The worst of the unforgettable storm that pulverised Newcastle was over but gusting wind and spluttering rain persisted as I made my way to a meeting at Honeysuckle with then NSW Treasurer and Hunter Minister Michael Costa. The meeting, with my client Port Waratah Coal Services, was a routine affair until a staffer poked her head in and said something about a coal ship about to beach off Newcastle’s Nobbys Beach. The meeting ended quickly.
I headed for my car, with only one destination in mind. Gripping eyewitness accounts of the ship sliding her way onto Newcastle’s doorstep were all over the radio now. The roads were blocked as people jostled towards the beach for a look.
I phoned Anders Egehus, the Australia managing director of Svitzer, the tug boat and maritime services company, another of my clients. Get ready for a media onslaught if you’re chosen to handle the salvage response, I said. It would be quite a ride given that the spectacle was there for any camera to pick up.
With my ex-journo juices flowing, I also called the chief of staff desk at National Nine News in Sydney where I’d been an on-road reporter for many years. The legendary reporter Peter Harvey happened to pick up and, “Yes Matty,” he said in his assuasive tuba-voice, “the chopper’s on its way”.
“Can you see the ship?” Harvey asked as I got closer to Nobbys Beach. I looked through the windscreen at the foamy puffs of water lashing high over the deck.
“Oh, can I what . . .”
The hull of the 40,000 tonne Pasha Bulker was strikingly red. A garish lipstick-coloured lump with white accommodation quarters jutting from the stern like high density home units – in the middle of Newcastle’s main beach.
ANDERS Egehus outlined that if Svitzer was to head the salvage operation it would be overseen by the Holland-headquartered salvage arm of the business (Svitzer Salvage, now called ‘Ardent’), although the towage arm would play a big role providing tugs and personnel. Many such tugs were based in Newcastle and had entered the treacherous waters off Newcastle at the height of the storm to try and rescue not only the Pasha Bulker but two other vessels that came close to beaching (a feat that would see the crews presented with bravery awards).
The company’s locally based salvage figures were ready should they be contracted by the vessel owner to respond. It was a case of lying low until that happened. The Westpac helicopter had rescued all crew from the vessel and, with forecasts that the weather would ease, the Pasha Bulker appeared to be firmly grounded – for now.
Svitzer Salvage got the contract. It didn’t take long for media calls from around the world to come in. I’d already spoken with Newcastle Port Corporation CEO Gary Webb (who had overall responsibility for the emergency response) and his media manager Keith Powell. Thankfully both were already doing a solid job briefing the media on location.
EGEHUS and I went into the boardroom of Svitzer’s Newcastle tug base. A slightly bearded man in his mid-30s dressed in orange overalls and pecking at his mobile device gave a no-nonsense glance across the table he was sitting at. Anders introduced him as Drew Shannon, one of two salvage masters overseeing the job. Drew was handling shore-side logistics and operations while his counterpart David Hancocks had the reins of on-board operations. Shannon was hardly in the mood for small talk as we waited for Gary Webb to arrive.
Shannon warned that a re-float attempt might or might not work. Any attempt would be time consuming, weeks, months maybe. Equipment and personnel would come from across the globe. You didn’t just press a few buttons in such situations and see the beached ship off.
It was agreed that Gary Webb and his media team would continue briefing journalists and providing all-important visuals such as oil booms being placed on the beach. I’d handle media enquiries on behalf of Svitzer. Naturally we’d have to work closely and be on the same page in terms of facts and developments, especially in an environment where things could change frequently.
We agreed to hold off putting a Svitzer “talking head” before the cameras until it was really needed. This suited given that the salvage team was so busy behind the scenes. Gary Webb remained the front man.
Who from Svitzer would be the “talking head” to explain how the salvage operation would work? Egehus and I glanced at Shannon.
ONE of the largest industrial helicopters in Australia was secured to transport salvage equipment onto the Pasha Bulker. It pulsated back and forth from a
water-side equipment assembly zone at Carrington. A “super-tug” anchor-handling barge sourced from Asia was steaming for Newcastle. These were important visuals, to show the media and the community that things were happening. More salvage folks arrived from interstate and overseas – some 30 all up.
