Filipino seafarers and the ‘Good Samaritan at Sea’ doctrine

The recent story of an American sailor who was rescued by Filipino seafarers may aptly be an application of the “Good Samaritan at Sea” doctrine or the obligation to render assistance at sea.

The 63-year-old sailor, Stuart Bee, was missing at sea for nearly two days after his boat capsized in the Atlantic Ocean.

Filipino seafarers on board the vessel “Angeles” found him on November 29, adrift in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean while clinging to his boat 86 miles from the shore of Port Canaveral, Florida.

“The story of Stuart is no different from others who are pleading for help today; in this time of pandemic. You don’t need to sail out in the ocean to rescue and serve your purpose. There maybe too many Stuarts who happen to be your neighbor, a friend, or just like the Stuart we came to know, a stranger that needs help. Help in any way you can, whenever the opportunity to help is present,” Filipino seafarer Lacruiser Relativo said in his Facebook post.

For centuries, the “Good Samaritan” maritime rescue doctrine encourages seafarers to go to the aid of life and property in distress.

Life as a seafarer involves obligations that are unlike almost any other occupation, as seafarers have long understood that a moral, if not legal, obligation is upon them to render assistance to persons in peril at sea.

The biblical anecdote of the Good Samaritan pertains to the traveler who, for no other reason than a desire to help a fellow human being, stopped on the road to Jericho to help a man who had been beaten and bloodied by robbers.

The Samaritan bandaged the victim’s wounds, and took him to an inn to recover, which was a gratuitous act for which no reward was sought and by his actions the man was saved.

In most cases, a person reacts to save another person as a result of compassion or instinct, or both.

While seafarers will have the same compassion and instinct as other professionals, they have a legislated obligation to render assistance.

The duty to render assistance is a general reflection of customary international maritime law.

Whether vessels sailing under their flag operate in either a private or public capacity, the requirements incumbent upon the masters of the vessels are the same.

This obligation comes from various legal sources, most notably from international conventions of the United Nations and the International Maritime Organization.

The United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea says that every signatory to the convention must require the master of a ship flying its flag to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost and to proceed to the rescue of persons in distress.

The exemption is when the assisting vessel, the crew or the passengers on board would be seriously endangered as a result of rendering assistance to those in distress.

The Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) says “the master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance, on receiving a signal from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so.”

The International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue 1979  also mandates this principle “regardless of the nationality or status of such a person or the circumstances in which that person is found.”

The Salvage Convention of 1989, although primarily directed at addressing the salvage of property and the prevention of marine pollution, nonetheless repeats the SOLAS obligation on the master to render assistance to any person in danger of being lost at sea.

States, both signatories and non-signatories to the conventions, are duty bound to ensure those in distress at sea are rendered assistance on a non-discriminatory basis.

However, there are some jurisdictions where the law has developed that those who undertake to render assistance must exercise reasonable care and acceptable seamanship in doing so, or else suffer liability for the aggravation or excess harm that they cause to the individuals or property.

They are expected to exercise reasonable care to avoid negligent conduct that worsens the position of the victims and to avoid reckless and wanton conduct in performing the rescue.

Atty. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail info@sapalovelez.com, or call 0917-5025808 or 0908-8665786.


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