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Will maritime officers investigate selves?

September 1, 2006

GOTCHA By Jarius Bondoc

A Special Board of Marine Inquiry, formed because the oil spill by M/T Solar-1 hit the front pages, began work this week. It has established the following so far:

• The motorized tanker set sail from the Petron refinery in Limay, Bataan, for Zamboanga on Aug. 9 laden with 2.1 million liters of bunker oil. Southwest monsoon (habagat) waters were very rough, weathermen had reported. Solar-1 held a certificate for 16 crewmen, but had 20 on board, and only 19 life vests. Yet the Coast Guard unit in Limay cleared it to sail. Ship captain Norberto Aguro took the shorter route west of Panay Island in the open Visayas Sea, instead of east where waters relatively were calmer. He said he wanted to save on costs.

• Off Panay’s Antique province, Aguro noticed the tanker pitching forward. Four other crewmen said it was listing to starboard (right side). Aguro decided to seek shelter at the anchorage of Iloilo province. But he did not drop anchor, either with the intention of continuing the voyage or because the motor room, where the anchor’s electric control is located, was filled with water. At the stop, the crew noticed that the forecastle deck up front was taking in water. Too, the forepeak tank, chain locker room, and bosun’s store were flooded. They pumped out the water and plugged the leak of a damaged air vent.

• The tanker restarted in worse weather on Aug. 11. Hit by five-meter-high waves off Guimaras Island in the afternoon, it began listing anew to starboard. Aguro ordered the pilot to head for safety either in Guimaras or Bacolod in Negros Island. Too late, the tanker simply flipped over belly up, then sank 600 meters to the seabed. Eighteen of the crew, including two Petron surveyors, made it to the lifeboat. Two others were lost at sea and are presumed dead.

• It turned out that Aguro’s certificate of competency (COC) as marine master was for general chemical tankers, not oil. He once held a COC for general oil tankers, expired in 2002. He never took a specialized oil tanker training that the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) had required for masters starting 2005. He had advanced training for chemical tankers, but the COC for this too had expired in 2002. Aguro, who has worked on Japanese chemical and LPG tankers, claims that a COC for such vessels is superior to an oil tanker’s. His employer, Sunshine Maritime Development Corp. president Clemente Cancio, assumes the same. Aguro has been in Cancio’s employ for five years. Cancio hired Aguro because Solar-1 used to be commanded by only a second mate. But Solar-1 has an auxiliary captain because Sunshine had suspended Aguro several times for violating Petron’s rule of using a tugboat to enter Limay port.

• Solar-1 last dry-docked on Jan. 7 to Feb. 24. Its tanks, steel plates, piping and welding works were said to be in good condition. There was rust in the ballast tanks, but inspectors had dismissed it as minor.

(Click Jarius for the rest of the column, Sept. 1, 2006.)

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