It was good that the vessel was upright and the engine room was operational. Thankfully she was empty and not full of coal. The underside damage might be an issue: the hull had grinded over sand and rock and water was leaking in from the starboard side. Naval architects and hydrographic surveyors were looking at what she could and couldn’t withstand. It wasn’t far from anyone’s mind how close the Pasha Bulker had come to crashing at the narrow channel of Newcastle Harbour, something that would have had dire economic implications given that Newcastle is the world’s biggest coal export port. Oh, and it wouldn’t be a good look if the salvors got her off the beach but lost control of her, resulting in her wrecking in or closer to the channel.
THE wrinkling on the port-side of the hull gave away that the vessel was straining from the constant push of waves. The salvage team knew she would, in all likelihood, only hold up for so long. Yes, she might break up. A priority was pumping the on-board fuel oil off, yucky stuff that would leave a hell of a mess if it ended up on the beach or coast.
Gary Webb (and subsequently NSW Ports Minister Joe Tripodi) continued facing the large international media pack at a series of briefings near Nobbys Beach clubhouse. Things had to be explained factually and clearly. No, you couldn’t knee jerk into a re-float attempt. Yanking at the vessel prematurely might result in on-board fuel oil spewing into the water and the vessel being torn apart. The operation would take time and might fail. People – including media celebrities – were placing bets. She’d be gone in no time. Nah… she was there forever. Would she be cut up if she couldn’t be shifted, or, god forbid, would she remain on Nobbys Beach as a permanent eyesore, similar to the Norwegian Bulk Carrier the MV Sygna which beached only a few nautical miles north of Newcastle in 1974?
Everyone seemed to have an opinion, the latest word on what would or wouldn’t happen.
The mantra was that a “flexible plan” was in play. There were many variables that had to be worked around – night and day, tidal and current movements, wind, rain and inevitable equipment malfunctions. It was fascinating how the Salvors ignored the hype and went about their business so calmly. “It’s like eating an elephant,” one quipped during a private moment. “It’s doable, but it takes time.”
With every passing day the media became hungrier for something new. The demands to talk to the blokes in orange were hot now. The journos wanted an expert from the ship. And so, nearly two weeks after the grounding, it was decided to wheel out Drew Shannon.
Shannon’s first media performance – after multiple practice sessions – was all but flawless. Not bad for a guy with no prior interview experience asked to stand in front of a global media pack. He was straight-talking, no-nonsense and sure-footed. He exuded professionalism, honesty and credibility. The media warmed to him and this was instrumental in forming an indelible impression with the public. Shannon basically said we can’t promise a good outcome, but we’ve got the best people and the best possible plan in play. We’re doing our best folks…. It brought time and reduced pressure when the media may have gone for the jugular. A downside was that Shannon, now a public face of the salvage effort, found it that bit harder to venture about. Everyone wanted a chat.
ONE of the most common questions was “how do you stop the vessel washing further onto the beach (or sliding uncontrolled off the beach) with tidal movements?”
Put simply, the Pasha Bulker had been stabilised by ballast water (ocean water) pumped into the hull and ocean anchors secured to long cables. This was important because she’d suffer further damage if she grinded against her rocky landing area. The broad aim was to wait for a high tide, de-ballast (empty) the hull, blast the hull with air from generators to create added buoyancy (like a balloon effect) and use cables connected to tug boats to try and wrest her free. A block-and-tackle network criss-crossing the bow would significantly enhance the pulling power of each tug. The idea was to swing the bow until it was pointing at the ocean, then yank the vessel forward into deeper water.
The media was invited to view things from the Fort Scratchley headland. Unfortunately the high tides were at night, and the headland was a cold and windy place to be in the middle of winter. But it was the box seat to see what was going on. Through the dark, you could see the Pasha Bulker about 200 metres away, her on-board and specially erected salvage lights creating a surreal effect.
