In just over four years, the Russian-flagged Tecoil Polaris has been involved in an oil spill, a collision, an intervention by a maritime union when her crew was left without food, water, and any wages, an acrimonious legal wrangle over insurance claims, two seizures by separate safety agencies and a prosecution at Hull magistrates’ court. It was also recently sold under arrest by the UK’s specialist Admiralty Court.
The curious case of the Tecoil Polaris
Tecoil Polaris arrived in Albert Dock in June 2018 after being detained by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) having had her safety certificate cancelled. The enforcement action by the agency followed concerns over the competence of the master and crew.
The alert was originally triggered at Immingham where the tanker was being loaded with 1,655 tonnes of lubrication oil destined for Finland. After its cargo was discharged and loaded onto other vessels, an agency inspection found no fewer than 27 deficiencies, including:
- Not having correct navigational charts or a voyage plan
- Incorrect stability calculations
- Faulty navigational equipment
- Defective lifeboats
- False documentation relating to the work and rest records for the crew
- Unsafe transfer arrangements for the boarding of pilot crew.
Under the watch of the MCA, the ship sailed into Albert Dock in Hull the following day. It has remained there in a lay-up berth ever since.
New owners, new name
As it turned out, Tecoil Polaris was no stranger to scrutiny by maritime authorities. Just months earlier it had been involved in a large oil spill at the Finnish port of Hamina where a major oil refinery complex is based.
In late 2017, the 85-metre vessel and her 12-man crew had sailed from Hull to the Finnish port of Hamina carrying a cargo of 1,800 tonnes of used oil on her first voyage under new ownership. Previously known as Roschem-1, the tanker had been renamed by new owners STR Tecoil Ltd, an oil company which runs the Hamina refinery.
The acquisition of the tanker was viewed as a way of securing a steady supply of raw materials for the refinery. However, her new owners had no direct experience of shipping. As a result, they hired a Russian ship management company to operate and crew the vessel once it was refurbished in readiness for its new role. It also remained under the Russian flag and Russian port safety classification rules.
Before leaving Hull on her first voyage as Tecoil Polaris she had been subject to only limited condition checks by the MCA which did not include an assessment of its cargo handling capabilities. These were to become a major issue when it reached Finland.
An oil spill in Finland
Once berthed in Hamina, the process of discharging the oil began until the noise of a loud bang was heard and oil started flowing onto the deck from the inspection hole of one of the ship’s cargo tanks. The oil then flowed over the vessel’s low gutter and into the sea between the ship and a pier.
A subsequent report into the incident by Finland’s Safety Investigation Authority (SIA) revealed the ship’s stability had been seriously compromised by the way the oil had been discharged and the inexperience of her crew. In addition, it was discovered the ship’s discharging pump had continued to operate for 17 minutes after the first oil was seen on the deck. Ultimately, an estimated 500 litres of waste oil spilled into the sea.
After initially being detained, she was released by the Finnish SIA despite what it described as ‘discrepancies’ in the report of the Russian classification authority which had carried out the required safety inspection after its refurbishment. The Russians had concluded that everything had been in order.
Hull court prosecution
The incident in Hamina was enough to ensure the UK’s MCA was ready for the vessel when she made the return journey to the Humber. Just over a week after being detained in Hull, Captain Vitality Trofimov pleaded guilty at Hull Magistrates’ Court to a charge of breaching the International Safety Management Code for merchant shipping, in a prosecution brought by the MCA. He was fined £1,400 and ordered to pay £24,361 in costs.
At the time, the MCA’s lead investigator Mark Flavell said:
“This was an extremely serious breach of the ISM Code. In this case, the captain showed complete disregard for the safety of his vessel and crew operating the vessel. The intention was for this vessel to carry 1,665 tonnes of oil to Finland, which could have had disastrous human and environmental consequences.
“We hope that today’s prosecution demonstrates that we will prosecute those who endanger themselves, others and the environment in this way. Our message is clear – there is no room for complacency where safety is concerned.”
The court ordered the fines and costs should be paid within 56 days. That date came and went without anything being paid. By then, however, the story of the tanker had taken another bizarre twist.
