“Places of refuge” – a priority issue for IMO

Maritime Safety Committee – 74th session: 30 May – 8 June 2001

Safety committee responds to concern over vessels in distress

IMO’s Member Governments have pledged to tackle the issue of providing places of refuge to vessels in distress as a matter of priority.

The decision by IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) to look at the problem comes in the wake of the incident earlier this year in which the salvors of the fully-laden tanker Castor were unable to find a sheltered place to effect cargo transfer and repairs for some 35 days. The incident sparked a great deal of concern about the provision of refuge for ships in distress.

The MSC met for its 74th session at IMO Headquarters in London from May 30th to June 8th 2001, under the chairmanship of Mr Tom Allan from the United Kingdom. Other issues on a packed agenda included the updating of the STCW “White List” and the safety of large passenger vessels and bulk carriers.

Work on “places of refuge” to begin in July

The MSC agreed to instruct the Sub-Committee on Safety of Navigation (NAV) to begin considering the issue of places of refuge at its 47th session in July 2001.

Over the next two years, the NAV Sub-Committee is expected to work in co-operation with the Sub-Committee on Radiocommunications, Search and Rescue (COMSAR) and the Sub-Committee on Ship Design and Equipment (DE) with a view to developing guidelines to help States and masters deal with a situation in which a ship in distress seeks a place of refuge. The proposed guidelines might cover the following aspects:

  1. action expected from coastal States providing “places of refuge” to ships in distress;
  2. the evaluation of risks associated with the provision of places of refuge; and
  3. action masters of ships in distress should take when in need of “places of refuges” (including action on board and action required by other ships in their vicinity, salvage operators and coastal States).

The issue of places of refuge was highlighted as one of many issues for further action in the wake of the Erika incident in December 1999, but it was the Castor incident early this year which brought the issue to the fore.

The Castor had sustained considerable structural damage in heavy weather and was deemed to present a serious risk of pollution and explosion. At the time, IMO Secretary-General William O’Neil called for a comprehensive review of the whole question of providing shelter for stricken vessels, suggesting that, in the interests of safety of life and environmental protection, coastal States should review their contingency arrangements so that disabled ships could be provided with assistance and facilities appropriate to the circumstances.

Welcoming the MSC decision to move forward on the issue, Mr. O’Neil said that while there were political and technical connotations surrounding the sovereignty aspects of the issue, these should not hamper the progress that IMO should make in providing suitable answers to a global problem.

“Taking into account the non‑mandatory character of the approach envisaged by IMO, I am confident that any concerns can be alleviated and that the matter will be tackled in IMO’s usual successful manner to the benefit of safety of life at sea and environmental protection,” Mr. O’Neil said.

During the MSC debate on the issue, delegates raised the following main points for action at present and for future consideration:

  • there was overwhelming support that the paramount concern in any action required relevant to the issue should be the safety of those involved;
  • the protection of the marine environment should also be given high priority;
  • there were legal issues (i.e. provisions of international law, in particular those of UNCLOS) which should be observed;
  • sovereignty issues could not be ignored and jurisdiction rights of the coastal States concerned should also be taken into account;
  • regional parameters/peculiarities might necessitate tackling ships-in-distress incidents on a case-by-case basis;
  • common inter-regional approaches might not be feasible given differing weather and other conditions, including coast configuration;
  • regional approaches might have positive and negative aspects;
  • the suitability of coastal areas might play a decisive role in a State's decision to designate or not "places of refuge";
  • the decision of a coastal State to provide "place of refuge" facilities would be influenced by a risk assessment study of the situation;
  • certain criteria and relevant guidelines should be established to enable coastal States to decide on the designation of "places of refuge" and the facilities which should go with them;
  • coastal States should be provided with appropriate guidelines to assist them in their decision-making process and relevant operations;
  • shipmasters, salvors and others involved in disabled ships' operations could benefit from appropriate operational guidelines;
  • consideration should be given to neighbouring coastal States co-operating in relevant emergency situations; as well as to the involvement of SAR services at the national and/or regional level;
  • the financial aspect of the issue should be borne in mind and liability and compensation issues should also be considered, etc.

The MSC noted that the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) had already discussed the issue and agreed to also bring the issue to the attention of the Legal Committee for consideration of any matters relating to international law, jurisdiction, rights of coastal States, liability, insurance, bonds, etc. points of view.

The Committee also noted that, at a later stage and based on information by Member States, the Organization might consider preparing a “World Guide of places of refuge” for use by shipmasters, salvage operators and others in case of ships in distress and in need of such places.


The Maritime Safety Committee is the highest technical body of the Organization. Delegates from all 158 member States may attend. The main function of the MSC is to consider any matter within the scope of the Organization that directly affects maritime safety. It has the power to adopt amendments to conventions, such as the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS), Collision Regulations, Load Lines etc. It is assisted in its work by nine sub-committees which are also open to all Member States.  They deal with the following subjects: Bulk Liquids and Gases; Carriage of Dangerous Goods; Solid Cargoes and Containers; Fire Protection; Radiocommunications and Search and Rescue; Safety of Navigation; Ship Design and Equipment; Stability and Load Lines and Fishing Vessel Safety; Standards of Training and Watchkeeping and Flag State Implementation.