The stories and legends of Masters who preferred to go down
with their ships, even though they had an option to escape,
reverberates the minds of seafarers for generations and are
a source of inspiration. Not only the Masters, but history
sparkles with the names of many members of the crew who bravely
preferred their permanent abode at the sea bed with their
ship. The saying about the ‘Master going down with his
ship’ is not merely an ancient myth but it is happening
in the contemporary times as well. The heroic act of late
Captain Mahendra Nath Mulla, IN, Commanding Officer of the
former INS Khukri, who chose to go down with her on 09 Dec
1971 during the Indo-Pak war, is the last of this martyrdom
in the Indian maritime history.
cannot abandon ship too soon. He has a responsibility to his
men, but weighed always against to that of the owner and the
shipper. The Master has an obligation to preserve the ship
and make every effort to stop her from going down even while
she is sinking. If a ship is abandoned prematurely, the Master
is likely to come under the hammers of civil and criminal
laws for barratry. Barratry is an unlawful act or breach of
duty on the part of ship’s Master or Crew that injurers
the interest of the ship’s or cargo’s owners.
The helplessness of the master of a sinking ship has been
well picturised in the famous film ‘Titanic’.
Till the last moment the Master was standing on the bridge
rock steady, without loosing his cool and passed instructions
to all concerned to preserve the ship. He even gave his life
jacket to a passenger and refused to accept one from the crew
There may be minutes between the detection
of the sinking state of the ship and the sea closing over
the mast of the ship. During this time, the leadership skills
of the Master, or whosoever in charge of the ship according
to hierarchy, comes to play in determining the fate of the
ship and the crew. Before and if he has to utter those words
‘abandon ship’, he has to alert the entire crew,
instill confidence in them, assess the situation, fight the
fire, run the ballast around when listing, prevent seepage
from the damaged hull, close hatches, send distress signal,
shut down engine and power, prepare for lowering life boat
and initiate a hundred other action.
shipping law, commercial documents, admiralty manuals etc
refers a person of authority onboard a merchant vessel as
‘Master’. Onboard a war ship, he is the Commanding
Officer. The term Captain is a naval rank equivalent to a
Colonel in the Army. In the army this is a junior rank below
a Major. The Master has a special contract with his ship owners,
quite distinct from the agreement for employment of the crew.
He is in absolute charge of his vessel. In the early days
he was permitted to perform legal functions like burying people,
conducting marriages, ordering arrest, awarding summary punishments
etc. During those days when communication facilities did not
exist, ships were heard or seen only on return from the voyage.
Then Masters were having extensive responsibilities and authority.
They had the authority to use bottomry bonds and respondentia
bonds to clear off charges against the ship. Bottomry bonds
were used to obtain a loan by pledging the ship and respondentia
bonds were used to pledge the cargo. Now, with the availability
of communication facilities with speed of thought and transfer
of money possible by a mouse click, the owners take care of
such issues ashore.
These days, a majority of responsibilities
like cargo management, repairs to ship, victualling and bunker
purchase, freight collection etc are being handled by the
Agents of ship owners or Charterers from their shore offices
around the world. (And thus the billet of a Purser onboard
a merchant vessel has become redundant.) A Master can do anything
to protect his vessel and save it from hazards. He may call
upon crew or passengers to render assistance and disobedience
of such orders or failure to give such assistance shall constitute
a crime. The Master has authority to make prudent purchase
of necessary and reasonable stores and equipment for his ship.
He may pledge either his own or his owner’s security
for the purpose of raising money and when this is not sufficient,
he may resort to the use of bottomry bond or a respondentia
bond. The Master as bailee of the cargo has only the responsibility
for custody and safe carriage of the cargo. Therefore, pledging
of cargo to ensure completion of the voyage would come within
cargo owner’s interests.
The bills of lading are signed by or on
behalf of the Master. It is the duty of the Master to see
that the goods confirm with the description in the bill regarding
the ‘apparent good order and condition’ and they
have been actually landed onboard. These days, considering
the practical problems, bills of ladings are being signed
by the company’s representatives. But this will not
absolve the master from his responsibilities towards the cargo.
When in distress, the master has full authority to act as
agent for both ship owner and cargo owner to initiate prudent
action including disposal of cargo, jettison cargo etc to
save the voyage. His liability is practically unlimited, and
he is fully responsible to the owners as their agent for any
default or neglect.