The Case Of The Unlucky Hooker Part One

 

When Pasha Bulker dropped her nearly 7.5 tonnes anchor
off the coast of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia,
nobody expected that a disaster would make this
Unlucky Hooker a flawed local hero

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Pasha Bulker

Pasha Bulker arrived off the port of Newcastle, New South Wales, at 0605 on 23rd May, at the end of a 12 day voyage from Japan. The master, we’ll call him Captain Park, reported in to the Newcastle Vessel Traffic Information Centre, VTIC, on Channel 9.

Newcastle VTIC gave Captain Park its standard advice for the ship to anchor south of 32?58’S and at least two miles from the coast. He identified a vacant position and manoeuvred the ship towards it.

At 0742, Captain Park anchored 2.4 miles off the coast near Newcastle, putting out nine shackles, and joined the queue of 57 ships waiting to load. She was due to wait three weeks, her berthing scheduled for June 12, a date she would miss.

In the VTIC, an operator set up a five cable guard-ring around the image of Pasha Bulker on the display, if she dragged her anchor and crossed the guard ring an alarm would sound automatically to alert the VTIC operator, who then alerts the master.

Newcastle VTIC is an information centre, it doesn’t control, order or direct ships unless the harbour master specifically tells them to. Its main job is scheduling the berthing and unberthing of ships. None of its officers are required to have seafaring experience but they can call upon the advice of the duty harbour pilot.

VTIC did not then, provide weather information to ships. Masters were expected to get marine weather reports issued by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) unless the designated coast stations
broadcasting weather reports on VHF were inoperative, would VTIC broadcast them.

Although the Pasha Bulker and most of her crew had been to Newcastle twice before that year but it was the first time for Captain Park since 1997.


Newcastle, NSW, Australia, the world’s busiest coal port

Newcastle in New South Wales, is the world’s largest coal port. Seventeen producers mine more than 93 million tonnes of coal a year from 40 mines in the nearby Hunter Valley, transport it by rail to the port and load it aboard around 1,000 ships.

Any delays in the system can be expensive and Newcastle is very fussy about the ships it loads. It operates a ‘vessel suitability list’ and may choose not to load a ship that doesn’t meet its requirements by, for instance, loading or deballasting too slowly, as well as other factors.

Strictly speaking it isn’t a blacklist but, like the masters of most of the ships at anchor, Captain Park doesn’t want to have to tell his shipowner and the charterers why the port wouldn’t put coal in his holds.

The 77,000 dead weight tonne Pasha Bulker wasn’t the largest bulker Captain Park had commanded since graduating from a South Korean Maritime University in 1982 but it was his newest, he’d only joined her a month before and this was his first assignment with the ship’s managers.

Because Pasha Bulker was a new ship, built in Japan in 2006, there was little more than cosmetic maintenance to be done over the next three weeks as she waits to load.

The weather was fair so her 22 ballast tanks, except for the fore and aft peak tanks, were filled with 22,000 tonnes of water for fair weather condition. Her Number Four hold, intended for ballast in bad weather was unused.

Her draught was 4.85 m forward and 7.10 m aft, slightly less than the 7.17m aft draught necessary to keep the propeller blades fully submerged at the top of their rotation,

Also relevant to this story is her main engine, a B&W diesel engine that develops 9230 kW at 106 rpm to drive a single, fixed pitch, right-handed propeller which gives the ship a service speed of 14.5 knots.

She also sports two Admiralty class 14 anchors, each weighing in at 7,425 kilos and each with 12 shackles of 78mm chain cable, that’s a total of almost 330 metres of chain weighing around 106 tonnes.

Those anchors and chain wouldn’t have been lonely on the bottom of the three mile wide anchorage, which at times extends 35 kilometres along the coast. There are another 40 anchors and cables abandoned here, and about to be joined by a few more, evidence of the vicious storms that lash this unprotected, unforgiving coastline.


Newcastle’s crowded anchorage

Bad weather can hit here any time of year but tends to be most severe June to August. It’s already late May and in 2007, the most severe weather will be bang on time.

