TEN years on, the popular narrative of the Pasha Bulker’s grounding on Nobbys beach is that the master of the ship was solely to blame for the events of that tumultuous morning.
And yes, the two official reports into the events of Friday, June 8, 2007, do lay the blame fairly and squarely on the South Korean in charge of the vessel. But read the reports together and it becomes evident that other factors were at play.
The first report, of 60 pages, was handed down by a state government authority, NSW Maritime, on December 5, 2007. The second report, of 90 pages, was released by a federal agency, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, on May 23, 2008. Both make fairly similar appraisals of how the Pasha Bulker got into trouble but they differ substantially in their appraisal of the role of Newcastle Port Corporation (NPC) and of its maritime communications arm, the Newcastle Vessel Traffic Information Centre (VTIC).
With one exception, the state report gives NPC a clean bill of health, saying it “responded to the emergency in a very competent manner, exercising appropriate control and integrating with the other emergency services involved”.
It found that “verbal communications provided by NPC at the time of the incident were adequate within the existing framework”.
The exception covered a crucial area. The state report notes that NPC’s safety capability, as recognised through its Port Safety Operating Licence, had been given a clean bill of health a day before the Pasha Bulker grounding by a subsidiary of the shipping insurer Lloyds.
After the grounding, investigators went to get the recordings that are automatically made of all communications between VTIC and the various vessels, only to find “the associated recording equipment was, however, not working [on the day of the grounding] and had not been operating since June 5”.
“This was not known to the VTIC operators, the report continues, adding with masterful understatement, that: “The availability of this data would have been helpful to this investigation”.
Although the federal report still puts the overall responsibility firmly on the shoulders of the Pasha Bulker’s master, it lists a series of areas in which NPC could have done better on the day. Indeed, nine of the report’s 11 recommendations covered “safety issues” for NPC “to address”.
It says: “Even with the resources available to NPC, including the collective local knowledge of the harbour master and pilots and the weather monitoring equipment at VTIC, the port corporation was not sufficiently responsive to the increasing seriousness of the situation that developed from the evening of June 7.”
“By the early hours of June 8, a dangerous situation had already developed but it appears not to have been recognised until the corporation’s ‘incident control system’ was activated at about 8.30am.
After this time, the situation was more closely monitored and weather advisories were provided. Consequently, the masters of those ships that were relying on guidance from VTIC probably did not assess the risks appropriately and eventually were surprised by the severity of the weather.”
Although the full submission by the port corporation to the federal investigators was not released publicly, two excerpts included in the report quote the port corporation as saying it “does not accept” that its communications that day “would create any confusion” or have “adversely influenced the decisions of” any of any (ship’s) masters”.
(For the record, the Pasha Bulker’s owners also rejected the federal report and its findings as not “valid”, although the investigators say the owners did not provide any “evidence or argument” in support.)
But the biggest difference between the two reports lies in their treatment of what happened after the Pasha Bulker lifted its anchor, at about 6.30am.
The state report says that between 7.20am and 9.30am the Pasha Bulker was told at least five times that it “ appeared to be dragging its anchor or drifting into the restricted zone, within two nautical miles, or 3.7 kilometres of the coast”.
That was the only mention of the “restricted zone” in the state report, and it was not until the federal report was issued five months later that its importance became clear.
As the federal report notes, the purpose of “restricted area” (its formal name, rather than “zone”) is to “keep the [harbour] entrance clear for ships entering or leaving port”. The federal report found that three vessels, Santa Isabel, Sea Confidence and Pasha Bulker, were tracking north when VTIC told them they should not enter the restricted area.
“Given that all three ships were struggling to clear the coast and that there was no need to keep the area clear because there was no traffic into or out of the port, these communications were of no benefit and unnecessary, and may also have adversely influenced the decisions of masters, including Pasha Bulker’s,” the report says.
This is the crucial question. Look at the track of the Pasha Bulker and you see the vessel heading out to sea until 9.06am, when what both investigations describe as a badly executed turn began the vessel’s hour-long journey onto the shore at Nobbys.
The federal report again: “The communication by VTIC at 9.10am asking for Santa Isabel to leave the restricted area and two minutes later for Pasha Bulker to also do so probably had some influence on the subsequent decisions of their masters, even though it could not be ascertained exactly what action they took and when they took it.
“Other masters in the area may at least have been distracted by these communications. In any case, given the difficult circumstances and the precarious situations some ships, including Pasha Bulker, were in, such unnecessary and irrelevant communications by VTIC could only cause confusion and were therefore inappropriate.”
In another section, the federal report notes that just after 9am, the Pasha Bulker “helmsman brought the ship back to a heading of 140º and the wind was ahead”.
“Had this heading been maintained, Pasha Bulker would probably have cleared the coast in an easterly direction,” it says.
The day the federal report was released in 2008, I asked the head of the port corporation at the time, Gary Webb, whether the instruction to clear the restricted area had contributed to the demise of the Pasha Bulker. He said VTIC may have told the Pasha Bulker about the restricted area but it was "absolutely not" responsible for the way the master lost control.
Similarly, Australian Transport Safety Bureau team leader of marine investigations Michael Squires told me at the time that the bureau had "gone over and over" the path of the Pasha Bulker, especially the turn soon after 9am when it was inside the restricted area.
"We can't say that the master definitely turned because of the information from the [information centre] but we do say that the instruction was unnecessary, unhelpful, of no benefit and may have adversely influenced the decisions of the master of the Pasha Bulker and other vessels," Mr Squires said.
If there’s a lasting legacy of the Pasha Bulker, it’s that it led to the creation of a new coal ship queuing system, where instead of the 57 ships that were anchored close into the coast back in 2007, waiting vessels now drift far out to sea, either east of Newcastle or up near New Guinea, as they wait their turn to load. And the Pasha Bulker – repaired and refitted after the grounding and now known as the Drake – is still plying the coal trade, and was most recently in Newcastle in late March, taking a load to China.
If only ships could talk. And if only those tapes had been working . . .