To politicians, the 'Prestige' captain is a villain. To seafarers, he is a hero

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The Independent Online

He is pushing 70, a humble Greek skipper serving his last voyages on creaking old rust-buckets hauling the world's filthiest cargoes across the high seas. For more than a year he has been vilified as the man responsible for Europe's worst ecological catastrophe. But the man cast as the villain of the tale is hailed by fellow seafarers worldwide as a hero.

Apostolos Mangouras, captain of the aged, single-hulled tanker Prestige which sank and spilled 77,000 tons of toxic filth on Europe's western shores, has been nominated by international maritime professionals for their top award as an exemplary seaman.

As he awaits trial charged with responsibility for the Prestige disaster, Captain Mangouras has been named as candidate for Shipmaster of the Year. The award honours outstanding seamanship and is granted annually by the leading professional body for international mariners, the Nautical Institute in London, in association with Lloyd's List, a maritime bible for more than 300 years. The award is considered the most distinguished honour in the nautical world.

The captain is in Barcelona, where he must report to police every day. Captain Mangoulas was detained in the Galician port of Coruna in November, 2002, after being winched by helicopter from his sinking ship. He was freed in February 2003, after London Steamship, insurers for the Prestige, paid €3m (£2m) bail.

The Prestige still spews forth its stinking trail: oil from its tanks washed up on French shores this week, and Euro MPs in Strasbourg called yesterday for stiff fines for ships illegally dumping toxic fuel at sea, in an effort to prevent similar disasters. Their draft law condemns port authorities who refuse anchorage to ships in distress. The main cause of damage wreaked by the Prestige was failure to pull it into port to control the spill. Spanish officials ordered it out to sea.

Philip Wake, chief executive of the Nautical Institute, said yesterday: "Four judges, one from the institute, one from Lloyd's List, and two others will choose the winner who will be announced on 18 February." Mr Wake declined to rate Captain Mangouras's chances "because I am one of the judges".

A master mariner at the Nautical Institute who declined to be identified said yesterday: "We have a high regard for Mangoulas. The Prestige foundered for five days before the government took action. He was the last man to leave the ship."

The nomination cites Captain Mangouras's bravery in safeguarding his crew and righting his ship that listed in mountainous seas off Galicia's rocky coast. The citation says he risked his life scrambling across the slithery, slanting deck in a raging storm to attach the salvage vessel.

Spain's politicians accuse Captain Mangoulas of causing the disaster: the public works minister Francisco Alvaro Cascos called him "a criminal".

But seafarers in Spain and worldwide quietly rallied around the captain. Spanish merchant marine captains plan a gala dinner on 22 January in Barcelona to honour him on the eve of his 69th birthday.

When Captain Mangouras sent an SOS to the control tower at Finisterre, it was his first such appeal in 32 years as captain of oil tankers. He requested evacuation of his 27 crew, but remained on board with his first officer and chief engineer to try to save the ship.

Two days later he was rescued from the upended Prestige and jailed, accused of hindering the salvage vessel and causing the breakup of the tanker.