When informed that wet or damaged cargo has been found in a hold, the Master's early actions can do a lot to help their position and can even help in defending or reducing liabilities. North's book "The Mariners' Role in Collecting Evidence" is an excellent reference guide which should be on all crew's reading list. There are always certain actions that need to be taken, including:
Investigate what caused the damage
Notify others who may be interested in the cargo
Minimise the amount of damage as best as possible
Get the damaged cargo off the ship so it can continue to the next port as soon as possible
But these objectives can sometimes conflict with each other. A careful discharge can minimise further damage and better segregate good cargo from spoiled, but this can delay the ship. Similarly, notifying other parties can result in them delaying the continuation of discharge.
The Master and crew cannot expect to do everything themselves. Unless the wetting or damage is obviously very minor, one of the Master’s first actions should be to call the Club’s local correspondent for assistance. Our correspondents are very experienced in all aspects of local cargo and cargo handling and will often have good contacts with the receivers. Sometimes, the correspondent will be able to resolve a possible problem with a few phone calls. If the damage is more significant, the correspondent will appoint an experienced local surveyor to attend on board to assist the Master. Together they can help deal with the stevedores and cargo interests to try to ensure that the cargo is discharged quickly with minimum further damage and to investigate the cause of the damage. The crew should cooperate fully with the correspondent and surveyor and provide whatever information and documentation may be requested by them.
Capture the evidence
In any event, the Master should take photos of the damage and area surrounding the damage. The quality of images from some smartphone cameras can be poor, so where possible use a digital camera on the highest resolution setting. However, in the absence of any other camera, a smartphone camera is better than no photos at all. Don’t forget to take photos of the general area of any damage as well as close-ups. If possible, the Master should ensure that the crew do not separately take their own videos or photographs to avoid the un-necessary release of potentially damaging information. Another thing the Master can do before the surveyor arrives is take samples of both damaged and undamaged cargo. Collect samples in individual plastic bags and, if the cargo is degradable, store them in a fridge until the surveyor can take custody.
Control of information and evidence
If the damage is severe, the Master may find they have less control over the situation. The cargo interests will have their own surveyors who will liaise with the ship’s surveyor. The ship may be arrested so will be delayed in any event. It is likely that cargo interests’ surveyors, court surveyors, experts or lawyers will start making all sorts of demands on the Master for statements or ship’s documents. The Master should take guidance from the correspondent and surveyor on this. Possibly the best solution is for all the requested documentation and statements to be released to the correspondent who can hold it until the owner, the P&I Club and the cargo interests can reach agreement on what should be released and when. Consider whether the charterer of the vessel, if any, should be notified. The Master should check with the owner whether to put the charterer on notice of the matter and reserve the owner’s rights under the charterparty. This can be a worrying time for a Master. A Master cannot be expected to be a legal expert or cargo expert as well as a ship handling expert. In the event of cargo damage, take samples, take photos, call for assistance and let others take some of the pressure!
Source: North P&I Club