On a clear, beautiful summer morning in 2016 an event took place in the southern approaches to the Bosphorus that led to the tragic deaths of four Turkish Coastguard personnel and the prolonged detention, on quadruple murder charges, of three crewmembers from the Cook Islands flagged, Cypriot-owned bulk carrier, Tolunay.
On 16 August 2016 the 170m long, 7200hp Tolunay was northbound in ballast at about 10 knots and was overtaking the Russian minesweeper, Valentin Pikul. Regulations for the Bosphorus do not require through-transit vessels such as Tolunay to take on board a local pilot and the master, who had been through the Bosphorus a dozen times in the previous year, opted not to.
In accordance with local regulations the Master of Tolunay requested and received permission from Turkish Straits Vessel Traffic Service (TSVTS) to overtake the much slower minesweeper and set a course at the extreme portside of the northbound traffic lane to allow as much space as possible for the manoeuvre.
Meanwhile the 22m long, 8000hp Turkish Coastguard interceptor, TCSG-25, had been tasked with shadowing the minesweeper and proceeded from her base in the north to do so. At about 0814, TCSG-25 performed a “U-turn” in front of Tolunay at around 0.4 mile and began her shadowing operation. At this stage there was no risk of collision and, as local regulations demand, the responsibility to keep clear (of through vessels) rested with the coastguard vessel.
Shortly after 0821, with Tolunay clear on her port quarter, TCSG-25 altered course sufficiently to port to create a collision situation and, less than 30 seconds later, Tolunay’s bulbous bow contacted the port quarter of TCSG-25, immediately capsizing the smaller vessel. Four of the seven Turkish crew members drowned.
Shortly after this tragedy Tolunay’s master and chief officer, who were on the bridge, and the bosun, who was on the fo’c’sle, were detained and all faced accusations of murder.
In early 2017 Tolunay’s owners requested that Maritime Cook Islands (MCI), the Flag State, take whatever action possible to help resolve the situation. At this time the general view in Turkey was that Tolunay was massively, if not completely, to blame. MCI asked me to see what could be done to achieve a just outcome and assist the crew.
In Istanbul I established that local regulations are designed to alter the responsibilities between vessels, as set out in the COLREGS, and these local regulations give priority to through vessels. I also obtained a high definition video that was taken by a crew member on board the Russian minesweeper that covered the last minute or so before impact.
With the Russian video and other technical evidence, e.g. position, heading, and speed data, I was able to analyse then accurately reconstruct how the incident unfolded. I could also prove that TCSG-25 was not using her radar and, with partially obscured rear-facing cockpit windows, the Turkish Coast Guard crew probably overlooked and/ or forgot about Tolunay.
The evidence and the analysis that I put together was used by the local Turkish lawyers appointed by Hanseatic, Tolunay’s P&I provider, in the criminal hearings and will be used in the civil action to follow. At the initial substantive criminal hearing, my analysis persuaded the Court to appoint local Turkish experts to consider this evidence and the case was then postponed.
At the next hearing, the local Turkish expert concluded that my analysis was generally correct and that the liability for the collision should be split: TCSG-25: 70%, Tolunay: 20%, and TSVTS: 10%. Unfortunately, the Court was not prepared to rely on this apportionment and the Court requested further Turkish experts’ opinions, presumably in the hope of obtaining a more locally favourable apportionment.
The new Turkish expert’s opinion that was duly produced varied very little in its apportionment of liability – TCSG-25: 68%, Tolunay: 20%, and TSVTS: 12%. Following the next hearing the chief Officer and bosun were both released, however, the Master remained detained.
Eventually the Court had in its possession three Turkish experts’ reports – all based on my original analysis, and all essentially finding approximately the same apportionment.
Further criminal hearings were scheduled and postponed for various reasons.
Four days before the criminal hearing on 16 January, the Turkish Ministry of Transport issued a report emphasising what were considered to be faults made by Tolunay, however the report did not apportion liability. The report, unsurprisingly, did not dwell on the faults of the Coast Guard vessel.
At the hearing on 16 January, the judge announced the intention to seek the opinion of another Turkish expert, no doubt for an opinion more favourable of the Coast Guard vessel. The judge also said that this new Turkish expert should consider the report by the Turkish Ministry of Transport, regardless of the fact that it was not to be used in litigation.
The next criminal hearing is scheduled for April.
Hopefully the master will soon be released, having already been detained for 18 months. Turkish criminal execution laws should make this a likely outcome provided that the judge accepts their own Turkish opinions on liability.
The civil trial, which will assess the responsibility and damages to be paid for the incident, is yet to gather steam. However, the results of the criminal trial, i.e. the experts’ opinions, although not binding on the civil court, should be very persuasive and result in good outcome for Tolunay’s third-party indemnity insurers.