Saturday, October 8, 2011
Even before the 47,230 ton container-ship Rena ploughed into Astrolabe Reef, all shipping had been formally warned to stay clear of the promptly marked feature.
But as long as ships have sailed the seas, they have been hitting well recognized hazards - often for the most puzzling reasons.
The latest edition of the New Zealand Nautical Almanac, published by Maritime New Zealand, contains a chapter on shipping routes around the New Zealand coast, noting "mandatory areas to be avoided by all ships over 45 metres in length/500 gross tons".
Rena should have had the Almanac on its bridge - either electronically or in hard copy - and for Tauranga there is an explicit note for vessels coming to the port from the east, as Rena was.
"Keep at least 5 nautical miles to the north of Volkner Rocks, thence 3 nautical miles to the north of Astrolabe Reef and thence to the Pilot Station," the Almanac orders.
Online vessel trackers show Rena, prior to hitting the reef, was traveling about 17 knots (32kmh) - an average speed for a ship that size.
Ominously the same trackers show the grounded Rena is still moving at just under a knot - suggesting she is grinding herself into Astrolabe.
How the ship could hit a reef only 80 meters wide and noted on charts since 1827 is unknown at the moment, but there is no shortage of speculation over what might have happened at 2.20 am on Wednesday.
Under International Maritime Organization (IMO) rules a bridge watch would have been in place, but the actual driving of the ship would have been under electronic control.
Rena, coming out of Napier, was less than hour out from picking up a Port of Tauranga pilot and would have been preparing to change course to the south and slow down.
Rena may have had greater manual control that in normal seagoing.
The IMO has commission numerous studies over the last decade on "fatigue in the shipping industry" with one asking whether collisions and groundings can be linked to fatigue and the shift system used on ship watches.
While studies have concluded fatigue plays a role, dealing with it has proven elusive so far.
Last year a Chinese coal carrier, Shen Neng 1, hit one of the best known marine hazards in the world - Australia's Great Barrier Reef. (see GeoGarage blog)
The ship was badly damaged but was saved by Danish salvage firm Svitzer - who yesterday were put in charge of saving Rena.
Shen Neng's owner and skipper were fined, but preliminary investigations indicated fatigue was the major contributor to the grounding.
Svitzer, part of the giant Maersk shipping group also saved the grounded coal ship Pasha Bulker, which ended up on a beach in front of Newcastle, New South Wales in 2007.
Its Japanese owners paid for the damage after the ship was saved, but the New South Wales government ended up not prosecuting because they could not find the grounding was a result of negligence.
A storm warning had been posted at the time and many of the vessels waiting to load had put out to sea.
Pasha Bulker's captain had been off the bridge having breakfast at the time of the warning, and the bridge watch failed to warn him of it.
Groundings are often associated with equipment failure - either in engines or in navigation equipment on the bridge - but the best known case in New Zealand maritime history remains an intriguing mystery.
It involved the Soviet Union cruise ship Mikhail Lermontov on the night of February 16, 1986, sailing up Queen Charlotte Sound, out of Picton.
Local Captain Don Jamieson was piloting the large ship out but at Cape Jackson, for inextricable reasons, he decided to take a short cut between a light and the coast.
He appeared to believe the passage was much wider than it was.
Traveling at 15 knots the ship hit rocks and was holed.
It struggled around to Port Gore where Jamieson tried to beach her, but instead it sank.
A crew man died.
As one of the world's more accessible wrecks it has attracted divers - and three are known to have died in it.
At the time the Anzus Alliance was collapsing and Lermontov's sinking prompted one of Prime Minister David Lange's quips, saying New Zealand was "the only nation to sink a Russian ship since the Second World War".
In an intriguing aside, Moscow sent a delegation to New Zealand soon after the sinking and among its members was a young KGB agent, now Russia's leader, Vladimir Putin - although he has steadfastly refused to acknowledge he has seen more of New Zealand than he should have.
Even the Royal Navy has had the embarrassment of hitting well-known rocks.
In 2002 destroyer HMS Nottingham hit Wolf Rock off Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea and came close to sinking.
The rock had been on charts since 1837.
Its captain said the accident was the result of "a combination of unfortunate circumstances and human error".
In naval circles the incident was put down to a blunt pencil.
The ship had been waiting to land its helicopter and was maneuvering in the vicinity of the rock as the navigator continued to plot tracks on a paper chart.
At some point he drew a course across the map with the pencil and because it was blunt, the mark obscured the rock reference. Murphy's Law kicked in.
In 1998 the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Monarch of the Seas grounded on a coral reef off St. Maarten.
Investigations found the crew had failed to update ships charts to show a buoy marking the reef.
But it was also found that the captain at the time was suffering "a vicious bout of diarrhea" and had left the bridge at the crucial time.
Even Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2 has hit charted rocks, when she ran around in 1992 off the coast of Martha's Vineyard in the US.
The shoal, discovered in 1939, was described as being 39 feet deep - which should have been fine for QE2 drawing 32 feet.
After the incident, in what was described as a failure in "hydrographic standards", it was found the shoal was 30 feet deep.
Investigations also opened insights into the "squat effect" which occurs when a vessel moves quickly through shallow water.
It makes the ship squat lower in the water than otherwise expected.