The Australian Pilot, which must be carried on all vessels in these waters, warns: ” In severe weather sea and swell can become confused. If so, it is recommended that vessels weigh anchor and proceed to sea until the weather moderates”

Nobody needed that advice in late May or the first few days of June. On June 3 Then, on 6th June, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology issued a strong wind warning, from 26 knots to 33 knots, for the area off Newcastle with the warning that wind could be as much as 40 per cent higher and wave height twice that predicted. A low was forecast to develop off the NSW mid-north coast on 7th June. Sure enough, in the early hours of 7 June, the BoM issued a gale warning.

In the intervening days some ships had left with their cargoes, others arrived to wait their turn, one of them Sea Confidence, anchored about two miles south of Pasha Bulker.

It’s now 7th June 2007. Another bulker arrives and anchors at 10.50. She’s Pasha Bulker’s sistership, Betis.

This storm is to be a family affair.


Pasha Bulker, Sea Confidence and Betis anchor off an unforgiving coast

Both ships’ stability books say: “In rough seas, the ship should be ballasted, within the permissible limits of longitudinal strength, so that the forward draft can be kept not less than 7.800m in order to avoid wave-slamming on the forward bottom of the ship”.

At the Newcastle anchorage, it begins to rain. The wind becomes south- southeasterly and increases to force five.

With the weather deteriorating and worse forecast at 1145 Captain Park gives his opinion to another officer: the gale will pass far away and not affect his ship. To be on the safe side he puts out, or veers, an additional two shackles of anchor cable to give him 11 shackles on deck and 10 in the water.

At 1210, Pasha Bulker‘s Inmarsat-C terminal spits out another gale warning. It predicts winds reaching up to 45 knots by 0400 the next day.

Still, the weather at the anchorage remains overcast and rainy with a force five wind.

That afternoon, Captain Park discusses the weather with the chief engineer. They’ll keep the engine room attended at all times with the main engine ready for use at short notice.

BoM continues to repeat the gale warning as the day goes on.

Captain Park, knows he’s in for a busy night so he grabs a hour’s rest in his cabin. He also has a camp bed set up on the bridge.

At 1700 on 7 June, the first of the 57 ships in the anchorage weighs anchor and headed for open sea.

The coming storm does the unforgivable, it messes with Newcastle’s schedules. As night falls, the VTIC duty officer gets busy with communications. There are delays to the shipping schedule, some related to the deteriorating weather.

By 2200, five ships have reported their departure from the anchorage to VTIC. The rain continues and the wind increases to 25 knots.

About then Captain Park rests for another hour and returns to the bridge a little before 2300, checks the weather and writes his night orders: the duty mate is to check the ship’s position every 15 minutes and make hourly wind condition reports to the master in his cabin, where he will remain awake.

At the VTIC, duty officers reduce the guard rings around the anchored vessels from five cable to two and a half and notify the harbour master.

At 2335, the last ship from Newcastle sails. Its pilot calls VTIC for the wave rider buoy readouts and is told that sea and swell were 3.14 m and 4.52 m respectively from the southeast.

Soon after, the next sailing is cancelled by VTIC, as is the berthing of the ship replacing it, one of two that have pulled up their anchors and headed for the port.

The first ship’s master decides not to re-anchor and puts to sea. At the pilot boarding ground the pilot transfers to the second ship and guides it to its berth. It was the last ship into Newcastle that night.

49 ships were now at anchor and the wind was reaching gale force.

Shortly after midnight, on 8th June, an alarm sounds in Newcastle VTIC, one of the ships has crossed the 2.5 cable guard ring. VTIC radios the master that his vessel appears to be dragging its anchor. The vessel pulls up its anchor and heads out to sea.

The wind at nearby Nobby’s Head is gusting to 30 knots. Over the previous two hours, the wind direction has become constant from the southeast, the wave heights have steadily increased and the rain has been persistent.

