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ARABIAN AMOCO v. HELLENIC LINES

April 28, 1986

THE ARABIAN AMERICAN OIL COMPANY, Plaintiff
v.
HELLENIC LINES, LTD., in personam and HELLENIC NAVIGATOR, her engines, boilers, tackle, etc. in rem, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: POLLACK

POLLACK, S. D. J.

The Arabian American Oil Company ("Aramco") brings this admiralty negligence action, in personam against Hellenic Lines Ltd. ("Hellenic"), a Greek corporation that owns the Hellenic Navigator ("Hellenic Navigator"), a general cargo vessel, and in rem against Hellenic Navigator for damages from an allision on February 20, 1981, in the Persian Gulf in which the Hellenic Navigator, with a 30-man crew, collided with and extensively damaged Aramco's stationary, unmanned oil well platform. Hellenic has interposed counterclaims on a negligence theory for damage sustained by the vessel. The issues were presented to the Court at a Bench trial. The issues of liability and damages were bifurcated and only the former was tried.

 Although extensive damages were occasioned to the vessel, and without knowing whether the platform which the ship had rammed was manned or unmanned, the ship proceeded on without stopping for several miles, until the damage to it from the allision prevented further travel; the ship had taken on so much water in its damaged forward starboard compartment that its bow was down substantially in the water, lifting the propeller in the rear of the vessel out of the water. Only then did the vessel stop and send out a distress call for help.

 At the time and place of the allision winds were from the northwest at 4-8 knots, seas were moderate, visibility was good, there was no precipitation, and the sky was partly cloudy, the moon having been at full two days earlier. Radar, if used properly, was giving a good picture miles ahead. Additionally, far distant, there was a glow of light from oil fields that were flaring off natural gas.

 I. Background

 On January 16, 1981, installation was completed for plaintiff Aramco's unmanned, single well oil field tripod platform ("platform"), Zuluf Well 88, in the Persian Gulf. The platform is on the high seas, 41 miles from the Saudi Arabian coastline, at nautical position 28 degrees 25'39.1" North, 49 degrees 23'29.6" East. This location is about 2 miles east of the charted area of the Zuluf Oil Field, between the Zuluf Oil Field and the Marjan Oil Field.

 The steel platform had dimensions of 44 feet x 32 feet, resting 33 feet above the water on three 36 inch diameter steel legs, joined by multiple steel cross braces. There is a steel "gin-pole" mast extending to a height of some 68 feet, nine inches above the water. The platform was painted a bright color, either an international orange or a yellow.

 Until the date of the allision, February 20, 1981, the platform's existence had not been reported to any navigational warning authority nor was it shown on any navigation chart *fn1" nor reported in any Notice to Mariners, either written or radio. Had its existence been reported to the Middle Eastern Navigation Aids Service ("MENAS"), and had MENAS followed its published procedures, navigation warnings would have been broadcast by MENAS 4 times daily.

 At the time of the allision, 2320 hours (11:20 p.m.), the lights installed on the platform to warn merchant traffic of the platform's location were not functioning because the batteries were dead. Although instructed to do so, the platform's contractor had not installed sun switches on the platform's navigation lights, which would have conserved battery power during daylight hours. Without sun switches, the batteries could not have lasted until the date of the allision, February 20; Aramco knew at the time of the platform's installation, January 16, that sun switches were missing. Nor was the platform equipped with a device to produce an audible sound signal to approaching vessels.

 These three deficiencies, i.e., lack of night lighting, lack of an audible navigation sound horn, and lack of notification to navigational authorities of the platform's existence, form the basis for Hellenic's negligence claims against Aramco. *fn2" The remaining factual discussion therefore relates to the more complicated negligence claims of Aramco against Hellenic.

 At 1045 hours (10:45 a.m.) on February 20, the Hellenic Navigator had departed Bahrain for Kuwait. At 2000 hours (8:00 p.m.) the watch was relieved by the 8-12 p.m. shift second officer; and shortly thereafter the master, Captain Nikas, came to the bridge. The master sent the second officer below to do some paperwork and took over the watch himself. The master remained on watch with an able seaman at the helm, steering manually, and another able seaman standing lookout, moving from one bridge wing to the other at regular intervals of ten to twenty minutes. These two seamen alternated their respective jobs hourly. No lookout was posted on the bow. The radar supposedly was operating on various ranges and the master supposedly was maintaining a radar watch.

