When is a ship not a ship?

Perhaps more accurately in this instance, the question is really when does a ship cease to be a ship for the purposes of arrest. This was the issue addressed by the Ghent Court of Seizures.

A Maltese-registered car-carrier suffered a serious fire in Antwerp in July 2004. After a survey a certificate of total loss was issued. She was bought by a scrap dealer, free of mortgages, arrests and other encumbrances. Her new owner deleted her from the Maltese register and towed her as a ‘shipbreaker’s ship’ to Ghent under a shipbreaker’s insurance policy.

She was arrested for outstanding debts. Her new owner, the scrap dealer, challenged this. The Court considered the matter according to the Belgian procedural rules and the 1952 Arrest Convention.

According to the Belgian Maritime code, the Court may allow the arrest of seagoing vessels, and the court had to consider whether the vessel was still in this category. The court considered the following points. According to the Maritime Code, a seagoing vessel is one which is destined or customarily used to carry on trade at sea for profit. The court also referred to the necessity for the vessel to ply the seas and be subject to the perils of the sea

The court found that the above criteria no longer applied to the vessel in question. The vessel was burned out; she was not entered in any register; she had been bought and insured as scrap; all the usual conditions regarding the contract of sale or purchase of a seagoing vessel had been deleted; the ship agent was employed to attend to her requirements as a wreck. She was described as a ‘vessel’ when sold to the scrap dealer, but this was considered to be unimportant. Overall, therefore, she was not seaworthy and therefore could not be considered a seagoing ship.

The arrest was lifted, but the court dismissed the claim for damages for vexatious arrest as unfounded.

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