23 May 2023

Luck can no longer be relied on to avoid maritime disaster, council leaders say

1:21 pm on 23 May 2023
The MV Shiling cargo ship is being towed into Wellington Harbour this morning, 23 May, after losing power and issuing a Mayday call near Farewell Spit on 12 May.

The MV Shiling was towed into Wellington Harbour today after being anchored in Tasman Bay since losing power near Farewell Spit in April. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The mayor of Marlborough and chairman of Wellington Council say luck can no longer be relied on when it comes to avoiding a maritime disaster, and officials need to think outside the box for how to mitigate the risk.

It comes as the beleaguered MV Shiling cargo ship is towed into Wellington Harbour this morning after losing power at sea 11 days ago.

The incident, as well as as the Interislander ferry Kaitaki losing power and drifting towards the rocky south coast with more than 800 people on board earlier this year, has highlighted the "fragile" emergency response capability in the event of a maritime disaster in the Cook Strait.

Marlborough mayor Nadine Taylor and Greater Wellington Regional Council chairman Daran Ponter have written to Transport Minister Michael Wood outlining their concerns about the lack of a tug capable of an open water rescue.

They are meeting with Associate Transport Minister Kiri Allan next Monday to discuss the issue.

Taylor told Nine to Noon the best way to avoid a mass rescue on the Cook Strait was to make sure there was emergency ocean-going tug vessel capability.

"That's what we raised with the government. The idea that we needed to have this discussion between Wellington, Marlborough and the government around what an emergency ocean-going tow vessel provision might look like and how it might be provided."

Ponter said it was not the first time such an issue had been raised with the government. Wellington's port did have ocean-tugging capability "for a period" after the Wahine disaster but a port reform in 1989 deemed it no longer necessary.

"We are saying with, I suppose, with climate change, with more severe events with more traffic on the Cook Strait, we have to look at that."

The Kaitaki in the Marlborough Sounds.

The Kaitaki. Photo: Supplied / KiwiRail

He told Nine to Noon he was on "tenterhooks" the day Kaitaki lost power and felt "extremely lucky" at the end of the days that things had worked out.

"But we can't just keep on living on luck. That's what I walked away from, that's when we started to sort of make contact with the government about 'well, how many times are we going to be lucky and when is that luck going to run out'?"

Ponter said he got a briefing from the harbourmaster that the capability of the two harbour tugs that went to help were "massively inefficient" in holding the ship and had it taken longer for crew to get the engines going again, it was likely to have run aground.

Responsibility a 'complex area'

Taylor said responsibility was a "complex area" as there was no specific organisation in charge.

Marlborough Sounds councillor and deputy mayor Nadine Taylor has put her hand up to run for mayor in this year's local election.

Marlborough mayor Nadine Taylor. Photo: RICKY WILSON/STUFF

At first, it lies with a vessel owner to make sure they are adhering to all Maritime NZ rules and provisions, but then Maritime NZ becomes the controlling authority.

Responsibility for a rescue, however, laid with police, she said.

"It's a complex area. The harbourmasters also has some level of responsibility around risk management and that's what we are seeing with our Harbourmaster working with the interisland ferries and the introduction of those new vessels into Cook Strait."

But Taylor said this confusion was why she and Ponter had put their heads together and said a national conversation was needed.

"It's not good enough to not know where the responsibility lies and it's not good enough to rely on luck. So we are leading the conversations. It's not the responsibility of our councils but it's a conversation we have chosen to lead and I guess it's because Cook Strait is so critical to us as a nation and it's such a treacherous piece of water."

Ponter agreed, and said it was a classic instance of where organisations can end up being guilty of just going into a corner and turning a blind eye to the problem.

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Greater Wellington Regional Council chairman Daran Ponter. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

"I know that that sounds quite harsh but when you're looking as a member of the public from the outside at this issue, I think that's very much how it can appear. Nobody is actually gripped on to this issue, no-one is really responsible at the end of the day.

"There is not one single organisation where we can say 'you're responsible'. As a consequence, the issue just gets pushed around from organisation to organisation which is why, effectively, we have addressed our correspondence to the minister because this is a local government type issue, not an organisational response issue."

Ponter said it was time for leading agencies to think outside the box and push boundaries to explore options for a ocean-going tug.

It was not about buying a high expense vessel, but looking at other vessels employed in New Zealand and seeing if they could perhaps be repurposed into a vessel that had tug capabilities.

Wellington Harbourmaster Grant Nalder agreed.

He told Nine to Noon there was not funding available for New Zealand to have big, specialist tugs sitting around the country waiting for a possible disaster - but there were other resources that could be looked at to help "keep the ship off the beach".

He did not know what something like that would cost but he hoped a commitment from the government to look into possible options would come from Monday's meeting.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said the issue of ferries was ultimately a matter for KiwiRail, Bluebridge and the relevant authorities.

"We've got a programme of work to deal with the underlying issue, which is the age of the Cook Strait ferry fleet," he said.

"New ships are on the way, unfortunately those interisland ferries take a number of years to manufacture.

"The work to do that is under way now and that's going to provide us a more reliable Cook Strait service in future - but in the meantime of course I know both the Interislander and Bluebridge are working hard to provide as reliable a service as they possibly can."

Current Shiling location as of 11.10 am on May 23 as it is pulled into Wellington Harbour. Directly off the middle of Lyall Bay, tugs coming from the harbour are off Moa Point.

The Shiling was near Lyall Bay as of 11:15am as it was pulled into Wellington Harbour on Tuesday morning. Photo: RNZ / Lucy Emson

Further details about Shiling situation revealed

Nalder said the Shiling was expected to be at Wellington Harbour's pilot station at 11am where it would take a further two hours to get the vessel up to the wharf.

He said the ship had lost power on 12 May, leading to it sitting side-on to the wind and waves - the "most uncomfortable way you can sit".

Given the ships height and lack of cargo on board, the vessel was "rolling a great deal which make it very unpleasant for the crew. The crew couldn't do anything in the engine room because of the risk, they spend most of the day like that".

The Skandi Emerald was available on the day and "steamed down" at a good pace from New Plymouth.

Nalder said it got a tow line on the Shiling and was able to change the ship's angle, making it a lot better for those on board.

The Skandi Emerald then towed the ship to Tasman Bay.

Nalder said the Skandi Emerald could be described as an anchor handler that supported offshore rigs. It did towing work and was able to pull loads, a lot different from the harbour tugs.

Nalder said the decision to stop tugs in 1989 was because they were not full ocean tugs. Overtime, ships have become bigger and the tugs were not capable of dealing with them.

Listen to The Detail episode, Chaos on the Cook Strait, here.

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