11 Dec 2022

Gulf Livestock 1: ABC investigation reveals history of concerns over ship before fatal sinking

12:43 pm on 11 December 2022

By Alison McClymont and Dan Harrison, ABC Investigations

An ABC investigation can reveal the owner of a ship that sank in a typhoon two years ago, killing 41 people, had repeated safety concerns flagged by maritime authorities and may have been operating while insolvent, according to auditors.

Gulf Livestock 1 vessel off the shores of Malaga in 2018.

Gulf Livestock 1 vessel off the shores of Malaga in 2018. Photo: Frans Truyens via Vessel Finder

It is August 28, 2020, four days before the storm will hit. In the Philippine Sea, stockman William Mainprize, 27, is on an old container ship that has been converted into a livestock vessel.

Measuring 133 metres in length, the Gulf Livestock 1 is on its way to China to deliver almost 6000 heifers.

William, who grew up on Sydney's northern beaches, is one of two Australians on board.

The other is Lukas Orda, 25, a Queensland veterinarian who has recently become a father to a boy, Theo.

William sends a WhatsApp message to a group of friends and family.

It includes maps showing the ship's intended course plotted through the centre of the storm followed by a grimacing emoji.

"Uh oh! About to hit some nasty weather," he writes.

The message reaches William's sister, Sarah, on the Gold Coast - and she is worried.

"Hey Bro can you let me know when you're through it - it's scaring me," she replies.

"Will do Sar!" William responds.

"Should be fine. We're a big boat."

Cargo ships, tankers and fishing boats are among the vessels swarming this patch of the Pacific.

Japan Coast Guard Patrol Ship Kudaka conducts a search operation of Gulf Livestock 1 which sent a distress signal off of Amami Oshima in Kagoshima Prefecture on 3 September, 2020.

Japan Coast Guard Patrol Ship Kudaka conducts a search operation of Gulf Livestock 1 which sent a distress signal off of Amami Oshima in Kagoshima Prefecture on 3 September, 2020. Photo: Yoshitaka Nishi / Yomiuri / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AFP

Shipping data, supplied to the ABC by Spire Global, a space-based data and analytics provider, is captured from the vessel's Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder.

It tracks vessel identification, speed, location and course and allows boats and coastal authorities to prevent collisions.

Using this data, ABC was able to track the final days of the Gulf Livestock 1 as it made its way from Napier on New Zealand's north island towards the Chinese port of Jingtang.

On board were 43 men - 39 Filipinos and two New Zealanders as well as the two Australians - and 5867 heifers.

But rising from the ocean was something that would prevent them from reaching their intended destination.

East of the Philippines, a tropical depression had strengthened to form a typhoon.

In the Philippines, the destructive phenomenon is given the name Julian. Elsewhere, it is called Typhoon Maysak.

As the weather worsened, other commercial vessels cleared the area in search of safer waters.

The Gulf Livestock 1 did not deviate from its course.

The shipping data showed it cutting a relatively lonely figure as it passed between the Japanese islands of Yoronjima and Okinoerabujima.

By now, weather data showed the nearby typhoon generating wind speeds in excess of 175km/h.

As the Gulf Livestock 1 entered the East China Sea, it sailed into the storm. Huge waves crashed over the ship.

Lukas Orda sent a message to his brothers, Jens and Tobi: "Don't tell mum but our engine control room has just filled with water and the motor has now failed."

William Mainprize messaged a friend: "We are floating sideways in huge sea … Oh man, it's very hairy."

At 1.10am local time on 2 September, the vessel sent its final signal.

The crew frantically pumped water out from below deck to try to save the ship, which was listing at 30 degrees.

The vessel's lights go out, then its emergency lights come on, and Captain Dante Addug instructed all crew to put their life jackets on.

When the ship is hit by a huge wave, Chief Officer Eduardo Sareno decides to jump in the water.

He will be rescued 22 hours later by Japan's coast guard.

Two days later, another crew member is plucked from a lifeboat.

Another crew member found unconscious floating face down in the ocean is pronounced dead.

None of the other 40 men nor the ship itself have been found.

The messages William and Lukas sent in the ship's final chaotic hours would be the last their loved ones would hear from them.

History of 'high risk' vessels

The Gulf Livestock 1 had barely departed on what would be its final voyage when trouble first appeared.

"We're not even a day out of port and the engine is f---ed," William Mainprize messaged a friend on 15 August.

In fact, the ship's problems dated back much further.

An ABC investigation has discovered that in the 18 months prior to the Gulf Livestock 1 sinking, Indonesian and Australian authorities recorded dozens of safety breaches aboard the ship, including critical failures of its propulsion and navigations systems, as well as concerns about the stability of the vessel.

The ABC can also reveal the Dubai-based shipping company operating the ship, Gulf Navigation Holding PJSC, had a long history of operating "high risk" vessels around the world.

In the period leading up to the sinking, it posted combined losses of more than a quarter of a billion dollars and, according to a Deloitte financial report in late September 2020, may have been insolvent at the time of the tragedy.

