Panamanian straightforwardness

Organised by Maria Dixon, Shipping Consultant, ISM Shipping Solutions, London

The Panamanian Registry recently took the unprecedented step of opening the doors of its Casualty Investigation Department to answer detailed questions about its operation, Engineer Alfonso Castillero director-general of the registry, talks to Maria Dixon about the procedures , and guidelines aimed at ensuring the department is up to scratch in sensitive issues such as the investigation of casualties

The Panama Registry has many a time been strongly criticised for failing to meet its responsibilities over the reporting of accidents and casualties and for not being firm enough in its investigations and inspections.

On my latest visit to Panama, I had the unique opportunity to enter a world quite unknown to me: the Department of Accident Investigations, where a group of professionals are working 24/7 to ensure that all incidents and accidents reported are investigated and dealt with.


The department is staffed by a team of Panamanian professionals working locally and who travel abroad to strengthen the registry’s relations with the outside world, and feed the GISIS – the Global Integrated Shipping Information System developed by the IMO to allow public on-line access to information supplied by maritime administrations.

It is 18:00hrs, on a Friday, and Alfonso Castillero, the director-general of the directorate of Merchant Marine, is at his desk finalising his paperwork and signing documents.

Formally, the offices close at 16:00 hrs, leaving the 24/7 staff running the registry, but for Engineer Castillero, setting an example is very important, and it is not unusual to see him at his workplace well beyond office hours.

Mr Castillero, a Panamanian born into a family specialising in insurance and broadcasting (radio and television), decided on a sea career and studied marine engineering in Panama. After graduation, he sailed as an engine officer and for the last eight years he has been working for the Panamanian Maritime Authority.

During a month when ship casualties have been feeding the headlines in different ways, including the mysterious disappearance of the Panamanian cargoship Rezzak, I approached him for an interview. Eng Castillero freely opened the doors of the casualty investigation department and introduced me to Gerardo Varela, the head of the investigation department, and his team.

I began by asking Mr Castillero how the department has been reorganised. He replied:

The Department was operating from the Department of Maritime Safety in New York, commonly known as Segumar, when in 2005 our Administration decided to transfer most of its personnel and their tasks to Panama. On March 15 2006, by official resolution, the transfer was formally approved and the Department started to operate from Panama under the Department of Maritime Safety of the Merchant Marine Directorate. After two years the resolution was amended to form an independent Department of Casualty Investigations instead of being under the Safety Department.

How large is the Casualty Investigation Department?

The Department is growing continually with local personnel. We have special investigators, experienced marine and sea-going graduates as well as administrative personnel. We also have 52 non-exclusive investigators worldwide; they are all highly trained and monitored from Panama, and aid the department in investigations further afield.

What is your criteria when choosing investigators and dispatching them to an investigation scene?

We always prefer using local knowledge at the scene of an investigation. An investigator who is familiar with the local culture and traditions, the local industry, speaks the language and knows the local area is in our opinion one of the best assets we can have, A lot of time and resources will be saved by sending a local investigator to the scene of a major investigation. The local presence not only saves times but could prove crucial.

All the investigators need to comply with the technical requirements as per our quality system.

Panama is a registry with over 7,500 ships sailing worldwide plus others not engaged in international voyages. How are you informed of the incidents and accidents that must occur constantly?

The Panamanian registry has a subscription to LloydsMIU (Marine Intelligence Unit) and we get constant warnings and updates of any incident on board Panamanian. Obviously, we do have other channels of information such as the large network of Panamanian consulates. We also have a large network of informants that constantly keeps the information flowing by alerting us at all times including weekends and bank holidays.

What happens in the case of very serious casualties? Does the department wait for the report from the ship?

No, obviously not. Our department acts immediately on the serious and very serious casualties. We usually act immediately upon receipt of the communication, and dispatch an investigator practically within hours.

Do the shipowners and crews on board have a procedure to follow in case of other problems on board?

Yes, they have to inform us immediately of any incident or accident by filling up a form with all the relevant information. Once we received the form, we enter a case number and inform immediately the Panamanian lawyer for the vessel. We are constantly in communication with all parties involved.

On the other hand, in the case of non-major incidents and accidents, we send, by email or fax, requests to complete a Preliminary Casualty Report. This preliminary report has to be received back in Panama within 30 days.

What happens if the ship fails to reply back a request to comply with a casualty report?

If a shipowner fails to comply with our request the vessel will become “frozen” within the registry, and no legal procedures will be permitted: that means that any change of owner, extension of documents, certificates, etc. will not be effected until the report is received. The vessel becomes isolated and the shipowner has to comply with the outstanding procedures, otherwise, the vessel becomes practically “idle”.

The latest world figures for 2007 have confirmed that Panama continues to be the leader of the world fleet. How do you monitor and maintain statistics of accidents for the fleet?

The department has an exhaustive database that provides us with a whole spectrum of facts and figures, from the type of accident, area, consequences, owner, year of build, shipmanager, place of accident, P&I, GISIS, Status of the report at the IMO, losses, survivors, fatalities etc.