At 0100, Pasha Bulker‘s second mate records a force eight wind. The ship’s barometer shows that the pressure has dropped from 1009 hPa to 1006 hPa since 2300 the previous day.

Pasha Bulker is yawing through about 30? in the now 35 knot winds

In Newcastle VTIC, more alarms sound as ships cross their 2.5 cable guard rings. After being alerts from VTIC operators, several decide to put to sea.

At about 0200 Pasha Bulker’s 9,230 kilowatt main engine is put on five minutes notice. A little later, Captain Park checks the bridge and confirms that the ship is maintaining its anchor position.

At 0230, the master of Santa Isabel, a ship scheduled to berth that morning, asks VTIC for ‘permission’ to weigh anchor and for berthing information. He was told that the pilot boarding time for the ship is still scheduled for 0630.

By 0300, the wind at Nobby’s Head is gusting to more than 35 knots. The maximum wave heights at the wave rider buoys are 6 m and rising.

On the bridge of the Pasha Bulker, the second officer hears the constant radio talk between VTIC and other ships in as they drag anchor or got underway.

Shortly before 0400, as the Chief mate is readying to assume the watch, Captain Park calls the bridge from his cabin to confirm that Pasha Bulker is maintaining her position.

The Chief officer takes the watch at 0400 and a weather report comes in on the Inmarsat-C terminal, the low is northeast of Newcastle and expected to move south. The gale warning is repeated. A half hour later, Captain Park goes to the bridge to check the anchor position and is told that a number of ships have dragged their anchors and put to sea.

At 0448, a ship which had dragged its anchor and closed to within two cables (370 m) of another anchored ship, finally got underway and manoeuvres clear.

It’s 0500, the wind is strong gale force and the weather is severe with 8 metre high seas. Pasha Bulker’s chief mate notes that the pressure has dropped a further 3 hPa to 1003 and the wind is now force eight to nine.

Pounded by the wind and the seas, Pasha Bulker’s range of yaw increases to 40 degrees.

Forty-one ships of the original 57 are still at anchor, but one, Sea Confidence has dragged her anchor. By 05.30 is manouvering to head out to sea..

Outside the entrance to Newcastle, maximum wave heights reach 8 metres and are increasing.

Close to Pasha Bulker another ship starts to drag its anchor. By 0550 it’s five cables away and the Pasha Bulker’s chief mate sends a warning by radio to its officer of the watch, then calls Captain Park, who comes to the bridge. The chief mate updates him: the wind is force nine, Pasha Bulker’s position is ‘good’ and about 20 ships have dragged anchor and put to sea.

It’s 0600. 27 of the original 57 remain in the anchorage, 14 have left over the last hour and several others preparing to leave.

Santa Isabel has a separate problem, her anchor has fouled on a discarded cable. The master calls VTIC and asks if the pilot boarding at 0630 for berthing has been cancelled. He’s told that berthing is ‘unlikely’.

By now the strong gale force winds are making the Pasha Bulker yaw through 60 degrees then, at 0625, her real problems begin: her anchor begins to drag but it is another 12 minutes, with the ship now 2.2 miles closer to the coast, before the chief mate realises the situation, calls the captain and tells him the ship has dragged ‘a little’.

Captain Park tells the chief engineer that he is preparing to weigh anchor then discusses the situation and the weather with the chief mate.

Captain Park notes that the wind speed is 50 knots. The chief mate tells him that other ships started dragging after 0200 but Captain Park is confident about his vessel, he tells the Chief Mate that the ‘holding power’ of the anchors of old ships is not as good as the new Pasha Bulker.

Yet the Betis, Pasha Bulker’s sistership, built three years earlier to the same design, is in trouble. Her windlass has failed while weighing anchor with seven shackles of cable still out and the engine is being used to maintain the ship’s position 3.1 miles from the coast.

19 ships, including Pasha Bulker are still at anchor.

Shortly before the chief mate hands the watch over to the third mate at 0700, the chief engineer telephones the master from the engine room and confirms that the main engine is ready. At 0701 the chief mate requests permission from Newcastle VTIC to weigh anchor. The VTIC duty officer tells him to call again when the anchor was aweigh. The chief mate hands over the watch to the third mate and goes forward.

