“The ship was cracked and they sent it out to the ocean. It was the worst alternative. They sent us in a floating coffin ... to drown.” - Captain Apostolos Mangouras of the Prestige
Mangouras breaking down in court, talking about the relatives of his crew
The outcome of an on-going court battle will determine whether our tears on the subject of seafarer criminalisation over the years have been, as I suspect, just so much crocodile.
As I write this, the surreal trial of 77 year old Captain Apostolos Mangouras is underway in A Coruna, a northern Spanish port city. It will last six months or so; a hundred experts will testify. Ten years after the tanker Prestige broke up and caused the biggest oil spill in Spanish history, prosecutors are looking to send the courageous Old Man of the Prestige to jail for twelve years. The charge is criminal damage of the environment and of a protected nature reserve. Prosecutors are additionally demanding 4 billion euros in damages. Also charged are the Greek Chief Engineer Nikolaos Argyropoulos and untraceable Filipino Chief Officer Irineo Maloto, besides Jose Luis Lopez-Sors of Spain, who ordered the leaking tanker out to sea in a storm.
The real culprits have not been charged, of course. Officials of at least three European countries directly responsible for the disaster, for a start. Outside the court in A Coruna, Greenpeace activists have hung a huge banner with photographs of politicians that so many believe remain criminally responsible for the incident. It says, starkly, “Where are the guilty?” One of the photographs is of the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who was Deputy PM at the time the Prestige broke up. Three governments of the time- Spanish, French and Portuguese- refused entry to the ship against all international laws and against all good sense; the loss of integrity and the subsequent breakup of the Prestige thus became inevitable, as did the huge environmental damage. Those governments- led by Spain- should be in the dock today, not Mangouras.
The 26 year old Bahamas registered tanker had 77,000 tonnes of fuel cargo aboard in November 2002 when it sent out a distress in a storm off the north western Spanish coast. Against the advice of its own contingency plans drawn up by its own experts, the Spanish government ordered the ship out to sea instead of bringing it into harbour, where the oil would have been contained, the ship saved and the eventual catastrophe prevented.
The Prestige, sent out to die by the stupid, drifted for six days in the Atlantic in 8 metre high waves in a Force 10 storm off Cape Finisterre, leaking oil, listing incrementally on her way to sinking. She would eventually snap and go down a hundred and fifty miles off the coast, spilling 50,000 tonnes of oil that drifted into - and onto- the coast.
Capt. Mangouras had warned that the Prestige would break up unless given refuge, but France and Portugal refused or dithered, and Spain went about its illegal- or should it be criminal- actions, forcing the vessel out to sea and to her grave. With the ship listing twenty five degrees in a storm, the lifeboats inoperational and some of the officers and crew panicking, Mangouras’ conduct- by all accounts- was exemplary. He remained on board and organised the crew’s evacuation by helicopter even while the ship was breaking up from under his feet.
"In the midst of the panic, with the tanker listing at a speed that would sink it, and in a fierce storm, Mangouras kept a cool head," said Spanish Captain Joan Zamora-a staunch supporter of the Greek Captain- when Mangouras was nominated for the Nautical Institute’s ‘Shipmaster of the Year’ award after the incident. "Some officers were paralysed with fear, other crew members were weeping. But Mangouras never lost his calm, and his example meant that the Chief Engineer and a few crew members were able to follow his orders and organise the evacuation… Many of us would never have had his courage or shown such cool."
Mangouras used ballast to stabilise the ship and control the list- a crewmember was almost washed overboard opening some valves on deck. If Mangouras had not done this, the Prestige would have continued to list and would have gone down close to the Spanish coast, undoubtedly creating an almost unmanageable environmental disaster. In an impossible situation, Mangouras did what he had to do, and he did it even as rescue helicopters hovering overhead were advising him to evacuate the ship along with the rest of the crew.
Then, at night, Mangouras and Chief Engineer Argyropoulos went out on the heaving deck with torches, struggling to reach the forecastle to secure a line from a salvage tug. They took twenty minutes to gingerly go forward, one step at a time, on a catwalk- and the ship- that threatened to give way below their feet.
For these ‘crimes’, Mangouras would eventually be arrested the moment he stepped on land in Spain, interrogated despite his pleas that he hadn’t slept for days while surviving on just coffee and cigarettes. ‘My treatment in the police station was harsh,” the laconic, solitary Captain said later. “I pleaded repeatedly to be allowed to rest.”
Mangouras would be charged and would spend two and a half months in jail before being released on a 3 million Euro bail bond. He would not be permitted to go home thereafter; he would live in Barcelona in a rented flat, feted by local ship captains who knew- as anybody who has tasted sea salt on his lips knows- that Mangouras was the victim of a crime and not its perpetrator.
Ten years later, he would come on trial, seventy seven years old and threatened with jail till he is almost ninety.
Nothing shows up the sea-shore split, in shipping and without, more starkly than the Prestige affair. A brave Captain, victimised for ten years and counting. A- literally and figuratively- dumb industry with impotent industry bodies within, all clamour and noise but no teeth. Criminal governments that give a damn about the seafarer, the environment- or about international and legal obligations. An uncaring general public. Ex seafarers, now captains of industry, that could make a difference but choosing to remain silent; the salt has diluted so much in their veins that they have just water left in there.
Everybody looking for scapegoats. The stoic seafarer. The wrong people behind bars. The insane running the asylum.
We should have honoured the man. We should have used his courageous actions as an example in our textbooks and case studies. We should have stood up. We should have dared the corrupt, the criminal- or the plain stupid- in those European administrations to take on all of us on- and risk grinding global trade to a halt. We should have said what so many of us feel- that we wish there were more Captains like Mangouras out there. That all of us seamen know he did nothing wrong, and that he did much that was right. That we are proud he is one of us. That we wish we have the courage within us when our time comes out there.
We should have stood by him as an industry, righteously united for once.