Wakashio Saga Ends as Captain Returns to India After 16 Months in Jail
The captain of the Japanese bulker Wakashio that grounded and later caused an environmental disaster in Mauritius was released and returned home to India 17 months after the accident and after 16 months in jail. The vessel’s second officer is also reported on route to his home in Sri Lanka after being released from jail, while the other crew members of the vessel have also been released from detention in Mauritius. The releases came as additional details were released from the court proceedings in which the two officers pleaded guilty to “endangering safe navigation.”
Captain Sunil Kumar Nandeshwar, age 58, returned to his family in Bhopal, a city in central India. Through the Maritime Union of India (MUI), he issued a statement thanking the MUI, High Commission of India in Port Louis, Shipping Ministry of India, and External Affairs Ministry of India for their support and contributing to his release from custody.
During a December court hearing in Mauritius, Captain Nandeshwar apologized to the people of the country for the accident while admitting he had been drinking alcohol at a birthday party aboard the vessel. He told the court on previous voyages he had approached within five nautical miles of Mauritius to obtain cellular signals and on July 25, 2020, approved the Wakashio changing course to seek signals from on shore. He said the crew was concerned about their families during the pandemic and he wanted to permit them to call home.
The captain also told the court that he had permitted the vessel’s lookout to leave the bridge to attend the birthday party. The captain said he did not intervene in the navigation because he had been drinking at the party.
The vessel’s second officer, Hitihanillage Subhoda Janendra Tilakaratna, age 45, has also reportedly been released from jail on time served. He told the court that he was the watch officer at the time of the grounding, but that the vessel was on autopilot. Despite not having accurate charts for Mauritius, he admitted to not consulting the vessel’s echo sounder before hitting the reef. He also did not object to the lookout not being present on the bridge.
The magistrate in Mauritius acknowledged both men’s guilty pleas and apologies but pointed out that they were distracted looking for the signal from shore and failed to monitor their ship. She called their actions irresponsible and said she hoped to send a message in the 20-month sentences. She refused to commute the sentences to time served and ordered the men to remain in prison for four additional months.
Prison officials in Mauritius also have the authority to reduce sentences and they noted the good behavior of the men. Immediately after Monday’s court hearing, the port agent updated the two men’s passports and travel documents to expedite their departures.
Mauritius also detained the other crew members from the Wakashio as witnesses. The first officer, Robert Geonzon Secuya, and chief engineer, Pritam Singh, were released on December 23. Both men had been retained as possible witnesses in the trial but were freed when their shipmates pleaded guilty. Other crew members had been permitted to leave Mauritius in August and October 2021, more than a year after the accident.
While the crew has left Mauritius, and the vessel was removed, issues linger. Japan’s Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, which was the charterer, continues to provide financial and other support fulfilling its commitments to the island after the accident. Last week, the government also completed payments to the fishing industry, but they had been reduced from approximately $3,000 to $2,500 for each person during the negotiations with the insurers and shipping companies. The banks also deducted the amount the fishermen were in arrears on their loans from the payments. The fishermen have also been receiving grants of approximately $235 a month. There also continues to be periodic reports of oil on the beaches from the 1,000 tons of bunker fuel that leaked from the vessel when it broke in two on the reef.