Rena: Shipwreck that shook a nation

Rena, the New Zealand tanker ship that crashed.

Photo by Alan Gibson.

Original story published in the New Zealand Herald. Source story can be read here.

By Isaac DavisonJamie MortonPhil Taylor and Catherine Masters

A team of Herald reporters charts the Rena disaster as it unfolds from the moment the ship hits the rocks.
Astrolabe Reef with its caves, valleys and deep drop-off teems with life. It’s magical under the ocean and all around. A rare blue whale, the world’s biggest species, passed by recently with her calf alongside.

Other whales live around here, too, with resident and transient populations of dolphins, seals, sharks, squid and big schools of fish.

In summer, there are turtles and the odd basking sunfish – they reckon a whale shark was spotted last year.

This part of the Pacific has fed people for centuries. Nearby islands with their sheltered bays are home to crays, paua, scallops.

The reef was first recorded on a European chart in 1827 by Jules Dumont d’Urville on the first voyage of the sailing ship Astrolabe.

The name comes from an early Greek navigational instrument, the astrolabe, a precursor to the sextant.

Europeans called the area the Bay of Plenty for good reason and early Maori named it Tauranga, which is interpreted as a place to anchor in sheltered waters.

The port has grown to be the country’s biggest and, with tourists drawn by the sun and sand, it is the economic lifeblood for a region nourished by the ocean.

But that was before Rena.

Day 1: The grounding

The early hours. It’s the captain’s birthday and stars are visible in a partly cloudy sky as the 236m Rena motors at full speed towards the port.

The cargo ship, which has visited often, doesn’t get there this time. At 2.20am, the Filipino crew are jolted awake by a grinding and shuddering. Rena is well off course and has driven on to the reef at 17 knots.

The 21-year-old, 47,000-tonne box ship left Napier laden with 1386 containers 11 carrying hazardous substances, including ferrosilicon, which can ignite when in contact with water. The ship’s fuel tanks the main four located low in the now-damaged hull – contain 1700 tonnes of fuel oil and 200 tonnes of diesel. The vessel settles on a 10-degree list in a slight swell.

It is the start of an unfolding disaster for a country whose attention has been fixed on the Rugby World Cup.

The Rena’s trip up the east coast had not been without incident. The Torea, a 37,000-tonne tanker, made a 360-degree turn between midnight and 4am on October 2 near Napier after the Rena had sped by it. Torea’s master will later tell Maritime NZ the turn was precautionary to give the Rena more sea room following its “overtaking manoeuvre”. The incident becomes part of Maritime NZ’s investigation into the grounding.

On Wednesday morning, the diving community is among the first to be alarmed. Would “Thrumo” have been broken by the impact? Thrumo is a large natural amphitheatre in an underwater cavern. It’s just wonderful, says diver Shane Wasik. You drop down about 40 metres, then come up through the reef into a big circular amphitheatre and look around in awe as shafts of sunlight pierce the water.

But now there is a big, heavy ship on top of it. Divers have joked about wanting a new wreck to explore, but no one wants one at the expense of an environmental disaster.

Maritime NZ, which has an oil spill response plan, assesses the situation as a Tier 3 event, which means it is of national importance, and assumes responsibility.

A Maritime Incident Response Team is activated about 7am and a Maritime NZ safety inspector is on board the Rena from early morning until mid-afternoon. During the day, there are flyovers to check for leaks and Maritime NZ’s marine pollution response service is mobilised, as is a team of trained spill responders.

In Auckland, Ronald Winstone offers the use of inflatable oil recovery barges. His company builds and sells these specialist barges around the world. He doesn’t hear back.

Day 2: The bad oil

Confusion and mystery.

Rena is flying a Liberian flag. She is one of 51 ships listed by the Greek firm Costamare Shipping, parent of Liberia-based Daina Shipping, but is under charter to the Mediterranean Shipping Company.

Liberia, in West Africa, is one of the countries that provide what are referred to as “flags of convenience”. They have lower compliance costs and are a cheap option for ship owners. Registration in these countries can also mean there are fewer liabilities under international shipping conventions.

The worst of the flag-of-convenience nations, says Victoria University marine law specialist Joanna Mossop, can be quite lax about compliance issues, but Liberia is not one of the worst.

In Tauranga, locals are concerned, but many people around the country still have eyes only for the coming weekend’s knockout clashes in the rugby.

