection and safety coordinators and any other persons whose opinion may be relevant to the case; an example would be the local Port Authority in the event that the assessed place of refuge is a Port.

This committee will deliberate and carry out all the investigative acts it deems appropriate and may even go as far as to physically inspect the ship. It should not be overlooked that, in the first instance, the provision of a place of refuge may pose a serious danger, either by causing pollution, port congestion, etc., so all requests for a place of refuge must be carefully considered. On the other hand, it is true that failure to provide the necessary refuge in a timely manner could also lead to the ship’s situation worsening to such an extent that the damage that could have been contained, or at least minimised by the assistance required, would be multiplied. This was the reality in the case of the Prestige in 2002.

The decision authorising access or refusal of refuge may be taken orally without undue formality; however, it must always be communicated to the persons concerned in writing and duly reasoned within a period of less than 96 hours.

Furthermore, practice has shown that authorisation to give refuge to a ship in need of assistance is to a greater or lesser extent subject to the provision of a guarantee. The characteristics of this guarantee are mainly set out in the aforementioned Royal Decree 210/2004 and in the revised text of the Law on State Ports and the Merchant Navy, and as a summary we can highlight the following peculiarities:

  1. When the guarantee is required: The Second Transitional Provision of Royal Decree 210/2004 establishes that the provision of the financial guarantee will be an essential element to be taken into account when authorising the refuge. Furthermore, practice shows that the guarantee is always requested before the ship has been admitted.
  2. Perceptiveness of the guarantee: In this aspect, we can affirm that the provisions of the regulations and the practical reality of refugee applications are contradictory. Although article 22 of RD 210/2004 and article 299 of the revised text of the Law on State Ports and the Merchant Navy suggest that the provision of the guarantee does not seem to be mandatory, the reality is different, as practice shows that refuges are not authorised without the provision of the necessary guarantee.
  3. Purpose of the guarantee: The purpose of the guarantee is clear; it is required to cover possible damage which may be caused to persons, public entities or property of any nature by the ship, its fuel or cargo, as well as to cover expenses incurred in the application of preventive measures.
    The guarantee shall cover all damage caused during the ship’s voyage to or from the place of refuge, as well as during its stay in the place of refuge.
  1. Maximum amount of the guarantee: This limitation cannot be confused with the limits of liability, which will have to be determined in accordance with the regulations applicable to each case.
    Depending on the goods transported, the limits will be one or the other:
    • Goods with the characteristics outlined in Regulation EC/1726/2003 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 July 2003. 7,000,000.00 euros for vessels not exceeding 2,000 GT and 10,000.00 euros for each tonnage unit exceeding 2,000 GT.
    • The rest of the goods. 2,5000,000.00 euros up to 2,000 GT and 600.00 euros for each tonnage unit exceeding 2,000 GT.
    Given the urgency of these processes, establishing the amount of the guarantee is very complicated; therefore, the maritime authority concerned usually seeks to be on the safe side by establishing the maximum permitted limit.
    In the event that no damage or costs are incurred in the course of the ship’s refuge, as was the case, for example, of “Modern Express” in the port of Bilbao, the guarantee will not be invoked.
  1. Types of guarantees allowed: Article 22 of RD 210/2004 establishes that a financial guarantee must be provided in favour of the Directorate General of the Merchant Navy at a bank domiciled in Spain, i.e. the General Deposit Fund.

In addition to this, in certain cases, there is a possibility of providing other types of guarantees, such as Letter of Undertaking (LOU) from Protection and Indemnity Clubs (P&I Clubs). Generally, in order to be accepted, the Letter of Undertaking is required to be provided by a P&I Club with an “A” rating, i.e. the highest credit rating.

The acceptance or rejection of this guarantee shall be taken on a case-by-case basis by the relevant authority.

Despite the fact that requests for places of refuge are not very common in the course of maritime navigation or in the day-to-day life of the sector, given their importance and the extremely serious and urgent situations that arise at such times, it is important that maritime lawyers and other experts involved in these operations are properly prepared to deal with this type of procedure. This is in order to guarantee an adequate resolution of these incidents, as well as to provide the best protection to the parties that may be affected.