March 31, 2005

Selendang Ayu captain makes guilty plea

Kailash Bhushan Singh, the captain of the Selendang Ayu, which broke in two on Unalaska Island in December, pleaded guilty Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Anchorage to a single charge of lying to federal investigators.

The Anchorage Daily News report of the case (http://www.adn.com/front/story/6328470p-6205102c.html) is worth reading, not least because it draws attention to a practice, known as "pocket miles." that raises a number of worrying questions.

The 738-foot Malaysian-flagged Selendang Ayu lost power and drifted 140 miles before it broke up, spilling more than 300,000 gallons of fuel oil. Six crew members died when a Coast Guard helicopter crashed attempting to take them them off the stricken ship. You can access the incident website here:http://www.uscgresponds.com/external/index.cfm?cid=912.

The Anchorage Daily News reports that, under the terms of a plea agreement approved by Judge Ralph Beistline, Singh was sentenced to three years' probation. The agreement centered on statements Singh made to federal investigators on how long his vessel lay dead in the water before he notified the Coast Guard. He first claimed the ship was powerless for 13 hours. He later admitted it was 15 hours.

According to the newspaper report, "the agreement and Wednesday's court hearing revealed new information uncovered by investigators about the days before and after the shipwreck."

While Wednesday's plea deal allows Singh to return home to New Delhi, India, according to the newspaper U.S. Attorney Tim Burgess says the shipwreck investigation is not over. Charges could eventually be filed against officials of IMC Group, the Singapore-based firm that operated the Selendang Ayu, he said.

"The ship was hired for $35,500 per day, with an expectation it would travel an average of 13.5 knots," says the Amchorage Daily News, "But if mechanical problems forced the ship to slow down or stop, its owners would be docked for the down time, known as 'off-hire.'"

Initially, the trip went faster than anticipated, says the newspaper. But Singh made false reports to the chartering company and in the ship's log books showing the ship had traveled fewer miles.

"The difference between the actual and reported locations is known in the industry as 'pocket miles.' If the ship eventually had to slow down or stop later in the voyage, the captain could use pocket miles and never report the slower progress--and never go off-hire, costing the ship owners money," says the newspaper report.

On December 6, when a cylinder liner crack caused the chief engineer to shut the engine down at 9.50 a.m. and notify Singh, the captain didn't log the time or location.

"Captain Singh knew that if he accurately recorded the engine failure his vessel would immediately be considered off-hire," the newspaper quotes the charging documents as saying.

"Around 4 p.m., when repairs still weren't complete, Singh put a false entry in the deck log saying the engine had stopped at 12:15 p.m., more than two hours after it had actually shut down," says the newspaper.

The newspaper says that in the following days, Singh told National Transportation Safety Board investigators that the engine stopped at 12:15 p.m. on Dec. 6, not the actual time of 9:50 a.m. and that, at his instruction, his crew confirmed the erroneous time.

But four days after his initial interview, Singh, who had arrived in Dutch Harbor "exhausted, in shock and grieving" told investigators the truth.

As a condition of his plea agreement, Singh has agreed to return to Alaska for court dates, hearings and trials if others are charged as a result of the investigation.

In a statement afterward, U.S. Attorney Burgess said Singh's case was "the first stage in this investigation," including a closer look at the issue of pocket miles.

"This practice, whether by a company or an individual, is a great concern," the Anchorage Daily News reports Burgess as saying. It can lead to false logbook entries that U.S. officials may rely on for their investigations.

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