Laytime- Once Starts Can Only Be Stopped in Limited Instances

The MT Stena Primorsk [2022] EWHC 2147 (Comm) 

The vessel was charted for a single voyage (from Bilbao to Paulsboro on the Delaware River) pursuant to the terms of an amended Shellvoy 6 form. A period of 72 hours was allocated as laytime in the charterparty for loading and discharge and 68 hours and 54 minutes of the laytime had been used at the loading port (Bilbao).

The water depth at the intended discharge berth at Paulsboro was 12.19m. The vessel draft was 12.15m but the tide was expected to vary by 1.6m. Accordingly, in line with charterparty provisions, the master submitted a risk assessment and sought a waiver from the technical operators of the under keel clearance policy as stipulated in the charter form. The technical operators granted the waiver for the transit from anchorage and for the berthing. The waiver was issued on the assumption that the vessel’s draft was equal to or less than the draft of the river/berth at high water. The master was also asked to ensure that prompt commencement of discharge was discussed with the terminal officers.

The chartered vessel arrived at the discharge berth on 31 March 2019. The terminal informed the master that unloading needed to be conducted at a reduced rate initially. This could, in master’s calculations, mean that the discharge rate would be less than the rate necessary to maintain a safe under keel clearance. On that basis, the master took the decision to leave the berth (a short while berthing) and return to anchorage.

Another berth became available on 1 April and the master prepared a fresh under keel clearance calculation, and risk assessment and sought another waiver from the technical operators. The technical operators refused to give waiver on this occasion stating that the safety for margin was too small and there were not sufficient controls in place to mitigate the risk of the vessel touching bottom.

The vessel managed to berth only after a portion of the cargo was lightened on 4 April 2019. This caused a further delay and laytime ended on 6 April (10.24). By that time, a further 154.63 hours were used at Paulsboro, bringing the total time used to 226.63 hours. The owners sought demurrage in the sum of US$ 143,153.64. The charterers raised objection to the demurrage claim arguing:

  1. Two incidents (the owner’s decision to leave the discharge terminal within 12 minutes of berthing on 31 March 2019 and the owner’s refusal to comply with the charterer’s request to return to berth at 21.00 on 1 April) had the effect of suspending the running of laytime;
  2. The notice of readiness (NOR) given by the owner upon arrival at Paulsboro was not valid because “free pratique” certificate had not been granted.

His Honour Judge Bird found on both of these points in favour of the owners:                        

  1. The running of the laytime is suspended only when time is lost due to “default on the owner’s part, or on the part of those for whom they are responsible” (The Fontevivo [1975] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 339). This was not the case here as the owner acted in a way permitted and required by the relevant charterparty (the need to operate the vessel safely was explicitly specified in the charter and the contract made clear that under keel clearance was binding and not to be breached without consent). It was also noted that the power to grant or refuse a waiver of the policy was not limited in any way in the charterparty.
  2. The evidence indicated that there was no formal mechanism for the grant of “free pratique” at the discharge port and the port appeared to have operated a free pratique by default system, with decisions communicated if there was disease on board. Accordingly, the NOR had been valid.             

Comment

The running of laytime can only be suspended by express terms of the contract or if there is a “fault” on the part of the owners preventing the loading or discharging operations. It is clear that the “fault” does not need to be an actionable breach of the charterparty, but the present decision (in line with earlier authorities) also makes clear that no fault can be established in cases where the master takes steps that cause delay for safety reasons and such decisions are deemed to be “entirely justifiable” in the circumstances. In the present context, a “capricious refusal” to grant a waiver of keel clearance policy by the operators, for example, could have amounted to a “fault” capable of suspending the running of the clock but that was not the case.

The obtaining of a “free pratique” certificate was a mere formality prior to the commencement of the global pandemic and the finding in this case reflects that position. The matter might be rather different now especially given that some countries have introduced strict quarantining and/or testing requirements for Covid. It is very unlikely that in today’s commercial world we could easily assume that any port operates on a “free pratique” default system. And, in those instances lack of “free pratique“ certificate could prevent the chartered vessel from being regarded as an “arrived ship” which is vital for the commencement of the laytime period.