Defining ships and elephants

The question "What is the definition of a ‘ship’?” is not always so easy to answer.


As courts of various jurisdictions have found over the last 150 years or so, questions that are easy to ask such as “what is the definition of a ‘ship’?” are not always so easy to answer – at least for the purposes of invoking the jurisdiction of their courts to arrest a “ship” in relation to the “many a quaint craft” that have put to sea. One solution might be to take the position of the gentleman who dealt with the elephant by saying he could not define an elephant, but he knew what it was when he saw one. One might not be to define a “ship or vessel”, but one knows when it is not.

So, does the picture accompanying this article show a “ship”? It has no rudders or engines, is not capable of self-propulsion, without any navigational equipment or crew, navigational lights. It has three spud legs embedded into the seabed such that it could not be towed or moved without the use of an offshore crane. Insofar as it could be towed, this would be for the sole purpose of bringing it to the fish farm site. It does not transport any person, cargo, or object. Since installation at the fish farm it has become immovable and will remain so for the duration of its operative life as a sea-based fish farm. It will not spend any part of its operative life traversing the surface of the water. Further, the vessel is unregistered and not classed. It does not pay port dues or other charges to the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore.

Fishing for answers

This question recently came before the Singapore Courts. The central question was whether under the applicable Singapore legislation the vessel was a “floating craft of every description used in navigation”.

The case concerned the conversion of the dumb barge “WINBUILD 73” into a “Special Service Floating Fish Farm” (“ECO SPARK”). Disputes arose over the sums payable under the conversion contract. The shipyard commenced in rem proceedings against “ECO SPARK” and arrested it in Singapore on the basis that it was “[a] claim in respect of the construction, repair or equipment of a ship …” and that the court’s in rem jurisdiction over the “ship” or “barge” could be invoked pursuant to the High Court (Admiralty Jurisdiction) Act 1961. Both were challenged on the grounds that the “ECO SPARK” was not a “ship”.

The Singapore Court, after reviewing authorities from England, Ireland, Australia, and Canada thought that it was a ship such that the admiralty jurisdiction of the court was properly invoked. While the “ECO SPARK” did not possess some of the “usual attributes” associated with a ship, it did not regard the absence of those attributes as representing such a drastic departure as to disqualify the vessel from being considered a vessel used in navigation.

In doing so it thought that the definition of “ship” should be interpreted liberally, and different considerations may prevail for different purposes. The English authorities were inconsistent but what could be derived from them was that the irreducible minimum requirement is:

“the capability of the vessel to be used in navigation as a matter of its physical design and construction, ie, whether it is navigable and built to withstand the perils of the sea, irrespective of its actual current use”.

The navigability of a vessel is what gives rise to the risk and danger of it having the ability to be removed from a jurisdiction, thereby defeating legitimate in rem claims, which is one of the reasons a claimant would wish to arrest a vessel.

The “ECO SPARK” had the necessary characteristics because it was capable of navigation in the sense that it could move or be moved and was not unstable, unwieldy, and purely stationary. Although it was a fish farm it was built on top of the existing structure of the dumb barge, “WINBUILD 73”. It had been towed from Singapore to Indonesia for the conversion works to take place after which it was towed back to Singapore for delivery to the Owners. The basic design and structure of the “WINBUILD 73” remained unchanged. It was not incapable of navigation by virtue of being spudded down: the spuds could be retracted or removed and made navigable.

The use as a fish farm was not relevant. There was no need for people or cargo to be carried or for the vessel’s work to involve traversing the water regularly. Lack of classification, registration or flag were not determinative because the Owner had not maintained it in class and the Singapore regulator required it to be in class.


This article is shared by courtesy of Campbell Johnston Clark

For more articles abot maritime jurisdiction, click here.





Narjiss Ghajour

Editor-in-Chief of Maritime Professionals
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