That sinking feeling

How would New Zealand rescue 4000 passengers forced to abandon a cruise ship off the rugged and remote south coast?

Should cruise ships even be there? Mark Price has been speaking to a marine expert who believes the Costa Concordia sinking in the Mediterranean is a wake-up call for New Zealand.

In the business they are known as MROs or "mass rescue operations".

This month's grounding and capsizing of the Costa Concordia off the Italian island of Giglio qualified as an MRO - more than 4000 lives saved, more than 30 dead or missing.

That mass rescue occurred in calm conditions and near to civilisation.

But, how would 4000 passengers on a cruise ship that struck a reef in the "roaring forties" off the south coast of the South Island get on?Wellington marine expert John Riding believes cruise ships may have become too big to be sailing such remote parts of New Zealand's coastline.

"Should we be limiting the size of cruise ships going to Fiordland? I just don't know."

Mr Riding, a director of marine company Marico, says it is not an argument to suggest events such as the capsize of the Costa Concordia are so rare they do not need to be considered.

"That doesn't work because you need to know that if it actually does happen you have the ability to respond to it.

"Otherwise you end up with a lot of people dead."

He suggests the number of people carried by a cruise ship should be related to the capability of an area to deal with a mass rescue.

"What's the maximum number of people you want in one place if you have to evacuate them?"

"What [resources] have we got in the local area?"

"And that should probably start setting a limit ... on the size of cruise ships."

Mr Riding says big cruise ships are more cost-effective to operate "from a ticket sales point of view".

"But at what point does the number of people you have on the ship become a headache in an incident?"

Dunedin Marine Search and Rescue chairman Martin Balch says it is a "very interesting" question.

"The hard, cold facts are that if [a ship] with about 200 people on board sank off Brighton or something it would be a fair old act to get 200 people back ashore around here."

However, he says cruise ships are "extremely safe" - equipped with a mix of liferafts and lifeboats.

"While it is not too good for all the elderly people to be sitting in a liferaft, it's not an absolute necessity that you be right alongside that [raft] within an hour to get everybody ashore in two hours.

"It would be nice if you could."

Mr Balch believes the high number of cruise ships operating around the New Zealand coast adds to the resources available if one were to go aground.

He says around the Antarctic, fishing boats frequently rescue each other and he expects the same would occur if there was a major cruise-ship incident here.

"If we had a big [cruise ship] in here and it was the closest one to a big disaster off Puysegur Pt, I wouldn't mind betting one of the first boats that would get tasked is whatever [ship] is here."

At 25 knots, a cruise ship from Port Chalmers could reach Puysegur Pt - at the far southwest corner of the South Island - in half a day.

Mr Balch points out that when Russian cruise ship Mikhail Lermontov sank in the Marlborough Sounds in 1986, ships such as the LPG tanker MV Tarihiko came to the rescue.

He suggests if the worst happened to a cruise ship, using a Cook Strait ferry such as the Arahura to evacuate passengers might be one of the options.

"If we had an incident say in the Milford area, something like that could well be as good as anything."

Maritime New Zealand has considered the issue of mass rescue and has had discussions with cruise companies.

A spokeswoman told the ODT: "For the Otago region, there are very real challenges arising from the combination of possible adverse weather, the relative lack of search and rescue resources that are immediately available, the terrain and, potentially, communications difficulties.

"Cruise-ship operators are well aware that given the potentially very large numbers of people involved that the best course of action is to remain on the vessel if possible and that one of the best response assets is another very large vessel, if one is available."

The ODT has sent Maritime NZ an Official Information Act request for specifics of its contingency plans for dealing with a mass evacuation of a large cruise ship at both Brighton and Puysegur Pt.

The route around the south coast, between Port Chalmers and Milford Sound, is used by most cruise ships that visit New Zealand.

It is a stretch of coast with plenty of hazards, including reefs, although Mr Riding says New Zealand's coastal waters are well mapped and cruise ship masters should not encounter "any surprises" along the south coast.