 Hellenic Navigator had a Kelvin Hughes radar, with antenna 99-106 feet above the water surface. *fn3" This radar was the unit originally installed on the vessel when it was built in 1972; it had range scales from 1/2 mile to 64 miles. Using Hellenic Navigator's radar, if functioning and monitored properly, the maximum electronic range at which there is a 100% probability (using a formula) of detecting an object of the platform's dimensions is about 13 1/3 miles.

 Before the allision, Hellenic Navigator's radar had been repaired on July 26 and August 8-9 in 1979, and again on March 15, 1980. After the allision, the radar was repaired on April 20, 1981 (two months after the allision), on January 5 and on April 5 in 1982.

 At about 2231 hours (10:31 p.m.) on February 20, the Hellenic Navigator was on course 311 degrees T which was intended to take her between the Marjan Oil field to starboard and Zuluf Oil Field to port through International waters. The route claimed to be the intended path is a recognized seaway lane for vessels because of the need to remain out of the war zone declared by Iran in the Iran-Iraq war.

 Because the Captain erased the route actually taken, as plotted on the ship's sailing record, we are left without information as to where the Captain thought the vessel was actually supposed to be sailing at the time. Entries in the logbook did not necessarily establish what in fact was the case.

 At 2320 hours (11:20 p.m.) that evening, while on a heading of 311 degrees T, and making a sea speed of about 14 knots, the Hellenic Navigator collided with Aramco's platform. The unlighted platform was not observed by either the Captain, the lookout, or the helmsman on the Hellenic Navigator -- or so they said -- either visually or by radar, prior to the allision. The Captain said that his first awareness of the platform was when he saw sparks on the starboard side of his vessel and then saw what he thought was a floating object as his ship passed by it.

 The Captain of the Hellenic Navigator knew that the Persian Gulf contained numerous unlit and uncharted oil rigs and platforms. Indeed, this fact was widely known among those sailing in the Persian Gulf. Ordinary care therefore required added vigilance in this area to avoid these hazards, particularly when navigating near the charted oil fields themselves.

 After the allision, the Hellenic Navigator's speed was reduced. Although he determined that the object the Hellenic Navigator hit was not a vessel but a structure, the Captain did not determine whether the structure was manned or unmanned. Despite not knowing whether any men were on the platform or in the water, and, if there were any, whether they were in imminent peril, Captain Nikas did not stop his vessel to investigate what had happened or who might be there or to provide possibly-needed life-saving assistance to anyone who was there.

 After feeling the impact of the allision, the Hellenic Navigator's second officer came back to the bridge, looked in the radar and saw the platform's target. The second officer testified that about seven or eight minutes after the allision, the platform was about two miles away from the vessel. He further testified that the Captain then ordered him away from the radar.

 Forty minutes after the allision, the Hellenic Navigator's engines were finally stopped. The only reason the vessel's engines were stopped at this point was that the ship could not move any further. Because of damage from the allision, a massive amount of water had entered the forward starboard compartment so as to to force the ship's bow down substantially in the water, lifting the propeller in the rear of the vessel out of the water.

 The impetus of the ship continued moving it ahead for another 20 minutes and then it was anchored. When anchored, the ship was approximately 7 miles north-northwesterly of the damaged platform.

 The Hellenic Navigator was continuing to take on water in its No. 1 cargo hold. Captain Nikas, believing the ship to be in danger of sinking, sent out a distress call. He advised other vessels, inaccurately, that the Hellenic Navigator had collided with an unlit floating object in position 28 26.5' N, 49 30'E. This reported position of the platform is eight miles from the Zuluf Oil Field, whereas the platform was actually only two miles from the edge of the oil field. Subsequent attempts by other ships to locate the platform's position by radar were misdirected for a time because of this misinformation, either incompetently ascertained or carelessly furnished or, perhaps, the vessel was unknowingly off course at the time by that number of miles.

 A British tanker, M/T British Trident, and a Danish tanker, M/T Nicoline Maersk, responded to the distress call. At that time, both vessels were to the north and west of the Zuluf Oil Field. The British tanker arrived on the scene at 0048 hours (12:48 a.m.) on February 21, 28 minutes after the Hellenic anchored, and proceeded to circle, awaiting a possible rescue effort. In approaching the Hellenic Navigator, the master of the British tanker, with his vessel being so close to the oil field, immediately placed a lookout on the bow to enhance safety.