Albert Dock collision
Just over two weeks later while awaiting arrangements to be finalised for her to be towed to St Petersburg for a re-classification inspection, she was struck by the marine research vessel Poseidon in Albert Dock while the latter was manoeuvring into position. The collision caused considerable damage to the starboard side of the tanker. CCTV footage also showed the port side of the ship being pushed heavily against the side of the quay by the force of the collision.
As respective insurance companies started corresponding over the collision, attention turned back to the non-payment of the fines and costs orders issued by the magistrates’ court in Hull. Eventually, a non-payment hearing was scheduled at the end of February 2019. On the afternoon before the hearing was due to take place, all fines and costs were paid in full, avoiding the potential seizure of the vessel in settlement of the debt.
At the time, Captain Andrew Phillips, enforcement office at the MCA, said, “This sends out a clear message: if you don’t pay your fines and costs, we will come after you and we will – if we have to – use the law to seize your vessel or other assets to cover it”.
Gordon Sewell, shipping and transport solicitor at Hull-based legal firm Williamsons, was also involved in the case. He said it was notable for being the first of its kind to rely on international safety management regulations for the shipping industry introduced five years earlier. He said, “The power of the court to detain a vessel, following conviction of the master, pending payment of costs and expenses, places financial risk on owners therefore focusing the mind on compliance. It is a very effective piece of legislation in the pursuit of improving safety”.
A month later, Tecoil Polaris was back in the headlines again and once more it was for all the wrong reasons. This time it followed an intervention by Paul Keenan, an inspector for the maritime union Nautilus, following reports that the crew had almost run out of food and water. After liaising with the MCA and shipping agents, he also discovered they were out of pocket too, having not been paid for months.
“The ship received provisions and fresh drinking water within 48 hours, and the crew received outstanding wages of just under $14,000”, said Keenan afterwards. “All the crew have been repatriated, although they again contacted the ITF Seafarers’ Trust from Amsterdam airport to say they had not yet received their final wages. They received their salary on their return to Russia.”
Poseidon v Tecoil Polaris
Meanwhile, insurance issues around the collision were becoming tangled. By June 2019, Tecoil Polaris’ owners had issued legal proceedings seeking damages, interest and costs against Poseidon’s owners, after the two sides had failed to reach an agreement on an out-of-court compensation settlement. The action included an agent travelling to Hull to physically attach a copy of the official claim form to the side of the Poseidon at her berth in Albert Dock.
The case was finally brought to close ahead of a final scheduled Admiralty Court judgment in May 2021 when the two sides announced they had agreed to settle the matter. By then, the court had already awarded Tecoil Polaris’ owners just over $525,000 and was due to consider a further separate claim for $200,000.
One of the reasons behind the lengthy case was the status of Poseidon. At the time of the collision, the ship’s owner Neptune EHF was in liquidation while the damage caused to its hull in the incident led to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency detaining it on safety grounds. Today Tecoil Polaris and Poseidon are the two longest outstanding detentions on the agency’s books.
Invasion of Ukraine
Meanwhile, the fate of Tecoil Polaris took yet another turn earlier this year when, as a Russian-flagged vessel, the question of its immediate future was raised by Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Speaking just before the UK government confirmed a ban on Russian vessels already in port to prevent them from leaving, he said, “It doesn’t make a difference whether this ship docked in the UK this week or four years ago, now Russia has invaded Ukraine, Russian ships cannot be allowed to head home with British oil”.
It’s highly likely Davey wasn’t aware the tanker was already the subject of a detention order by the MCA, but just a week after his comments international shipbrokers C W Kellock & Co announced it had been instructed to sell the vessel by sealed tender, as ordered by the Admiralty Court.
After two surveys were carried out, she was valued at between $190,000 (£157,000) and $250,000 (£207,000) but eventually sold for just $100,000 (£83,000) to an unnamed Turkish buyer. As yet, the new owners’ plans for her are unknown, but they are likely to include the option of re-flagging to allow her to finally leave Hull under her own steam.