The first of the salvage team, who had arrived the previous night, quickly realise they face some big issues. Most of the pipes between the fuel tanks run along the keel – and many are damaged. This would later require heavy hoses to be laid across the deck to transfer oil.

An aerial observation has confirmed oil leakage overnight – a light slick can be seen stretching about 2km in a narrow ribbon.

The salvors find that No 3 starboard tank (one of the four main fuel tanks) is leaking oil into the hull which is sloshing around and escaping into the sea.

The oil spill response team conduct a dispersant field test – dispersants are chemicals to break down the oil – and Corexit 900 is then used, which for greenies will prove a controversial choice.

A wildlife response is also launched after four dead birds are found in the water near the boat and a bird cleaning and rehabilitation centre is set up with a base at Motiti Island.

The ship’s owner appoints salvage experts Svitzer and their staff leave Holland for Tauranga. On board, the Rena’s equipment is assessed as teams work out how to get the oil off.

In the water, divers are trying to assess the fuel tanks and how stable the ship is on the reef.

No one wants a big oil spill. Motiti Island is only four nautical miles away and the bay coastline only 12.

The No 3 tank is nearer the bow and thus most vulnerable. The goal is to get the oil off, but more pressing is the need to pump it from the most vulnerable tanks into safe ones and to make all of them as watertight as possible in case the ship breaks up.

The fuel barge Awanuia is hired and tugs and navy ships are brought in.

Day 3: Initial response

Still no information on how the boat hit the reef, but during the day it emerges three crew members on duty at the time of the grounding are being spoken to.

Corexit is again sprayed, though it has not been as effective as hoped and Maritime NZ prepares to collect heavy fuel oil that has spilled into the sea overnight.

Only a relatively small amount has escaped from damaged pipes but from the air it looks dramatic. Black oil can be seen spilling from the ship and there is a thinner, lighter-coloured sheen trailing northward for about 6km.

On land, a sinking feeling. Patients begin to arrive at the wildlife centre at Mt Maunganui. A little blue penguin from Papamoa Beach is in trouble and another from Little Waihi, plus two shags found on Motiti Island.

Images of birds struggling to move with feathers covered in sticky black oil are shocking, not least for Forest and Bird – it’s breeding season for a variety of birds which will be feeding in the waters around the ship.

Resources, however, are pouring in from overseas to assist what is now a 100-strong Maritime NZ team, and dozens of volunteers are helping, combing beaches on quad bikes for any sign of oil.

So far there is none but disquiet is growing. The weather has remained fine but not much can be seen being done. Calls mount for the Government to take control of the operation.

The lead minister is Steven Joyce (transport), who is being closely briefed. He is flown over the ship and reports seeing whitecaps, indicating the weather is deteriorating.

An offshore boom barrier to ring-fence the oil – measuring about 1250m – is on its way from Australia along with three heavy skimmers to scoop oil from the water.

But why, people ask, have not booms already been placed around the boat?

Joyce later says they work only in very calm waters. He is unsure whether booms could have been put out on Thursday but it was too choppy by Friday.

“They have a menu of options in trying to contain an oil slick. The sea-based ones are booms or chemical dispersants. The booms were not suitable on the Friday or Saturday so they used dispersants.

“All these options are limited and that is something that surprises people and surprised me too. The reality is booms and chemical dispersants are only ever moderately successful.

“The jury is still out on how effective the dispersant used has been. It depends on the type of oil, type of dispersant, the conditions and the age of the oil on the sea. It is only really suitable when you have oil fresh in the sea because as it weathers the chemical dispersants don’t work.

“The reality is that only about 10 per cent of the oil in these situations is at best mopped up at sea. The rest is dispersed by the ocean or it comes ashore.”

Tauranga man Scott Hutchison, a specialist who was involved with the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year, questions why a major port does not seem to have adequate equipment on hand, telling the Herald there is a global problem of big commercial vessels not equipped to deal with oil spills.

Tauranga Mayor Stuart Crosby says the spill is a “surreal and eerie sight” and Environmental Defence Society chairman Gary Taylor worries the incident is “inexorably moving into a full-scale environmental disaster”.

“We are not convinced by what we have seen so far that Maritime New Zealand has the situation under control,” Taylor says.

Day 4: Signs of hope…

Continue reading this article here.

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