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What makes a vessel a “ship” for the purposes of validly invoking the court’s admiralty jurisdiction?

A ship – we all know it when we see one, but we can’t really define it. That is perhaps the only right answer to the deceptively simple question – what is a ship? Not only have books have been written exploring this subject, but there have also been plenty of legal battles too, most recently in The Eco Spark [2023], a floating fish farm.

A shipyard in Indonesia had agreed to convert a barge into a special service floating fish farm. After conversion it was towed and delivered at the farm site in Singapore. The owner had not settled dues in excess of $1.5m, and the shipyard brought an in rem action against Eco Spark. Whether or not it could be arrested, depended on if Eco Spark was a ship. As per the owner it was not, as Eco Spark had no rudders or engines, was not capable of self-propulsion, did not have any navigational equipment, was not registered with any Flag, she did not pay any port dues, and was immovable after delivery at the farm site.

Under the Admiralty Act of Singapore, a ship is defined as “including any description of vessel used in navigation”. The outcome therefore hinged on the capability of the vessel to be used in navigation as a matter of its physical design and construction, irrespective of its actual current use and its frequency of traversing the water. For various reasons, most of which are mentioned below, Eco Spark was held to be a ship, and the Court’s admiralty jurisdiction could be invoked.

- The fact that she was able to be towed to Singapore, was an indication that she was stable, seaworthy and capable of being use din navigation.

- Though she had been spudded down, she could be made navigable (i.e. moved) after being de-spudded.

- Her towage approval certificate mentioned her as a ship.

- Class society recognised that such special service floating structures were vessels.

- Prior to her arrival in Singapore, she had to obtain arrival port clearance

In the past the following have been held to be ships - dumb barge, hopper barge, private motor yacht moored for 15 years, oil drilling rig, and rigid inflatable boat; where these objected have been held not to be ships - flying boat, jet ski, houseboats, remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and floating dry dock. Only a floating crane has been held to be both a ship and not a ship by separate jurisdictions.

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