Wednesday 1 February 2023

 While Auckland was being devastated by flooding last weekend, a potentially more serious threat to life was playing out off Wellington’s south coast. The interisland ferry Kaitaki had lost power and was drifting in heavy swells towards the coastline. In the event, power was restored and the Kaitaki, escorted by two tugs and other vessels, was able to make it to its berth under its own power, without further incident.

An inquiry into what happened is now underway and the vessel has been withdrawn from service while all its systems are thoroughly checked. Predictably and on cue, Transport Minister Wood, fresh from issuing orders to all and sundry about what should be done in Auckland, blamed the previous government for not investing in new ferries.

Inevitably, the Kaitaki drama drew comparisons with the Wahine disaster of 1968 when the ferry capsized just inside Wellington Harbour, with the loss of more than 50 lives, during one of the most severe storm to batter the city. The Kaitaki is considerably larger than the Wahine (22,365 tonnes and 181 metres in length compared to Wahine’s 8,115 tonnes and 149 metres) and there were more people on board – 880 passengers and crew on the Kaitaki, and 734 passengers and crew on the Wahine.

The 1968 Jamieson Commission of Inquiry into the loss of the Wahine drew attention, amongst other matters, to tug services in Wellington, provided at the time by two old steam tugs operated by the Union Steam Ship Company. It recommended “immediate consideration (be given) to the question of a salvage and deep-water tug for Wellington.”

In the wake of Jamieson’s report, the then Wellington Harbour Board commissioned the construction of two new tugs, with far greater towing power and the capacity to handle the transition from conventional cargo vessels to big container ships that took place in the early 1970s. These tugs, joined later by a third tug, were state-of-the art at the time. The arrival of more and larger ships led to their replacement from 2008 by new tugs with nearly three times more towing power. The assumption was that both sets of tugs were well equipped to deal successfully with a Wahine-type situation.

A 2006 Wellington Harbour Navigational Risk Assessment prepared for the Greater Wellington Regional Council rated a ferry grounding at or near the harbour entrance as the top likely risk. The assessment raised concerns "given the rapidly changing weather conditions at Wellington” about the adequacy of the tug fleet of the time, and influenced the decision to replace the 1970s tug fleet.

However, despite the Jamieson Commission’s report, it is not clear to what extent its recommendation of “a salvage and deep-water tug for Wellington” has been met. In recent days there have been suggestions that the present tugs were not equipped to tow to safety, let along salvage, the Kaitaki as it drifted over the weekend. Given the 2006 Navigational Risk Assessment, this raises important questions for the inquiry now underway to consider.

Wellington Harbour has a shallow draft and narrow width at its entrance at the best of times. With more container vessels and cruise ships, considerably larger than the Kaitaki, using it in all conditions, the adequacy of towing and salvage services becomes an even more pressing question. The 2006 risk assessment did note that while a ferry grounding was the top risk, that was still within the “As Low as Reasonably Practical” level of risk.

The problem with that is that adverse events, like the Kaitaki stranding, are inherently random and unpredictable. But when they occur, the impact can be significant, and the expectation is that emergency and rescue services will be able to cope. The question the inquiry into the Kaitaki’s loss of power will need to consider is whether authorities had the best resources available to meet the circumstances that arose.

Nevertheless, unlike the chaotic response to Auckland’s floods, authorities in Wellington, led by the harbourmaster, Grant Nalder, responded much more decisively and admirably to the Kaitaki situation. The tugs and pilot launch were quickly mobilised, a civilian rescue fleet was put on standby, and emergency services deployed to the south coast. There was no indecision about who should be doing what, nor were there any mixed or confusing messages. Despite the potential gravity of the situation, there was a clear sense of everything possible being done to protect the safety of those on board the ferry.

During a surreal weekend, the contrast between the handling of significant emergencies in Wellington and Auckland could not have been more pronounced. Something Wayne Brown may wish to ponder, before he next sounds off to his tennis colleagues.


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