Coastguards 'slow to respond'

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SHETLAND coastguards are criticised in the report for responding slowly to a request from the captain of the Braer for a tug boat, writes John Arlidge.

After Capt Alexandros Gelis sought towage assistance 'as soon as possible', officers should have broadcast the request 'by all available means'. But 'the telephone calls they made lacked urgency', the report says. It points out, however, that even if a tug had been dispatched more quickly it could not have reached the stricken vessel before the decision to abandon ship was taken. The report also expresses 'surprise' that coastguards questioned Capt Gelis about payment for the towage, further delaying the despatch of a tug, when they were not responsible for financing salvage operations. A transcript of a conversation between the Braer and Shetland coastguards shows that officials asked: 'Are your owners willing to pay the commercial rate for this towage?'

Capt Gelis replied: 'I don't know . . . I don't know if you can make arrange for the tug because just now I haven't contacted with my owners.'

Capt Gelis made several attempts to telephone the ship's American management company, B & H, in New York. The report concludes: 'The Master, having made a clear and repeated request for towage, became confused by the Coastguard question . . . It seems surprising that the Coastguard did not explain that they are not concerned with commercial matters.'

It adds that coastguards were not given a clear and urgent mandate to plan and organise efforts by tug boats and helicopters to attach a line to the Braer to prevent the vessel running aground. 'There should have been early contingency planning.' However, it points out, 'there is no evidence that the lack of planning contributed to the grounding'.

The report praises the coastguards for the way they carried out their primary task of saving lives. 'It is a credit to all concerned that the evacuation of the crew was successfully carried out: not only was there no loss of life but nobody suffered any injury.'

The Department of Transport said yesterday that it had taken steps to improve communications in line with the report's recommendations. Lord Mackay, the Minister for Shipping, said new guidelines had been issued to coastguards to relay requests for towage assistance 'by all means of communication'.

(Photograph and map omitted)