The first re-float attempt on the evening of June 28 failed due to a snapping tug cable (the entire precinct around the beach was evacuated should such an event result in a whiplashing cable reaching the shore and killing someone). Scepticism amongst the journalists lifted. The “flexible plan” line was really wearing thin.
The next re-float attempt – courtesy of more malfunctioning gear – was put off until the evening of July 1. At last, a breakthrough. The tugs managed to pull the bow anti-clockwise until it was pointing at the ocean, but the horsepower on hand couldn’t rip the Pasha Bulker free. Still, the media devoured the fresh daytime imagery of the vessel now aimed at the ocean after three weeks.
A comical moment unfolded when Gary Webb, Minister Tripodi, their staff and I trod down the headland track for the nightly media briefing. My mobile phone rang. It was Drew Shannon, on board the Pasha Bulker. We might have oil in the water, he said. How much? I asked, feeling my heart buck. Hard to tell. We can just smell oil. Might be nothing. Webb and his team received the update through their own channels almost at the same time. We stopped some 40 metres from the waiting media pack and, in hushed tones, discussed what to say.
My unequivocal view was to go with what we knew, as scant and vague as the information was. The media and public would crucify us if there was an oil spill and we’d said nothing about it. If it turned out there was no oil in the water, so what? False alarm. It just had to be clearly explained that identifying oil in the ocean at night is extremely difficult, so we wouldn’t know what we were dealing with until sunrise.
And so Minister Tripodi and Gary Webb stood before the camera lights piercing the night and calmly said, well, there might be some… oil in the water. There were gasps. The journos went live on their phones and the TV link trucks cranked up. An OIL SPILL! My phone rang all night – journalists all over the world wanting the latest on the Newcastle oil spill crisis.
At first light multiple media helicopters were buzzing around the Pasha Bulker (to hell with the aerial exclusion zone) looking for the mess. It was quickly confirmed that there was no oil (or a miniscule amount at worst). So the good-news angle of the morning, bravo, was that there was no oil spill at Newcastle!
No one in the inner sanctum will forget the evening of July 2. With the tide high and three tug boats roaring to pull the Pasha Bulker free, exasperation fell over the media pack on the headland. I sensed it was a tipping point, a moment where they’d attack. Gary Webb and Minister Tripodi had the unenviable task of fronting the cameras again.
The questioning was pointed. Then, with the Pasha Bulker as the backdrop, a lone female voice simply said ‘…she’s moving.’ Every set of eyes focussed on the glowing Pasha Bulker.
And wasn’t she just. Quickly. Literally flinging away from the beach. Someone said ‘Get out of the way!’ and a confused-looking Minister Tripodi hobbled from his interview position so the cameras could get the money shot of the Pasha Bulker getting the hell out of there. There was clapping, cheering and hugging. Down in Newcastle car horns tooted. The Pasha Bulker was gone in a matter of moments, towed into the inky Pacific. The media conference resumed. So what was the secret of the success, Minister? ‘Well…. it was a flexible plan.’ Everyone just laughed, including the Minister.
The Pasha Bulker was held 11 nautical miles off shore so assessments could be undertaken. There was an air of jubilation but also a sense of sadness when Gary Webb, Minister Tripodi and Drew Shannon fronted at Nobbys Beach the next morning for what would be one of the last big media conferences. It was a weird feeling not having the big interloping lady there after three weeks and three days. The ship’s rudder however was jammed in the rocks off the beach, meaning the re-float was only a 99 per cent success. That created a few chuckles.
Days later the Pasha Bulker was towed into Newcastle Harbour for repairs. The Hunter River foreshore was lined with well-wishers who clapped and cheered the salvage team. The vessel was patched up and eventually exited with no fanfare. Her infamous name was dropped, and she now moves around global waters as the Drake.
Some months later Drew Shannon visited my office in Sydney and handed over a palm-sized chunk of rusty steel as heavy as a brick. “A memento to say thanks for the professionalism.” That unsightly piece of the Pasha Bulker’s rudder sits on my desk as I write this, 10 years later.
Matthew Watson is a former communications consultant for Svitzer Salvage. He is Managing Director of Repute Communications and Associates.