Suez Canal Pilots – Lessons Learned from recent incidents

The recent report from the Panama Maritime Authority into the infamous grounding of the Ever Given in the Suez Canal in March 2021 makes for interesting reading not least in relation to the role of the SCA and its pilots in the grounding. Those interested in the findings can click here to read them.

It will be interesting to see how the Suez Canal Authority responds to this flag state investigation but the key takeaway is that the terms of any transit through the Suez Canal provide that neither the SCA nor its pilots can be liable for negligence. That sort of regime gives rise to inherent risks. How can one rely on an authority and its pilots when they are operating under such a disclaimer?

This is also not the first time these issues have been raised. Similar issues occurred in the incident that took place on 16 July 2018 at the same place in the canal. That incident was reported here, and BDM acted for NYK Falcon interests at the liability trial. One of the key factors on the NYK Falcon at least but also to some extent on the following vessel NYK Orpheus was poor communication between the pilots and the bridge team. In fact, on the NYK Falcon the SCA pilots were reassuring the Master that all was well while at the same time discussing in Arabic the dangers that they saw ahead.

It is easy to consider the aftermath of an incident with the benefit of hindsight and overlook the fact that the bridge team on any vessel transiting the canal may be under pressure to follow the advice being given to them. Pilotage is compulsory and the SCA’s primary goal is to keep traffic moving. That can lead to dangerous situations. The lesson for Masters is to always question the pilots on matters of concern and, if in doubt, slow down or stop. Naturally, stopping in the canal during a transit has its own risks so the decision as to whether to enter in the first place is important. Sadly, there is no other option for many vessels bringing goods from east to west. The canal is fundamental to world trade as we saw in the aftermath of the Ever Given.

Nick Burgess
Nick Burgess
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