What can you tell us regarding losses on the Panamanian registry?

During 2007 Panama had 56 very serious casualties and 84 serious casualties, based on the definitions in the IMO’s Accident Investigation Code. These figures represent 0.57% and 1.10% respectively of the total Panamanian registered fleet of over 7,500 vessels.

Panama always has been criticised for a high level of losses on bulk carriers: how can this be explained?

Panama has in its registry the biggest percentage (35%) of the world fleet of bulk carriers; therefore it is understandable that we are bound to have the largest number of casualties of this type of ship. Of course, this should not be construed that Panama has the highest percentage of casualties on these ships, and one should analyse the total worldwide losses.

How do you cope with tragic accidents, the worst example being the Al Salam Boccaccio 98 ferry disaster in the Red Sea in 2006, in which more than 1,000 people died?

The Al Salam loss was an extremely sad accident; actually I try to avoid talking about it as it is extremely upsetting to remember such loss and the circumstances around it.

We sent our investigators to the scene the day after the accident; the vice-president, the administrator and I myself also went there to open up co-operation channels. It is extremely difficult to give an opinion when a problem of such magnitude occurs, as everybody becomes an expert. Although it was very clear to all of us at the time of the disaster what the causes were, it was decided to send the VDR (Voyage Data Recorder) to the UK to have it read. The VDR was a very important piece of evidence; big efforts were made by all parties to retrieve it from the seabed.

Furthermore, Panama requested an independent study of the possible causes of the accident and the scenarios that could have prevented it, so we can double check it from an engineering and mathematical perspective. In the end all parties involved have worked together to reach a conclusion and learn the lessons.

We have also done similar studies and created electronic models for different cases such as the bulker MEZZANINE that sank in typhoon conditions off the northeast of Taiwan on November 2007. These studies represent a great advance for our department.

The results will be reported in the usual manner to the IMO through the GUISES system on-line. However, an example of follow-through actions is the immediate response of the IMO in approving for adoption at MSC 84 the draft amendments to SOLAS chapters II-1 and 11-2, regarding drainage of special category and ro-ro spaces to prevent accumulation of water on the vehicle deck of ro-ro ships.

The latest news of the loss of the Panamanian registered vessel Rezzak indicates investigators from India and Turkey are working on the case; what is Panama itself doing?

Within hours of the loss, we dispatched an investigator to the scene. The investigator is in constant touch with our department, giving us information on his immediate findings, and we are also in constant contact with the registry of India and also with Turkey. In situations like this when a ship and its crew is lost, we take it very seriously, and we leave no stone unturned. We ensure that the cause is known and lessons are learned. In this case, all parties are working together to ensure the facts are established. This is a terrible accident and our department is conscious that there are families waiting for an explanation; however without EPIRB signals, communications, or interviews of the crew it seems a difficult account to assemble.

Are you increasing the network of investigators?

Our Department is ever growing, and we are always interested to work with investigators and companies with experience and reputation to assist our registry worldwide. However, we prefer to keep our department very busy while maintaining the quality of each investigation. Presently, we are processing applications from different companies – one of those is from a well known company based in the UK – to become recognised investigators for our flag. We have also recently signed contracts with various international chemical and marine laboratories.

Also we have signed an agreement with Canada for mutual co-operation with regard to investigations of casualties and their study. This is an example of mutual co-operation contributing to marine safety worldwide.

How is Panama complying with the GISIS and the IMO?

Panama is one of the few countries complying with the GISIS. We upload all accident reports in the categories of serious and very serious, and at present we have in preparation 40 reports.

The public and the press complain that Panama does not reply to their requests to see the reports. Is this so?

When Panama receives a request it usually sends the relevant report.

There have been one or two cases where we have confronted problems with the timing in replying, although this is not usual.

Panama is member of the Marine Accident Investigators’ International Forum; do you go to their meetings?

Panama is one of the few Latin country members of MAIFF, and we attend their meetings. Such an organisation is an exceptional forum to exchange information and to widening the spectrum of knowledge. Its work is a great asset for any registry.

It is now nearly 19:30 hrs, well past dinner-time in Panama, we could carry on talking for hours with Mr Castillero, but time is up, I leave his office and walk past the registration department; people are still hard at work there: I understand they process over 100 registrations a month.

Going down a flight of stairs, I enter the Accident Investigation Department, where others are still working. Two officers are on the telephone, another is looking on a chart for a place I have never heard of, and another is filling in an instruction sheet for the director-general to approve an order to dispatch an investigator immediately. This department never stops.

The Panamanian registry is buoyant, with more than 168m gt on the books – which makes its office quite different to others where the office hours posted on the door really mean the time people go home. In Panama, the 24/7 regime means that the registry never sleeps.

© 2008 Maria Dixon – ISM Shipping Solutions Ltd.

© 2008 (Photo of Alfonso Castillero) Paul Dixon/ISM Shipping Solutions Ltd