Supreme Court overrules Court of Appeal on interaction of crossing and narrow channel rules in COLREGs.

 Evergreen Marine (UK) Limited (Appellant) v Nautical Challenge Ltd (Respondent)

[2021] UKSC 6

On 11 February 2015, the appellant’s large container vessel, Ever Smart, and the respondent’s VLCC (very large crude carrier), Alexandra 1, collided at sea at night just outside the entrance/exit channel to the port of Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates.

Ever Smart was outbound from Jebel Ali and had been navigating along the channel at a speed over the ground of 12.4 knots at the time of the collision. Alexandra 1 was inbound to Jebel Ali but had not entered the channel as she was waiting in the pilot boarding area to pick up a pilot, and was moving over the ground very slowly, approaching the channel at a speed over the ground of 2.4 knots, but with a varying course. Visibility was good enough for the vessels to have seen each other from about 23 minutes before the collision. For the whole of that period, the two vessels were approaching each other on a steady bearing.

The High Court held Ever Smart 80% liable for the damage caused by the collision and Alexandra 1 20% liable. The Court of Appeal agreed on both issues and on apportionment. Two issues arose on appeal.

1. The interplay between the narrow channel rules and the crossing rules.

2. Whether the crossing rules only engaged if the putative give-way vessel is on a steady course.

The Supreme Court in which Lords Briggs and Hamblen gave the judgment, addressed the second issue first.

The Supreme Court held that there was no ‘steady course’ requirement. In The Alcoa Rambler the Privy Council had held that the crossing rules did not apply because the putative give-way vessel (the vessel which would be required to keep out of the way if the crossing rules applied) could not determine that she was on a steadily crossing course with the putative stand-on vessel, as that vessel was concealed behind other anchored vessels until the last moment before the collision. Importantly, there was no opportunity for the putative give-way vessel to take bearings of the putative stand-on vessel. In the present case Alexandra 1 had been approaching Ever Smart on a steady bearing for over 20 minutes before the collision, on a crossing course, enough to engage the crossing rules even though she was not on a steady course. For the same reasons the stand-on vessel need not be on a steady course to engage the crossing rules either.

On the first issue, the  interplay between the narrow channel rules and the crossing rules, at first instance and in the Court of Appeal it had been  held that the narrow channel rules displaced the crossing rules, relying on The Canberra Star [1962] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 24 and Kulemesin v HKSAR [2013] 16 HKCFA 195. However, the Supreme Court noted that these cases concerned a vessel intending to enter and on her final approach to the entrance, shaping her course to arrive at the starboard side of it. They did not apply where the approaching vessel was waiting to enter rather than entering. The crossing rules should not be overridden in the absence of express stipulation, unless there was a compelling necessity to do so.

Here, Alexandra 1 was the approaching vessel, intending and preparing to enter the channel but, crucially, waiting for her pilot rather than shaping her course for the starboard side of the channel, on her final approach. Accordingly, there was no necessity for the crossing rules to be overridden as the narrow channel had not yet dictated the navigation of the approaching vessel.

That vessel could comply with its obligations under the crossing rules, whether it was the give-way vessel or the stand-on vessel. Nor did the crossing rules need to be displaced as regards the vessel leaving the channel. The crossing rules were only displaced when the approaching vessel was shaping to enter the channel, adjusting her course so as to reach the entrance on her starboard side of it, on her final approach. Here, the crossing rules applied and Alexandra 1, as the give-way vessel, was obliged to take early and substantial action to keep well clear of Ever Smart.

The Supreme Court unanimously allowed the appeal. Apportionment of liability would be redetermined by the High Court.

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