The auditors issued an official warning to Gulf Navigation that it could not pay its loans and outstanding debts.

Deloitte found that the company's accumulated losses would have exceeded 50 percent of Gulf Navigation and its subsidiaries' share capital, forcing the company to either dissolve or restructure.

But Gulf Navigation Holding reported to Deloitte that it was expecting to receive an insurance claim of 197.5 million Emirati dirhams (NZ$83.9m) for the loss of Gulf Livestock 1.

The Deloitte report said the insurance claim was "not virtually certain to be recoverable" and to conform with international financial reporting standards, should not be recognised.

Two years later, after negotiating new terms with its banks, Gulf Navigation's financial position remains precarious.

For the first six months of this year, the company reported a loss of more than NZ$5.3m and its liabilities still exceed its assets.

Days after Gulf Livestock 1 capsized in the East China Sea, shareholders and investors voted in a new board for Gulf Navigation.

Sheikh Theyab Bin Tahnoon Bin Mohammed Al Nahyan, a member of the United Arab Emirates royal family, became chairman.

He told shareholders: "We are very optimistic about the promising opportunities the future holds for Gulf Navigation."

A man being rescued from a life raft by coast guards, about 2 kilometres north-northwest of Kodakarajima island of Kagoshima prefecture on September 4, 2020 after the sinking of Gulf Livestock 1.

A man being rescued from a life raft by coast guards, about 2 kilometres north-northwest of Kodakarajima island of Kagoshima prefecture on September 4, 2020 after the sinking of Gulf Livestock 1. Photo: Japan coastguards / AFP

The losses Gulf Navigation continued to face coincided with 195 safety breaches identified on board the company's ships - which include a fleet of five chemical tankers and two livestock vessels - in the past five years prior to the Gulf Livestock 1 sinking.

Some of these deficiencies were found by Tokyo MOU, one of eight Port State Control organisations around the globe, which monitors shipping standards for the Asia Pacific region.

The breaches for Gulf Navigation's chemical tankers ranged from hull corrosion, failures of life and rescue boats, critical problems in the operation of navigation equipment, as well as wider safety concerns and pollution. The ships have been tagged by authorities as "high risk" on 18 occasions.

The company's two livestock vessels, Gulf Livestock 1 and Gulf Livestock 2, also had dozens of breaches.

Gulf Livestock 2 has been inspected by authorities in Africa, Israel, Portugal, Spain, Turkey and Brazil.

Equasis, an online shipping database launched by the European Commission and the UK government in 1997, recorded 44 deficiencies for Gulf Livestock 2 over the past five years.

It was detained for four days in Cartagena in southern Spain for its doors not being weather tight, engine problems, and failures of fire safety equipment.

Gulf Livestock 1 itself also had dozens of safety and mechanical issues recorded in the years leading up to its sinking.

Tokyo MOU recorded 34 breaches or deficiencies on Gulf Livestock 1 ranging from navigation safety, engine failures, functionality of safety systems, working conditions on board the vessel, to faulty gauges and thermometers.

William Mainprize shot this video of conditions on board the Gulf Livestock 1.

The most serious deficiencies were found by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), which detained the vessel in Broome in May 2019.

"AMSA found deficiencies in navigation equipment and the crew operating the navigation equipment were not properly trained," a spokesperson said.

AMSA also raised concerns about the stability of the vessel. It directed the exporter to reduce the number of cattle on board.

In the same month, an AMSA surveyor investigated a confidential complaint regarding alleged delays in paying crew and insufficient provisions.

AMSA issued a deficiency regarding insufficient provisions, and the ship's owners provided adequate provisions the next day, the spokesperson said.

"The surveyor also investigated the complaint regarding the wages, but could not find any evidence to support the complaint," the AMSA spokesperson said.

Seven months later, in December, six deficiencies were detected when the vessel docked in Panjang, Indonesia. This time, the main issue was a failure of the vessel's main engine propulsion system.

In July 2020 - just two months before the tragedy - the ship drifted for a day while undergoing emergency repairs.

An unmanned life boat drifting about 4 km east of Kodakarajima island of Kagoshima prefecture on September 4, 2020 after the Gulf Livestock 1 ship sank.

An unmanned life boat drifting about 4 km east of Kodakarajima island of Kagoshima prefecture on September 4, 2020 after the Gulf Livestock 1 ship sank. Photo: 10th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters / AFP

Gulf Navigation Holding did not respond to ABC's calls and emails requesting comment.

Maritime New Zealand oversaw the loading of the Gulf Livestock 1 in Napier at the start of its final voyage, but the agency carried out no maintenance inspections of the ship.

"An inspection was not required at that time," a spokesperson from Maritime New Zealand said.

"Gulf Livestock 1 was not categorised as a "high risk" vessel or a "priority one" vessel in the PSC [Port State Control] system. It was inspected under the PSC arrangement in Australia earlier in 2020, so was not due for another inspection until at least October 2020."

In New Zealand, the sinking of the Gulf Livestock 1 helped galvanise the movement to ban the live sheep and cattle exports.

