Australia: Anchor aweigh… or anchor away?

Lost Anchor Removal – a P&I Perspective

Wordsmiths would insist that a lifted anchor is "aweigh", not "away", but we are concerned here with anchors that have got away, rather than those that are aweigh.

We often receive reports, particularly in the wake of any significant coastal weather event, of ships that have suffered broken anchor chains and lost anchors, usually at port anchorages off Gladstone, Hay Point and Brisbane. The loss of an anchor can create obvious operational and class difficulties for a vessel and can also cause delay if no spare anchor is available. Expense is also incurred by owners when they are requested by relevant authorities to locate and recover the lost anchor.

In Queensland, Harbour Masters have wide powers to direct owners to remove any obstruction to navigation. Harbour Masters are often concerned that the anchor may be protruding from the seabed – potentially causing damage to other vessels in a designated anchorage – or that the lost anchor (and chain) may foul the anchor of another vessel.

A Harbour Master can typically issue a formal direction or order under relevant legislation triggering a strict legal obligation on the ship owner to remove a lost anchor or other obstruction. The Harbour Master will however usually first make an informal request to owners, often received by e-mail or through the local agents, to recover the anchor. Whether such an informal request constitutes a legally binding direction is a moot point. Nevertheless, in our experience, it is generally best to comply with the Harbour Master's informal request as it usually permits greater flexibility. Otherwise, if such a request is not met, a formal direction will almost certainly be issued and such directions usually have strict terms and time limits for compliance.

Typically the most difficult aspect of an anchor recovery operation is locating the anchor. In situations where a vessel deliberately slips its anchor, the anchor chain is ideally buoyed before it is slipped, which significantly aids the recovery operation and reduces the associated costs. In the best case scenario, this may even allow the anchor to be quickly recovered directly back to the vessel with minimal impact on the vessel's schedule.

In the worst case scenario, the vessel may not immediately realise the anchor chain has broken or there may be insufficient time to buoy the anchor or chain, and in such situations there is usually little direct indication of the anchor's location. Merely recording the vessel's nominal GPS position is often insufficient given the difference between the position of the GPS transponder and where the anchor may be positioned. Further information such as the vessel's heading, the distance between the GPS transponder and the bow, the amount of chain lost, the vessel heading and the angle at which the chain was leading away from the vessel at the time of the loss can assist greatly.

Commercial arrangements with salvors for the recovery of an anchor vary in substance and form, depending particularly upon whether the location of the anchor is marked or is unknown. The recovery contract will typically be offered on a "no cure, no pay" basis, although this is not always possible in circumstances where the location of the anchor is completely unknown as contractors may be unwilling to risk expending unremunerated effort on searching in vain. Any lump sum contracts are also usually inflated to account for the risk of having to spend an unknown amount of time searching for the anchor.

Another key consideration is the fate of the anchor once recovered. The vessel has often long since left the port, and owners usually have no plans for the vessel (or any other vessels in the same fleet) to return to the port in the foreseeable future to take back the anchor. Unfortunately there is little market for second hand anchors within Australia and the anchor therefore usually needs to be scrapped (with little net gain once transport and disposal costs are taken into account) such that it is usually more cost effective to look to the salvor to take possession of the recovered anchor and to be responsible for its disposal.

Locating, retrieving and disposing of an anchor can be a costly exercise and appropriate preparations undertaken by the vessel prior to slipping the anchor can assist greatly.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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