At 0710 the crew start to weigh the anchor as the ship yaws through 60 degrees and pitches and rolls, its tension and lead change constantly and Captain Park use engine and rudder to control them.

Down in the engine room the chief engineer operates the main engine from the engine control room where an engineer responds to engine telegraph orders from the bridge and manually controls the engine speed. The ship is in ‘hand steering’ mode with an able seaman on duty as helmsman.

By now, the ship is 1.9 miles from the coast. The wind at Nobby’s Head is southeast at 45 knots and the maximum wave height off the harbour entrance is about 9 m.

As the anchor is weighed, Pasha Bulker moves north-westerly towards the coast.

At 0735, with five shackles of cable in the water, her heading shifts to north-easterly. With the wind on her starboard beam and the cable shortening, the ship begins to move northwards rapidly.

She begins to roll heavily. On the bridge, unsecured items clatter to the deck.

It takes until 0748 to weigh the anchor and Pasha Bulker has closed to 1.2 miles off the coast. That gap is getting narrower at 3.1 knots.

Captain Park orders the anchor secured and the crew to return aft, then orders the helmsman to steer 060 and the to engine full ahead manouvering. The engine is put to 67 rpm.

At VTIC, the day officer on duty arrives. He is told that Pasha Bulker has reported being underway and he is surprised that there were still 11 ships at anchor two of them in the process of weighing anchor.

At 0756 Pasha Bulker is nine cables from the coast. Captain Park turns her slowly away from the coast to starboard, giving gyro compass headings to the helmsman.

Over the next 9 minutes Pasha Bulker claws to a mile away from the coast. By now she is on a steady heading of 110, making good 080 at 4.1 knots.

The main engine is still set at 67 rpm but its speed was fluctuating between 60 and 75 rpm as the propeller keeps breaking out of the water as the lightly ballasted ship pitches and rolls.

With visibility at about two miles in the persistent rain and spray in wind gusting to about 50 knots and many of the vessels that had earlier weighed anchor still in the area, it has become a sort of maritime stampede and the airwaves are filled with the calls of ships trying to avoid collision.

At about 0809, Captain Park weighs his options and asks the third mate if the harbour is closed. The third mate hesitates then says that it is.

At 0810, Pasha Bulker‘s engine room asked for a reduction in speed and it was reduced to slow ahead.

Captain Park orders a gyro heading of 120? but, at the reduced speed, and even at full starboard rudder, the helmsman can’t stop her head from falling away from the wind to port and to the north.

Speed made good falls to 2.5 knots and the engine speed is increased again.

By 0817, the engine is again at full ahead manoeuvring speed. Her heading, which has swung to 080?, begins to return to 120?.

Once again, the coast is less than one mile away.

Three minutes later, Pasha Bulker is making good a course of 050 at 3.5 knots. The chief mate finishes breakfast and goes up to the bridge. Captain Park thinks that many ships will have a problem weighing anchor.

Meanwhile, the Sea Confidence has entered the restricted area at the harbour entrance. It is restricted to avoid conflict with vessels leaving or entering the port and pilot boats. In the middle of this storm there are no pilotage operations, the port is closed, no vessels are entering or leaving, but the VTIC duty officer, did his duty and tells the master of Sea Confidence that he shouldn’t be there as he struggles to reach open sea.

Captain Park hears the conversation and, still confident in his ship, tells the chief mate that the Pasha Bulker’s stability is good. The ship is still ballasted for fair weather.

At 0826, Captain Park orders a a course change to a heading of 140?. When steady on that heading, he leaves the bridge to the chief mate and third mate to have breakfast with the Chief Engineer.

By 0830, Pasha Bulker is making good 080 at 2.5 knots. It is 1.2 miles from the coast and increasing.

It is only then, with many ships already struggling, that Newcastle Port Corporation’s incident control system is activated.

At 0844, Captain Park returns to the bridge with the chief engineer.

