Seventeen months after the MV Wakashio grounded on the reefs of Pointe d’Esny, a village in the south-east of the Indian Ocean’s island of Mauritius, Captain Sunil Kumar Nandeshwar, 58, and his first mate, Hitihamillage Subodha Janendra Tilakaratna, 45, have pleaded guilty to endangering safe navigation under the Merchant Shipping Act.
Their sentence, which carries a maximum of 60 years imprisonment, will be delivered this on Monday, 27 December by the Intermediate Court.
The guilty plea comes as a surprise considering the captain denied any wrongdoing. Rather, he blamed his first mate, a Sri Lankan national, saying that the latter was in control of the ore carrier. Since his arrest, first mate Hitihamillage Subodha Janendra Tilakaratna also denied any responsibility in the accident. Two months ago, the captain complained about the loss of his personal notes after a botched escape by his fellow inmates at the Petit-Verger Prison, in Pointe-aux-Sables, where he had been transferred after an outbreak of COVID-19.
The Panamanian-flagged MV Wakashio left the Chinese port of Lianyungang, in Jiangsu, on Saturday 4 July 2020 and was heading for Tubarão, in Santa Catarina, in southern Brazil, when it deviated from its course by sailing close to the Mauritian shores on the night of Saturday 25 July 2020. The captain intended to get mobile phone reception so that his crew could use WhatsApp to communicate with their loved ones, the majority of whom having spent more than a year at sea because of the pandemic.
Alcohol was flowing freely on board that night, as a party was held for an engineer’s birthday. Unfortunately, the 203,130 tons behemoth that was supposed to be 12 nautical miles from the coastline ended up on the reefs 900 meters from Pointe d’Esny, highlighting the lack of control and responsiveness of the Mauritian Coast Guard. This point is currently being raised before the Court of Investigation set up to highlight the circumstances surrounding the accident and the preparedness in an event of an oil spill.
Despite the assurance given by the Greek salvage experts dispatched to the island, one of the three tanks of the MV Wakashio leaked on Thursday 6 August 2020 due to the effect of the heavy swell on the hull. One thousand tons of heavy oil spilled into the lagoon. With the hull threatening to break in two, it was a race against time to pump out the remaining 1,959 tons of fuel. The 300-meter long, 50-meter wide bulk carrier finally split nine days later.
In spite the fact that the French Minister for Overseas territories, Sébastien Lecornu, was not in favor of the scuttling of the 225-meter bow of the ore carrier, as there was a high risk of pollution of French waters – the neighboring French run Réunion Island being at 45 minutes flight away, Mauritius went ahead with the plan. The bow was towed 20 nautical miles from the Vieux-Grand-Port before being sunk in 3,180 meters of water on the afternoon of Wednesday 19 August 2020.
The day before, the captain and his first mate had been arrested and placed on remand. Based on the testimony of the crew, the Japanese company Nagashiki Shipping, owner of the MV Wakashio, indicated that the failure to follow safety procedures was the cause of the accident. The company has pledged to better train its crews and to ban the use of private mobile phones during working hours on its ships.
Indirectly, the accident also led to the death of four sailors on the night of 31 August 2020. They were on board the Sir Gaëtan, a tugboat of the Mauritius Ports Authority (MPA), the regulatory body in charge of the management of Port Louis’ harbor. The crew was asked to bring a barge, which was to be used to clean up the area affected by the oil spill, back to Port Louis. They found themselves thrown out in rough seas when the tug sank after having been hit by the barge.
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