Statements by transport minister Anthony Albanese this morning about how it is “time to get tough” over foreign shipping calamities such as  the grounding of the Chinese bulk carrier Shen Neng 1 within the Great Barrier Reef  look laughable beside a report issued by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau on the grounding of another Chinese vessel, the tanker Breakthrough, in Australian waters in February 2008.

It recounts an epic stuff up in which an incompetent and inexperienced crew of 15 was left adrift for 21 days in the Indian Ocean on the delivery voyage of the flag of convenience (Sierra Leone registered) vessel while attempting to make it to the home port of its new owners, Jevkon Oil and Gas, in Nigeria.

The vessel eventually ran aground in the Cocos Islands after nearly running out of food and water, being hammered by seas that were rolling it 25 degrees to either side, experiencing an outbreak of knife fights, threatened mutinies by the officers as well as the crew, and total confusion among a largely English-speaking crew trying to decipher engineering manuals written in Chinese.

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The new owners refused to send supplies and clean oil to the ship mid-ocean because of the cost. Three days before it reached a point where it dropped anchor in the Cocos archipelago (only to break free and run aground destroying its steering control) the Breakthrough’s master received instructions that “all keep faith in God and not lose hope”.

Funny? No. The only reason Breakthrough never broke  headlines was that neither oil nor blood was spilled, and Australia never had to deal with tens of millions of dollars in environmental clean-ups or rescue missions.

The sting for the Australian government is that although the ATSB has identified serious faults on the part of the owners, their crew, and in the issuing of flag of convenience certificates  for this particular voyage, there is very little, other than maybe jailing illiterate seamen, that it can do to change the essentially lawless and dangerous state of maritime safety in foreign vessels using our seas.

The strongest words in terms of recourse in the entire report are “the ATSB advises that Jevkon Oil and Gas should consider the implications of this safety issue and take action where appropriate”.

It hands out this flogging with a lemon meringue several times in its conclusions.

The truth about maritime commerce is that successive Australian governments since the Gorton administration have repealed, undermined or dismantled almost every provision that once existed to ensure there was safety on the national high seas, and to ensure there was an effective national shipping industry.

The administrative indifference in Canberra to maritime issues has been relentless under Labor and coalition administrations, reflecting pressure from global shipping interests and bureaucrats advising governments on maritime “reforms” considered crucial to having a competitive export sector.

Heavy shipping company fines and jail terms for hapless crews are variously of questionable use under weak Australian maritime laws or just for show.

As seen in the recent PTTEP oil spill calamity in the Timor Sea, Australia will roll over and cop it, in the national economic interest,  whenever  and whatever it is that happens in its so-called spheres on influence or sovereignty in the seas.

If Albanese was genuine about the Barrier Reef situation, he’d deploy a few RAAF Orion maritime reconnaissance aircraft to constantly monitor the vulnerable sea routes.  They cost as much to fly as leave  idle on the ground and we have almost two dozen of them.  But we could have done that with the Japanese whaling fleet too.

The ATSB inquired into the grounding, which ended with the ship being towed to Singapore for repairs, because of its responsibility under what passes for international maritime law to investigate incidents within its territorial waters.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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