 While circling, the British tanker used its radar, two Decca 10 centimeter radars with antennas 150-160 feet above the water surface, to attempt to locate what the Hellenic Navigator had struck in the location furnished by Captain Nikas. The master monitored one radar and the mate the other. Using radar for varying ranges up to 24 miles and at a full 360 degrees spread, neither man detected what the Hellenic Navigator had struck, only about 7 miles distant. However, circling in the manner adopted, the British tanker could have produced a disorienting effect on radar detection. In addition, if the person monitoring the radar had suppressed sea clutter too much, small targets would be lost. Moreover, the British tanker initially was searching for a floating object as reported, and not the stationary platform, at the position incorrectly reported by Hellenic Navigator's Captain.

 The Danish tanker arrived at 0502 hours (5:02 a.m.), but was not required to stand by since the situation did not require it.

 The Danish tanker, in proceeding toward the Hellenic Navigator, used its radars, a 3 centimeter and a 10 centimeter, with antennas 95 feet above the water surface, monitored by its watch officer and its master, to attempt to locate what the Hellenic Navigator had struck, supposedly a floating object. Nothing was detected at first, despite use of the 6, 12 mile and other range scales. The Danish tanker was also searching for an unknown floating object, not the stationary platform, at the position incorrectly reported by the Hellenic Navigator's Captain.

 After passing by the Hellenic Navigator, the Danish tanker continued to search using its radar. At 0515 hours (5:15 a.m.) on February 21, thirteen minutes after passing by the Hellenic Navigator, it detected the platform, at a distance of about 5 miles, on both its radars. At 3 1/2-4 miles away from the platform, the watch officer, Mr. Green, sighted it visually with binoculars. At a distance of 2-2 1/2 miles, he could see it without binoculars because of light from flares in the nearby oil fields. Green calculated the platform's position as latitude 28 degrees-25'.6N, longitude 49 degrees -23'.8E. This information was passed to the other two ships and all three recorded it as the platform's position.

 The British tanker then plotted the platform's position and attempted to find it by radar but was still unable to do so, despite knowing where the platform was located. Once again, the problems created by its circling movements and by suppressing sea clutter could have been having an effect on radar detection.

 After it was determined that the Hellenic Navigator was not going to sink, the British tanker was released and it left at 0700 hours (7:00 a.m.) on February 21, travelling southeast toward the Marjan Oil Field buoy. At this time, the British tanker detected the platform by radar at a distance of 3-4 miles from it.

 The Hellenic Navigator was able to rectify its immobility problem by flooding a rear storage compartment with water, thereby balancing the water flooding in the front portion of the vessel, and thus allowing its propeller to once again enter the water. The Hellenic Navigator then proceeded to Kuwait.

 After the allision, and the heavy damage therefrom to his ship and the then unknown scope of damage inflicted on the object of the allision, when the ship made port, the Hellenic Navigator's master erased the vessel's navigation chart, which was the only reliable indication of the actual route that the vessel was supposed to be travelling. Although the given explanation was that it is common procedure, in preparing to begin the next voyage, to erase the old chart of the course being sailed after completion of a safe voyage, in these circumstances erasing the navigation chart was akin to destroying valuable evidence. An innocent and prudent master would not have erased the vessel's navigation chart after sustaining a major accident. *fn4"

 A. Ducting Theory Explained

 John Parry, Hellenic's expert, testified on the phenonemon of radar ducting, in which, because of certain atmospheric conditions, some targets may not be perceived by radar, even though a vigilant watch on the radar is being kept. If this phenomenon is present in the atmosphere, and a target therefore is not detectable, a "radar hole" exists.

 Ducting occurs when there is a warm, dry air mass over a mass of cool, moist air. The transitional layer of air between these two masses (the "trapping layer") produces a trapping effect on radar radiation. This trapping occurs because of refraction, which is the bending of radar rays away from their normal straight line direction.

 If the radar antenna and the target are both below in the trapping layer, the trapping layer does not adversely affect the radar's ability to detect a target and normally greatly increases the ...


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