Stowaways and Port Security

Security at ports across the world can range for exceptional to inadequate and virtually non-existent. The high risk threat is from ports and terminals where the ISPS Code is not being implemented. 

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The task of preventing stowaways in these ports is difficult and it is here that Masters and shipowners must focus their efforts on preventative measures. It is imperative to ensure that shipping agents clearly understand that the vessel will not sail with stowaways onboard, and that all necessary safety measures available at the port should be implemented in the interest of the ship.

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What Measures do Port Authorities use to detect Stowaways?

Discovering stowaways secreted behind false walls in shipping containers is incredibly difficult and time consuming and not every container can be checked. Whilst soft top containers can be inspected easily, standard steel top containers are more difficult to search. Sophisticated thermal equipment is available; however, this equipment is expensive and usually comes under the port security authorities as opposed to shipowners and operators.

Heat seeking cameras. These can detect temperature variations of as little as two degrees inside a container. However, many materials, including certain types of cargo generate heat. Plus, stowaways have learned to beat the cameras by layering cardboard along the inside walls of containers.

Carbon dioxide detectors. Although the most successful readily available technology and used by a number of ports stowaways can remain inside a container without detection. The detector is inserted into the container’s air vent in order to detect breathing inside. In one case, the container initially passed the test, but when tested again at a later stage, it gave readings that were sky-high. When inspectors opened the container doors, 14 people were found inside. They had rigged temporary pipes from one air vent to the other so that only outside air was registered in the first reading.

X-ray. As a preventive measure this is obsolete. The intensity required to penetrate the walls of a steel box would prove fatal to anyone inside.

Stethoscopic microphones. These are similarly obsolete as it is incredibly difficult to filter out day-to-day background noise of port operations.

Depending on the risk level at each port, a number of measures can be taken to prevent stowaways from boarding the vessel. The overarching message for the entire crew is that no unauthorised personnel are able to gain access to the ship, and those with authorisation, not involved with the transit, disembark prior to sailing.

Inadequate security and minimal watchkeeping mean it’s easy for stowaways to gain access to ships or hide in containers in the terminal prior to them being loaded on board.

What Preventive Measures can a vessel take in Port?

The crew has little or no influence on port security and has to focus on preventing stowaways from gaining access to the ship. Shipowners should train their crews, issue the correct instructions and procedures to enable the ship to provide a determined deterrent, stopping stowaways from boarding. Escalated preventive measures can be employed when the risk analysis shows that a port’s security is vulnerable to stowaways. These measures depend on crew capacity, but can include:

  • Watchkeepers. Posting additional watchkeepers at entry and exit points and those have to remain unlocked whilst the vessel is in port. Ensure the watchman understands procedures relating to the access of visitors, repairmen, stevedores etc.

  • Access points. Ensure security is in place at all entry points. These can include; mooring ropes, access to the vessel from the sea using hooks etc.

  • Pass system. A huge amount of people surge on board when a ship arrives in port and a pass system can prove invaluable. Passes should be retrieved when visitors leave the vessel via controlled access points. The pass system can be developed to include the name of the visitor to be cross checked against identification cards which are exchanged for a pass on entry at the gangway.

  • Additional protection. Ask the agent if additional protection can be arranged. Include specific terms in the contract whereby the security company would be held liable for all costs of disembarkation and repatriation should it later be discovered that stowaway(s) have managed to board the vessel in that particular port.

  • CCTV. Maintain vigilance through CCTV and alarm systems with infrared detectors, door contacts, motion sensors, etc. Surveillance should be monitored from the bridge.
    Communication. Brief the crew on the risks of stowaways gaining access to the vessel and the need for their co-operation in reporting anything abnormal and/or suspicious. All crew members should be aware of the advantages of preventing stowaways sailing with the ship.

  • Random patrols. Carried out with particular focus on unusual and isolated areas proactively and reactively in response to reports of abnormal activity.

  • Locks. As a matter of routine access points should be locked and secured as long as cargo operations are not hampered; this restricts stowaways’ access to potential hiding places. Tamper-proof or wire seals can be used where locks are inappropriate.

  • Rudder trunk. The ship’s rudder trunk is a typical access point for stowaways and should be checked for stowaways by using the ship’s small boats.

  • Misinformation. Masters can dissuade potential stowaways or flush out those that may already be in hiding by exhibiting misinformation about the ship’s destination, announcing a “fire” or “emergency” drill followed by alarms and notifications in different languages. Alerts indicating that sniffer dogs will be used to carry out a full security search of the vessel or that fumigation will be carried out prior to departure.

  • Final checks. Stowaways often hide shortly before the vessel leaves port. An extensive search of the ship prior to sailing is imperative. The vessel should be divided into search areas. Besides cargo holds and containers, stowaways have also been found in funnel casings, chain lockers, storerooms, cabins, crane cabs, mast houses, engine room bilges and in the rudder shaft space. If stowaways are discovered, immigration authorities should be notified and the stowaways removed.

  • Vessel Underway. While the outbound pilot is still on board, another full search of the vessel should be conducted. If stowaways are found they can be repatriated using the pilot boat.

  • Crew Rewards. Stowaway interviews reveal crew can be involved in the safe passage of stowaways whereby they bribe a port official and pay a crewmember for a “ticket”. Financial rewards can be offered to crew members who discover and prevent stowaway incidents.

  • Agent Rewards. Consider rewarding the agents for stowaway free sailings.

  • Maritime Security Officer. If there are doubts as to the efficiency of locally supplied guards consider a short-term contract for a professional maritime security officer.

  • Contingency measures. Ships operating in areas where there is a high risk of encountering stowaways, should consider assigning a dedicated area for lodging stowaways. Simply furnished quarters with harmful items removed would be adequate. The ship should also carry handcuffs if the stowaway is a danger to him-/herself or others.
Implementing these additional security measures may involve additional costs; however, this needs to be considered against the potential stowaway repatriation expenses and public relations fall-out of a stowaway incident.
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