The ship’s heading is now 125? and slowly falling away from the storm force wind, gusting to 55 knots. Pasha Bulker refuses to turn to starboard even with the full 35 degree rudder.

By now the maximum height of the southeast swell outside the harbour entrance is 10.72 m. Some of the nine ships remaining at anchor prepare to get underway.

By 0900, the ship’s heading was 110. The chief engineer telephones the duty engineer and tells him to increase the engine speed by five or, if possible, ten rpm.

At 0901, Pasha Bulker enters the restricted area making good 050? (T) at 3.6 knots.

With engine speed increased to 5 rpm Pasha Bulker at last begins to respond to the starboard rudder. Captain Park tells the chief engineer that the speed increase is enough. The engine is set to 72 rpm.

By 0906, the ship’s heading returns to 140?. Concerned that this would, as he put it, bring her face to face with the wind and isn’t good, Captain Park orders 160. At nearly full starboard rudder and ship’s head swinging rapidly to starboard, the wind is now on the port bow.

Pasha Bulker’s heading comes towards 160 and the helmsman eases to midships, then gradually applies port rudder. Little happens, the ship continues to swing to starboard.

By 0908 she’s heading 180 and still turning to starboard even with the rudder 27? to port.

A minute later she is heading 200 with the rudder hard over. The helmsman tells Captain Park she’s still turning to starboard and is told he should ‘take action quickly’ when steering.

The ship’s course is now westerly, towards the New South Wales coast.

Meanwhile, VTIC is on its toes: having earlier chased Sea Confidence away from the restricted area, at 0910, it warns Santa Isabel that it is approaching the restricted area and should clear if it was safe to do so. Santa Isabel‘s master advises VTIC that the cable fouling his ship’s anchor will need to be cut to clear it.

By 0912, Pasha Bulker has also entered the restricted area. VTIC leaps into helpful action and tells Captain Park that the ship should leave the restricted area and go to sea, which, of course, is precisely what he is trying to do.

Pasha Bulker is now rolling heavily, beam-on to the heavy swell and wind, on a heading of 220 at more than 2.5 knots.

The second mate went off duty earlier but can’t sleep because of the movement of the ship. He looks out of his cabin porthole and sees something he knows shouldn’t be there: The coast of Australia to starboard. He goes to the bridge.

The ship’s heading is still south-westerly and making good a westerly course at 3.7 knots. 1.2 miles in front of her is Nobby’s Beach.

Captain Park calls for more engine speed and the chief engineer goes down to the engine room

Gradually, the engine speed increases to 77 rpm. Her head finally swings to port with maximum port rudder.

At 0923, the ship’s heading approaches 180? and the helmsman reduces the rudder to 23? for a few seconds. The swing to port stops and he immediately puts the rudder hard-over to port again.

Over the next couple of minutes, with winds occasionally gusting to more than 55knots, the ship’s head begins turning slowly to starboard and the coast, even at maximum port rudder and the engine now at 80 rpm.

Captain Park picks up the bridge telephone, calls the chief engineer: He wants maximum possible engine speed.

He is still confident in the power of his ship so when VTIC called on the radio at 0927, advise him he is heading for the coast and offer assistance he declines, expecting the situation to change over the next 10 minutes.

With the engine speed at 91 rpm, the Pasha Bulker’s heading returns slowly to port again. By 0931 her heading is 185 degrees and Nobby’s Beach is eight cables ahead, less than a mile.

One of the mates speaks up and suggests that ‘if it’s so difficult’, perhaps Captain Park should ask for assistance. Captain Park replies that a turn to starboard may be better and orders ‘midships’ then ‘starboard 20’ and ‘hard-a-starboard’.

A minute later, the helm is at maximum starboard rudder and the ship turns to starboard.

At 0935, Pasha Bulker is on a heading of 240 but making good about 270? (T) at 5.5 knots. At 94 rpm, the engine speed fluctuates as the ship movements change the immersion of the propeller.

Inexorably the Pasha Bulker approaches the coast.

