The recently decided case of SBT STAR BULK & TANKERS (GERMANY) GMBH & CO KG V COSMOTRADE SA (THE “WEHR TRAVE”) [2016] EWHC 583 (Comm) in the Queen’s Bench Division of the Commercial Court and before The Hon Sir Bernard Eder will, perhaps, come as a surprise.

This was an appeal pursuant to section 69 of the Arbitration Act 1996 following an arbitration.

The question to be decided related to the interaction between the nature of a trip time charterparty for “one trip”, and the language of the contract governing the range of load and discharge ports. The question before the arbitrators, and then before the court, was whether the charterparty permitted the Charterers to load another cargo having discharged all its originally loaded cargoes. Once the vessel was free of cargo, could the Charterers load again? Furthermore, was the intended load port within the range of permissible ports?

The relevant terms were as follows:

“ll. 13-15

‘… That the said Owners agree to let, and the said Charterers agree to hire the said vessel, from the time of delivery, for one Time Charter trip via good and safe always afloat, always accessible port(s) and/or berths via Continent/Mediterranean/Black Sea/East Mediterranean to Red Sea/Persian Gulf/India, always via Gulf of Aden one Time Charter trip via via (sic) good and safe ports and/or berths via East Mediterranean/Black Sea to Red Sea/Persian Gulf/India/Far East always via Gulf of Aden, with steels and/or other lawful/harmless general cargo, suitable for carriage in a cellular container vessel as described. No bulk cargo is allowed. Duration about 40-45 days without guarantee minimum 40 days without guarantee within below mentioned trading limits.’

ll. 18-35
‘Vessel to be placed at the disposal of the Charterers on passing Skaw, Denmark dropping outward pilot Algeciras at any time day or night, Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays included. Vessel on her delivery to be ready to receive any permissible cargo… in such lawful trades, between good safe port and/or good safe ports and good safe berth and/or good safe berths and good safe anchorage and/or good safe anchorages, always afloat, always within Institute Warranty Limits (See also Clause 38) as the Charterers or their Agents shall direct …’

cl. 4

‘That the Charterers shall pay for the use and hire of the said Vessel at the rate of U.S.$10,000.00– 8,200 per day, pro rata including overtime, basis redelivery Mumbai/Colombo range or U.S.$9,250.00- per day, pro rata including overtime basis redelivery East Coast India, payable every 15 days in advance, commencing on and from the day/time of her delivery, as aforesaid, and at and after the same rate for any part of a day; hire to continue until the time of the day of her re-delivery as per Clause 55 in like good order and condition, ordinary wear and tear excepted, to the Owners (unless lost) on dropping last outward sea pilot one (1) safe port in Charterers’ option Mumbai/Colombo range or in Charterers’ option one (1) safe port East Coast India range, not north but including Chennai Colombo/Busan range including China not north Qingdao, at any time day or night, Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays included…’

The Charterers had loaded cargoes at three ports, and then proceeded to discharge at five ports, all agreed by the parties to be within the respective range of permissible ports for those purposes. Charterers then ordered the vessel, now empty of cargo, to proceed to Sohar in Oman (the second discharge port) and there load another cargo for delivery in India. Owners considered that to be an illegitimate final order, a position with which one might have some sympathy given that this was a “one trip” charterparty. The arbitrators, however, found in favour of the Charterers; and the judge agreed with them.

In reaching his decision, the judge considered the essence of a trip time charterparty, questioning whether the “trip” aspect should have any bearing on the analysis. He emphasised that a trip time charterparty is a time charterparty, during which period the vessel is at the disposal of the charterers subject to the restrictions in place, including period and geographical restrictions. It is not a voyage charterparty, where the parties have agreed the vessel will go from A to B. The judge noted that “In my view, there is no single definition as to what constitutes a “trip” or “one trip”. It follows that I do not consider that the fact that the charter here was for “one” time charter trip…is of much, if any, assistance.” In light of that, the judge focussed on whether the orders were within the range of permissible restrictions. Having dismissed Owners’ reliance on the use of the words ‘via’ and ‘to’ as restricting the ports at which the vessel might load and discharge cargo, he held that the question was whether Charterers were permitted to send the vessel to Sohar, and there load a cargo. On the true construction of the terms, the charterparty permitted such orders, and so the Owners’ appeal was dismissed.

Whilst the judge emphasised that this was a narrow question of law, turning on the specific language in play, this somewhat counter-intuitive result should sound as a warning to owners to carefully check the language in trip time charterparties, to ensure they understand what orders are legitimate.