A Japanese safety report into the catastrophic grounding of the bulk carrier Wakashio has revealed that the crew sailed dangerously close to the Mauritius coastline to pick up a phone signal multiple times prior to the incident.

The Japan Transport Safety Bureau (JTSB) report highlighted how the 203,000-dwt Wakashio (built 2007) grounded 1.5 nautical miles (2.7 km) from shore in July 2020 after the master ordered the ship to divert to pick up a phone signal.

The ship broke up in two, leaking more than 1,000 tonnes of fuel, and causing widespread pollution in an environmentally sensitive region of the island.

The crew had originally diverted while in the Indian Ocean — en route to Brazil from Singapore — with the intention of sailing five nautical miles from the Mauritius coastline.

The JTSB investigation report included a letter from Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism to the Japan Shipowners’ Association which said: “It has become clear that even before the grounding the vessel had sailed close to the Mauritius coastline several times.

“The success of those experiences made the crew accustomed to taking dangerous behaviour.”

The crew had also diverted without a detailed map of the Mauritius coastline. The report suggested that if they had such a map the crew would have been more aware of the dangers and avoided the grounding.

There were some mitigating circumstances cited in the report. The ship did not have a flat rate payment satellite system that would allow crew access to adequate data to communicate with family back home. A key recommendation of the report is for the vessel’s owner to fit such a system to ships in its fleet.

The report also looked at the lack of interaction by the multiple companies involved in the operation of the Wakashio. The ship was owned by Okiyo Maritime Corp, a subsidiary of Nagashiki Shipping that managed the vessel in-house. The vessel was operated under a charter with Mitsui OSK Lines.

Prison sentence

Among the recommendations made in the report, the charterer was advised to work more directly with the owners on safety management. The owner was told it should instruct crew not to take on dangerous actions for personal reasons. The ship’s owner was advised to take regular reports from its masters on vessel positions.

A criminal court in Mauritius sentenced the Wakashio master, 58-year-old Sunil Kumar Nandeshwar, and 45-year-old chief officer Hitihanillage Subhoda Janendra, to 20 months in prison for endangering the safe operation of the ship.

The men were released in consideration of the time they had already served in custody awaiting trial.

After the grounding, the Wakashio broke in two. The forward section was scuttled at sea, while the aft section was broken up and removed.