Suddenly, the engine races to 115 rpm, above its limit, and automatically shuts down.


Radar Image at 0937

Quickly, the chief engineer restarts the engine and within a minute it is running ahead at 67 rpm. The ship’s heading is now 255 but the starboard turn has slowed.

Captain Park finally accepts that he wasn’t going to turn the ship in time. He stops the engine and orders full astern.

Less than a minute later, Pasha Bulker is still heading for Nobby’s Beach, now, some seven cables ahead at 5.6 knots even with her engine at full astern.

At 0939, VTIC again offers Pasha Bulker‘s master assistance and asks for all efforts to be made to clear the coast, advice Captain Park probably didn’t need at the time.

Captain Park turns down the offer and tells VTIC that the ship’s heading is 270 and turning to starboard with the engine at full astern.

Soon after, Pasha Bulker begins to turn to port again.

At 0940, the ship’s heading reaches 240? then turns to starboard again.

At 0940, the ship’s heading reaches 240? then turns to starboard again.

With the weather on her port beam, she’s approaching Nobby’s Beach, now just five cables (about 900 m) away on the starboard beam, at 3.5 knots.

Six ships remain at anchorage off Newcastle. Two, including the Pasha Bulker’s sister ship, Betis, has lost the use of their windlass. VTIC Newcastle radios the remaining four vessels to pass on the request from the harbour master to weigh anchor and go to sea.

At 0945, Pasha Bulker is near the 20 m depth contour with Nobby’s Beach less than three cables away on the starboard beam. The ship’s head is 270? when the starboard turn slows and it begins to swing to port.

With grounding all but inevitable, Captain Park tells the third mate to call VTIC to ask for help.

The weather is too severe for tugs to assist

VTIC is still passing on the harbour masters request and it isn’t until 0947 that a duty officer responds and advises that tugs are being arranged, but the weather is too heavy for the tugs to make it to the troubled ship.

Pasha Bulker is now little more than a ship’s length from the shore.

In final attempts to avoid grounding, Captain Park puts the engines on full ahead with the rudder still over to hard starboard. With better luck and different circumstances the manouver might just have kicked Pasha Bulker’s head around enough to escape, but there was no better luck and the circumstances are what they are. It has little effect as she approaches the beach at 3.1 knots.

Final orders were too late to stop the ship grounding

Then Captain Park puts the engine at full astern and, at 0949, orders hard-a-port.

Two minutes later the ship’s movement changes abruptly, there are dull thumping noises and fuel oil spurts from the bunker ventilator breather pipe as she hits the beach, her momentum and the weather pushing her further on to it. Captain Park tries the engine astern and full ahead but there;s only the ominous sound of the propeller clanging on rock.

She’s hard aground.

An aerial view of Pasha Bulker overlaid on a chart – she straddles the rocks

Fortunately no-one was hurt, her fuel tanks weren’t breached and pollution was minimal.

It wasn’t until July 2 that Pasha Bulker was taken off the beach badly damaged but largely intact, and taken for temporary repairs in Newcastle then, on 26th July, she sailed for permanent repairs in Vietnam where she was recommissioned and renamed Drake.

Pasha Bulker under tow to Newcastle, NSW, Australia

In the interim, she became the sort of attraction that Newcastle had never seen, local stores did well, nearby car parks were crowded. Imaginative videos were uploaded to the internet. Newcastle made the news headlines around the world.

A year after the grounding, Newcastle local government contributed 20,000 Australian dollars towards artwork commemorating the Pasha Bulker, complete with part of the rudder. One correspondent told Maritime Accident Casebook that if she ever returned to Newcastle she’d be welcomed with open arms.

Tracks of Pasha Bulker and Sea Confidence

A storm put the Pasha Bulker on Nobby’s Beach but the Pasha Bulker put Newcastle on the map.

Join us for part two of the Case Of The Unlucky Hooker. This is Bob Couttie wishing you safe sailing.

Part 2 here

Relevant podcasts:

The Case Of The Errant Hookers

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