In September this year, the New Zealand Government legislated a permanent ban on the export of livestock by sea, starting April 2023.

New Zealand Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said the Gulf Livestock 1 case, as well as other incidents such as the sinking of the Al Badri 1 off Sudan in June this year, in which 15,000 sheep drowned, had highlighted the risks of exporting livestock by sea.

"The regular occurrence of such tragedies has the potential to inflict lasting damage to New Zealand's reputation in trade, no matter how high we set animal welfare standards for the voyages and everyone's best efforts," O'Connor said.

Before its victory in the federal election in May, the Australian Labor Party pledged to phase out live sheep exports by sea, but Agriculture Minister Murray Watt declined to nominate a date on which it would implement the reform.

"The government remains committed to live cattle exports and ensuring strong animal welfare standards are in place," he told the ABC.

"Australia has world-leading standards for the carriage of livestock by sea," Watt said.

"No export consignment via sea is permitted to depart Australia unless the department is satisfied that all legislative requirements have been met and AMSA has assessed the vessel as seaworthy and appropriate to transport livestock."

A report commissioned by the New Zealand government said it appeared likely that the sinking of Gulf Livestock 1 had a combination of causes, "including at least mechanical, meteorological and human factors".

But because the ship was registered in Panama, responsibility for an authoritative investigation into the sinking rests with the Panama Maritime Authority.

Many commercial ships are registered in countries like Panama, Liberia, the Marshall Islands and Antigua and Barbuda, where regulations are lax.

It is a practice known by merchant sailors and their unions as a flag of convenience.

"Flag of convenience ships operate globally without regulatory oversight and are essentially lawless workplaces where abuses of crew, mismanagement of safety and neglect of essential equipment is rife," said Ian Bray, coordinator for the International Transport Workers' Federation.

'A state of frozen grief'

Two years on, the families of Lukas Orda and William Mainprize are still waiting for the release of the Panama Maritime Authority's report.

The authority has not responded to the ABC's telephone calls and emails.

"We need to find out what happened to our son," Lukas's mother, Sabine, said.

"Lukas was the warmest, kindest, best person you can think of.

"He loved his family and his little son Theo. We just miss him," she said.

"We are looking for answers," Lukas's father, Ulrich, said.

He said the only way of understanding what happened to the Gulf Livestock 1 would be to retrieve the ship's data recorder - its equivalent of an aircraft's "black box" - but no government was interested in doing that.

"They spent millions trying to find [Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared in 2014] but a ship at sea - no-one is interested. No-one is interested in finding the remains of my son or the other human beings on that ship so that we would have some kind of closure."

He told the ABC he had no faith in the Panamanian authority's investigation.

"I'm sure it won't tell us why the captain decided to sail straight into a typhoon instead of diverting to a safer area," he said.

Why the ship's captain, 34-year-old Dante Addug, chose to proceed into Typhoon Maysak remains a mystery.

Peter Van Duijn, a maritime expert from Deakin University, said normally a captain would use information from local weather bureaus to plot a course to try to avoid a typhoon.

"It's really up to the expertise of the captain," he said.

"Also Gulf Livestock 1 was an old vessel and a cargo-converted vessel. These type of vessels always have issues, so you would definitely try and avoid a typhoon at all costs."

William Mainprize's brother, Tom, said his family felt "helpless".

"We are still hoping he's alive, which makes it horrendous," he said.

"If there was some form of definitive fact that we knew what happened, we could move on. But because we have no idea what happened, there have been no answers.

"We might have lost our little brother because someone has done the wrong thing, and no-one is helping us. I feel hopeless, a mixture of sadness and I just feel sick."

The Department of Foreign Affairs told both families that they must wait for the release of the Panamanian report before they can be issued with death certificates for Lukas and William.

The Orda family was able to obtain a death certificate for Lukas through the Queensland government in November 2021 while the Mainprize family is still waiting.

Both the Orda and Mainprize families are investigating what legal options are available to them.

"We don't feel like we're going to see justice," said William's sister Sarah.

"Of course, we hope for that. But it does feel like the sea is very lawless."

The families are seeking compensation against the registered owner of the vessel - a shell company, also based in Panama, called Gulf Navigation Livestock Carrier 1 Ltd, Inc - which is a subsidiary of the Dubai-based Gulf Navigation Holding PJSC.

Even if the families were to win the case, there is no provision for the enforcement of Australian judgments in Panama.

Both families are also seeking compensation from Australasian Global Exports, the company they allege was responsible for the export of the heifers as well as employing qualified crew like William and Lukas.

Australasian Global Exports has not responded to the ABC's questions.

The Gulf Livestock 1 was one of 876 vessels lost at sea in the decade to 2021, according to Data company Statista.

Sarah Mainprize said it was difficult to put into words how difficult the lack of closure was to bear.

"We haven't had any conclusion around what actually happened or why," she said.

"It's almost been like a state of frozen grief. And honestly, it feels like our hearts have been ripped out of our chests."


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