PNG Rabaul Shipping Inquiry Reveals Numerous Issues

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Sharp demonstrated ‘gross disrespect’ for passenger safety

By Oseah Philemon

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (PNG Post-Courier, Feb. 4, 2013) – On February 2, 2012 around 6:30am the passenger vessel MV Rabaul Queen capsized in rough seas in the Vitiaz Strait off the coast of Finschhafen in Papua New Guinea’s Morobe Province.

The Commission of Inquiry set up by the Prime Minister to look into the cause or causes of Papua New Guinea’s worst sea disaster in history estimated that at least 392 or possibly as many as 411 persons were on board the vessel at the time it capsized.

According to the commission’s report at least 142 and possibly as many as 161 persons were missing from the accident. It found that four people tragically died and their bodies have been recovered. The commission stated that the missing were presumed dead as a result of the disaster.

In its final report the inquiry stated that it had intended to identify all those people who travelled on board MV Rabaul Queen on its final voyage. However the lack of manifests, the quality of record keeping by both Rabaul Shipping and various Disaster Centers, the propensity for Papua New Guinean’s to use more than one name and the fact that identification was not required at the time of booking or boarding (with many in Papua New Guinea not carrying identification) made it a practical impossibility to complete this activity accurately. Therefore the commission has chosen not to publish a list of names because it cannot guarantee the list is complete and 100 percent accurate.

The MV Rabaul Queen started its final voyage from Buka in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville at 3pm on January 30, 2012.

It was a voyage of 180 nautical miles from Buka to Rabaul.

The commission of inquiry report stated that sometime between 0600 hours and 0700 hours on January 31, the ship arrived in Rabaul.

After berthing, the ship’s master Anthony Tsiau visited the Rabaul Shipping office and was given a document by Rabaul Shipping’s Managing Director Captain Peter Sharp.

The document was titled ‘Weather 31st January 2012.’

It indicated that during January 31 to February 1 and 2, winds in the West New Britain-Vitiaz Strait and Lae region would be north-westerly and up to 25 or 30 knots with the highest speeds expected in the Vitiaz Strait-Lae region on the January 31 and February 1.

Before leaving Rabaul for the second part of the fateful voyage to Kimbe, Rabaul Shipping staff told the commission they counted the number of ticketed passengers who boarded the vessel in Rabaul and advised the Master that 365 passengers had boarded the ship.

This figure did not include more than 10 infants and children under three years of age who were not required to have a ticket.

Just before nightfall on January 31, the ship set sail on the 180 nautical mile voyage to Kimbe.

At 0915 hours on Wednesday 1st February Rabaul Queen arrived in Kimbe.

It then discharged cargo and reloaded for last leg of the voyage to Lae. Passengers boarded at 1100 hours.

Rabaul Shipping staff said they advised the Master that 138 ticketed passengers boarded the ship in Kimbe – excluding children under three years of age.

The staff did not count the number of Rabaul passengers that boarded the ship so the Master assumed that number remained unchanged.

Also on board were 13 crew: the Master, a chief and second mate, three seamen, a chief and second engineer, four motormen and a cleaner, two canteen boys and the master of the Solomon Queen who was returning home for leave.

The master signed the ‘Voyage Instruction Report’ and gave the report back to the Kimbe office staff.

Conditions on board Rabaul Queen were much the same as those when it departed Rabaul – overcrowded.

Some of the survivors of the disaster told the commission of inquiry later that the ship was ‘packed’ and ‘overloaded'.

People were sitting shoulder to shoulder on the decks and they could not stretch their legs. Some were sitting on the stairs. The report stated that the conditions the passengers were expected to travel in the ship especially for a journey of this length and in the prevailing and predicted weather conditions were deplorable.

The report stated that at 1247 hours Wednesday February 1, 2012 Rabaul Queen departed the Kimbe passenger wharf for the 280 nautical mile overnight voyage to Lae.

The voyage would take the ship from Kimbe through Stettin Bay, north of the Willaumez Peninsula and Cape Hollmann, then towards the Dampier Strait which runs between the islands of New Britain and Umboi.

After transiting the Dampier strait the Rabaul Queen would enter the Vitiaz Strait near Massmass Island- one of the Siassi islands.