However, since the sinking of the Rena off Tauranga, Mr Riding has been pushing for the Government to establish mandatory shipping routes to ensure all ships give all of the coast a wide berth.

"At the moment we've got guidance which says please go here, please go there, it's a good idea if you did this and then, heyho, nobody's following it.

"What a surprise."

Mr Riding says "mandatory routing" would require ships to stay five or six miles offshore instead of two miles.

That, he says, would mean ships burnt more fuel "going round the long way" but they would have a greater safety margin if they broke down.

"You have got all this drifting time before you are in danger."

Mr Riding has first-hand experience of a cruise-ship breakdown.

He was on board the Astor, carrying out an audit.

As it approached Long Island, after entering Dusky Sound, on February 24, 2006, it broke down.

"John Henderson was the pilot who did a good job in bringing the vessel up and he had an anchorage contingency plan.

"Power was restored, but the reality is that vessels are not automated sewing machines.

"They do break down."

Mr Riding says the ship was consequently banned from Fiordland and now has a new owner and a new name.

The incident does not appear to have been reported by the media at the time.

Mr Riding says cruise ships "in general" do travel at a greater distance from the coast than other vessels and have higher standards of navigation and equipment.

"And, they spend more on their seafarers, so you get a better quality navigator."

Before a ship leaves port, it must complete a "passage plan" to the next port - setting out a course that takes the ship safely past headlands and other obstacles.

The plan is usually done by the second mate and then signed off by the master.

"A proper passage plan, and sticking to it, is something that has been with shipping for the last 200 years," Mr Riding says.

With modern technology, the computer "will complain" if the ship deviates from the plan.

As well, on many ships including the Cook Strait ferries, the master's decisions are routinely challenged by another officer on the bridge under a system called "bridge resource management" or BRM.

And that, says Mr Riding, is one of the mysteries of the Costa Concordia - why, when its master Captain Francesco Schettino deviated from a safe course, was there no apparent objection?"From an accident investigation perspective, there are three types of accidents.

"There is a slip, there is a mistake and there is a violation.

"It looks on the face of it that this is the worst of the three. It's been a complete violation.

"Now when the master made that violation he should have had a challenge ...

"I think what happened on the Costa Concordia is absolutely bizarre."

Mr Riding expects conversations recorded on the ship's black box to be revealing.

The ODT asked Carnival Australia - part of the group that owns the Costa Concordia - to explain how much latitude its masters have when navigating cruise ships around New Zealand.

A company spokesman emailed that safe navigation was covered by international regulations and by the company's own "strict" fleet regulations.

"In the specific examples of Fiordland and Port Chalmers, pilots are required at these locations and are of course used.

"In the event of a ship's course between ports having to be amended due to circumstances such as weather conditions, any change in course must be documented and cross-checked on board in accordance with our strict fleet regulations."

Piloting services inside Fiordland sounds, such as Milford, Doubtful and Dusky, are provided by a Port Otago subsidiary, Fiordland Pilot Services Ltd.

Port Otago's marine services manager Captain Hugh Marshall is one of six pilots licensed to guide cruise vessels there. His job is to offer advice and local knowledge to the ship's master and crew although "the captain is always in charge of the vessel".

"He is responsible for the ship to his owners and his crew.

"We are there to give the local knowledge and advise the risk and the best route to take and really give instructions to the helmsman ... and advise on weather conditions."

Captain Marshall has been doing the job for about five years and says the times when a master would challenge a pilot's input were "really, really seldom".

He has never been on a ship where he was concerned about the judgement of the master and considered "the majority" of ships were run to a high standard.

The captain of the Costa Concordia is said to have deviated from a safe course, taking a "touristic navigation" to "salute" a former colleague.

Asked if in his experience a captain might deviate for sightseeing purposes, Mr Marshall said no.

"It's very, very seldom things like that happen now. These things don't happen these days.

"On well-run ships they don't."



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