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Guarantees in Paradis

If you are planning to trade in the US, then Bermuda is one of the first ports of call.

Jim Mulrenan, Bermuda   |   11 May 2006

The three biggest providers of "tickets to trade" to the US under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90) are all based in Bermuda and are more than brass-plate operations they are actually underwriting from these Atlantic islands.

The requirement for ships to have Certificates of Financial Responsibility (Cofrs) to ensure that adequate funds are available to meet the cost of an oil spill was sparked by the Exxon Valdez disaster and caused huge controversy with the protection-and-indemnity (P&I) clubs, which insure ship owners' pollution liabilities resolutely, refusing to become involved.

A decade on from this altercation, Cofrs have become just another document needed to trade a ship and the much discussed "trainwreck scenario'" of US trade disruption, crippling costs for owners and endless court battles over huge claims has not happened.

The P&I clubs stood their ground and refused to provide financial guarantees of $39Sm but a number of specialist insurers were created including the Shipowners Insurance&Guaranty Co (Sigco), Shoreline Mutual and Arvak.

Sigco and Shoreline Mutual operate from offices a few hundred metres apart in Bermuda's tiny capital of Hamilton with Arvak run from the same premises and by the same team as the latter.

Shoreline and Arvak are managed by a team of five-and-a-half people and headed by president Marilyn Feldman.

Sigco is run by Nell Clemens and has all of 13 people.

Sigco has a 65% share of the Cofr guarantee market for larger ships with Shoreline Mutual taking another 25% to 30% and Arvak 3% to 5%.

There is not a great deal of room left for other providers such as the New York-based Water Quality Insurance Syndicate and Great American Insurance, although they are more important in the sectors for brown water and smaller craft.

Shoreline completed its first decade in business last year and remains totally claims free, while Sigco has also not paid out on a Cofr guarantee, although it has incurred legal defence costs, particularly in the case of the 44,500-dwt woodchip carrier New Carissa (built 1989), where the bill ran to a six-figure sum. The New Carissa, covered by the Britannia Club, spilt its bunkers after running aground at Coos Bay, Oregon, in 1999. A five year legal battle followed.

Estimates of the financial burden that Cofrs would impose on the shipping industry typically ran to $400m per year.

The actual figure is not known as Sigco is a private Bermuda company that keeps its financial figures under wraps and the income that a number of other underwriters earn from this sector also remains unknown.

But what is certain is that Cofrs are costing shipowners a lot less than expected with a reasonable estimate being somewhere between $50m and $100m annually.