It would head for a stretch of water between Cape Cretin and Tami Islands to the south-southeast of Finschhafen before following the coast westward towards Lae. The commission stated that this was the usual route to follow and its Master and navigating officers were familiar with it.

The report stated that the crew did not give passengers any emergency instructions before the ship left Kimbe for Lae.

The initial part of the voyage was stated to be fair with north-westerly winds of less than 10 knots and smooth seas according to the Master and Chief Mate of the ship.

These conditions remained until the ship reached Cape Campbell on the eastern side of the Willaumez Peninsula.

Not long before 1600 hours as the ship approached the cape it started to leave the lee of the peninsula and become influenced by the prevailing strong north-westerly winds and rough seas.

The Chief Mate, who was on watch at the time, estimated that the north-westerly wind speed increased to 20 knots and the seas up to two meters. Consequently the ship started to roll and pitch.

As the ship rounded Cape Hollmann at the top of Willaumez Peninsula and began the voyage to Cape Gloucester at the end of the Dampier Strait – it was subjected to more of the north westerly winds and sea conditions and its movement increased.

Rain started to fall as well.

These conditions remained for the duration of the voyage.

The constant pitching and rolling and overcrowded conditions resulted in many people being seasick.

At 0330 hours on February 2, the Master of Rabaul Queen took control of the ship and navigated it through the Siassi islands and into the Vitiaz Strait. When the ship entered the open waters of the Vitiaz Strait it left the lee of Umboi Island and was subjected to the prevailing north-westerly winds and choppy seas. The speed of the winds increased to between 20 to 30 knots and the seas to three meters.

Around that time the ship was starting to steer a little uneasily so the Master took the ship out of auto-pilot – put it into hand steering and took the helm himself.

During the 35 nautical mile voyage across Vitiaz Strait with the prevailing near gale force conditions hitting the ship on its starboard quarter – the ship continued to roll and water continued to come onto the starboard side of the upper deck.

At 0530 hours the Chief Mate left the bridge to go below to check on the passengers because he could hear some younger men shouting ‘one more, one more’ as the ship rode the waves. This was repeated several times and he was wondering why this was being shouted.

At about 0615 hours while the Chief Mate was securing the last of three drums of oil on the poop deck, a large wave hit the ship on its starboard quarter. The stern was pushed to the port and ship heeled over heavily to port. This resulted in the ship coming onto the north-westerly seas. On the bridge the master lost steerage and was not able to bring its head back around the port.

By this time the Chief Mate and many of the passengers on the exposed decks ended up in the water. The report stated that as the ship was slowly returning to the upright a second wave hit the starboard side with sufficient force to again heel it over to the port. However because the ship had not returned to the uprights the heel angle was far greater than before and resulted in to the ship’s port side becoming submerged. Water began flooding into the accommodation quarters.

The ship was heeled over to port for only a short period of time when a third wave hit the exposed hull and the ship capsized.

Some passengers were able to make their way clear by swimming through open doors or windows. The incident was swift, thus the Master did not broadcast a mayday signal on either very high frequency (VHF) or high frequency (HF) radio.

The commission of inquiry found that Rabaul Shipping owner Captain Peter Sharp allowed the ship to operate without appropriately qualified crew for a long period of time.

Of its Master the inquiry found that Anthony Tsiau the Master of the Rabaul Queen was the Master of the MV Glomaris which sank in 1990 and resulted in the suspension of his certificate for nine months.

On 18 August 1993 the same Anthony Tsiau was the Master of the MV Kris when it sank in waters off West New Britain. This is what the commission stated of Captain Peter Sharp: "Captain Peter Sharp demonstrated to the Commission that he had little or no respect for people, including those in authority. This gross disrespect as reflected in the appalling and inhumane conditions he was prepared to allow passengers on Rabaul Queen to travel and may explain, in part, why he was prepared to compromise the safety of passengers on board his ships. The safety of passengers was not of paramount concern to Captain Sharp. He made it clear in evidence that he put profit before safety.

Captain Sharp wrote highly offensive, insulting, intimidating and provocative letters to the Regulator, the National maritime Safety Authority. He showed little or no respect for the organisation or maritime laws of Papua New Guinea.

No action has been taken to prosecute anyone.

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