Stowaways On Cargo Ships A Continual Problem for Carriers


The many industries that make up the world of freight have undergone tremendous change over the past several decades. Each week, FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago, says an article published in FreightWaves.

Cost Increasingly Difficult to Absorb

Bagsvaerd, Denmark — Stowaways on cargo ships are a continual problem for carriers, who are finding the cost increasingly difficult to absorb.

“Stowaways drive up a carrier’s insurance premiums,” said Thomas Timlen of the Baltic and International Maritime Council, based in Bagsvaerd. “Shippers will ultimately cover that cost in the form of higher freight rates.”


The International Maritime Bureau believes that the worldwide cost of stowaways may be as high as $20 million a year.

London P&I Club reported

Members of the London P&I Club reported that its members had 174 cases involving stowaways in 1996-97, resulting in costs of more than $511,000. In the first half of 1998, the club’s members handled 86 stowaway cases at a cost of $305,000.

International Maritime Organization

To get a better idea of the costs of the stowaway problem, the International Maritime Organization, its member countries, BIMCO and the International Chamber of Shipping are devising a system to collect statistics worldwide.

“We know the costs for handling stowaways continue to increase, but the number of stowaways boarding ships is still [elusive],” Timlen said. “We need accurate statistics to know the true extent of the problem.”

Stowaways at Destination Ports

The financial costs of stowaways may be understated because of a disturbing and horrific fact of maritime life. To avoid the costs and delays of processing stowaways at destination ports, some ships’ crews have been known to shove stowaways overboard and set them adrift at sea.

Reported Cases

From 1992 to 1997, there were 21 reported cases of stowaways being set adrift by carriers. Some reached shore, but many drowned at sea. No one knows how many cases went unreported.

Stowaways are an especially acute problem for carriers operating in developing countries such as in Latin American and Africa.

Economic conditions in these regions may be so poor that people will do anything to escape. A departing ship offers what may seem a free ticket out.

Stowaways board ships using a variety of methods, such as posing as dockworkers or hiding in cargo.

Shipment to be Opened

At the Moroccan port of Casablanca, stowaways are regularly found in empty containers. To fight the problem, the Moroccan customs agency began requiring all empty containers entering the port for outbound shipment to be opened and checked for stowaways. After inspection, the containers are immediately closed and secured with a special customs seal.

The program worked well for standard containers, but the customs seals proved useless for open-top containers, which are covered with tarpaulins. Stowaways simply enter the open tops by untying the ropes of the cloth cover and getting an accomplice to re-tie them from the outside.

Outbound Vessels

In the Dominican Republic’s Port of Rio Haina, stowaways frequently attempt to swim up to the outbound vessels and climb on board.

It’s not uncommon for stowaways from South America to be carrying drugs for financing their first days in a new country or serving as mules for drug traffickers.

International carrier groups and P&I Clubs say that carriers should work to keep stowaways off ships.

Keep track of Boarding

Experts advise carriers to post crewmen on gangway duty to keep track of boarding and disembarkation of workers, use night watchmen on deck and keep possible hiding places locked up while in port.

“The really determined stowaway can always find somewhere to hide on ship,” said the London P&I Club. But self-policing of a ship helps “to minimize the risks, both financial and moral.”

Don’t carry Identification

Once stowaways are detained by authorities, carriers try to repatriate them as quickly as possible. Sometimes that’s difficult. Often it’s hard to determine who the stowaways are, because most of them don’t carry identification.

In Vietnam, the government sometimes takes as long as six weeks to issue documents required to land a stowaway, even if the stowaway is determined to be a Vietnamese national.

Process Stowaways

Often the carriers are responsible for paying foreign governments to process stowaways and for the stowaways’ return trip.

Money isn’t the only reason carriers want to return stowaways so quickly.

“The longer the stowaways stay on board, the more agitated they may become, posing a danger to themselves and the crew,” Timlen said.

Set Fire On The Ship

Last July at Genoa, five North African stowaways set fire to their cabin on the ship, hoping to escape during the confusion. Instead, they perished in the blaze.

While crews should be compassionate toward stowaways, they shouldn’t allow them free movement on the ship.

“Stowaways are desperate. They’ve got nothing to lose,” Timlen said. “That’s what makes them dangerous.”

Breakbulk Ship

In the recent case of the breakbulk ship, Cap Providence, two stowaways from South Africa were denied political asylum by French officials at the Port of Dunkirk. So they accused the ship’s crew of abuse.

The French police arrested four crew members. They were held for 36 hours, and released only after Tony Rimmer, chaplain of Dunkirk’s Seamen’s Church Institute, interviewed the ship’s officers and found a videotape of the stowaways enjoying a party with the crew.

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Source: Freight Waves