Cry me a river – The Rabaul Queen disaster
25 March 2020
Extract from ‘You’ll Never Work Again – The Great Safety Charade’ by Bernard Paul Corden, self published, 2019, 1058 pp. A thorough examination from global sources of how corporate barons – large and small – so often place their employees and the public at unconscionable risk. Download 'The Great Safety Charade'
BRISBANE - On 2nd February 2012 the MV Rabaul Queen ferry capsized and sank with the loss of approximately 150 passengers in treacherous waters off the northern coast of Papua New Guinea.
Despite holding a current but somewhat superficial seaworthiness certificate, the congested, overloaded, listing and dilapidated rust bucket departed from Kimbe in West New Britain the previous day.
In a foolhardy and reckless overnight voyage with an indifference to anticipated inclement weather, the vessel and its unqualified crew broached and surfed through wild seas as it crossed the Vitiaz Strait near Finschhafen en route to Lae in Morobe Province.
Just before dawn the ferry was hit by three large consecutive waves and it capsized and sank.
Most of the passengers, which included many women, teenagers and schoolchildren were thrown into the ocean as the boat rolled and pitched amidst the squally conditions.
Response vessels arrived at the scene some three hours later and rescued 246 survivors, from drifting emergency life rafts. Several casualties were also found clinging perilously to lifejackets in the treacherous channel.
The precise number of fatalities will never be known because the shipping company was unable to provide a genuine manifest of its passengers. Anecdotal evidence suggests the vessel exceeded its specified carrying capacity and overcrowding contributed to the disaster with some survivors estimating almost 700 people were aboard the vessel.
The victims included many students and schoolchildren returning to Lae for the impending semesters at colleges and schools within Morobe Province.
A subsequent commission of inquiry headed by a retired Australian judge involved numerous public hearings, submissions and testimonies, which disclosed a litany of corporate negligence, recklessness and bungling governance.
This included disreputable and potentially unethical relationships and clandestine transactions between the National Maritime Safety Authority, independent certification agencies, insurance companies and even the head of government.
The final report directed an extensive amount of excoriating criticism towards Rabaul Shipping and its repugnant managing director, Captain Peter Sharp.
Despite an extensive maritime career, the mercenary and intimidating racist tyrant never displayed a skerrick of concern covering safety of passengers or crew aboard his fleet of disintegrating rust buckets.
It was evident from numerous testimonies that passenger ferries were regularly overcrowded and maintenance was sadly neglected. Indeed, most expatriate white people in Papua New Guinea were discouraged or even prohibited from using the vessels, particularly during peak operating periods.
The despicable malapert displayed absolute contempt for authority, especially regulatory agencies such as the National Maritime Safety Authority.
Indeed, Captain Sharp’s various shipping companies and fleet of dilapidated passenger vessels using unskilled and subjugated crews plied the coastal waters of Papua New Guinea unabated over many years.
Mariners and other subordinates were f requently intimidated and treated like bilge water and many believed it was most unfortunate the cantankerous creature was not aboard the vessel when it capsized and sank during its fateful voyage.
Following the commission of inquiry several people including the Rabaul Shipping managing director were arraigned for criminal negligence and manslaughter. However, the state failed to prove there was any risk associated with normal use of the ship and Captain Peter Sharp was acquitted of manslaughter.
In October 2018 additional charges of sending an unseaworthy vessel out to sea were enigmatically dropped by the public prosecutor.
In early May 2019, Captain Peter Sharp died after a prolonged and painful battle with cancer and many bereaved families following Papua New Guinea’s worst civilian maritime disaster were left chasing smoke…… ‘While you never shed a tear, I cried a river over you’.
Further revelations from previous maritime incidents in Papua New Guinea waters suggest the devious and irascible traits may even be hereditary. Hamish Sharp, the deceased captain’s brother, was appointed by the incumbent prime minister Sir Michael Somare to head the National Maritime Safety Authority.
It was a rather controversial selection, especially considering the ruthless socially autistic martinet also owned Bismark Maritime Limited, which operated extensive coastal shipping services in the region over many years.
In early April 2006 two Filipino marine engineers aboard the MV Sealark suffered severe burns following a fire in its engine room whilst the ship was berthed in Lae harbour.
The vessel was eventually sunk and created a 300 metre oil slick within the Huon Gulf. Bismark Maritime Limited was issued with a pollution prevention notice and ordered to raise and remove the wreck from its precarious location by the statutory maritime authority.
The response from Hamish Sharp was quite extraordinary and involved selling the wreckage to an anonymous buyer for a surreptitious token sum of PGK 1.00.
The fate of the injured engineers was shrouded in conjecture although media reports and several patrons in the nearby Lae Yacht Club claimed it was rather brutal and somewhat inhumane.
Both of the victims were left to die and were eventually transferred to Australia for extensive medical treatment at Brisbane and Gold Coast private hospitals. Several close friends provided noble assistance, which was complemented by pastoral care from an aboriginal community support group.
Many adversaries suggested it was extremely unfortunate the loathsome owner was not aboard the vessel when it was sent to Davy Jones’ Locker, where the wreck remains. Moreover, the location presents a significant risk to commercial shipping entering or leaving the country’s busiest port.
The significance of the event gradually attenuated although it rekindled several years later after an incident involving another Bismark Maritime vessel in waters off Mailu Island.
A gaping hole suddenly appeared in the port side engine room of the MV San Pedro, which sank to the bottom of the Coral Sea and allegedly contained an extremely valuable cargo.
It beggars belief that the head of a statutory authority managed a private shipping company that lost two vessels in just over two years in coastal waters off Papua New Guinea.
Moreover, the prime minister was a shareholder with the Pacific Register of Ships, a private independent organisation that issued vessel seaworthiness certificates. Its clients included Bismark Maritime Limited and Rabaul Shipping, which were owned by Hamish Sharp and Peter Sharp respectively.
It was well established that certification was a superficial nostrum and the major beneficiary from the scam was Bismark Maritime and its treacherous managing director who controlled the National Maritime Safety Authority.
In Papua New Guinea the malaise is certainly not restricted to maritime transport and prevails throughout the logistics supply chain sector. Convoys of dilapidated trucks with decrepit trailers regularly negotiate the treacherous Okuk Highway from the port of Lae in Morobe Province.
The vehicles often carry dangerous goods such as ammonium nitrate and sodium cyanide with bulk diesel and aviation fuel supplies for major energy and resources projects in the Southern Highlands and Enga provinces.
Despite a myriad of guidelines, codes of practice and other bureaucratic nostrums, which include independent third party certification audits, it is only a matter of time before the next disaster. The subsequent whitewash or witch hunt often blames the soporific, intoxicated and inarticulate driver to protect reputations, secure assets and socialise the loss, especially if the victim dies.
The malfeasance and turpitude equals and often exceeds the egregious performance of many politicians, public serpents and other panjandrums within federal, state and local governments across Australia.
Indeed, most established white expatriates in Papua New Guinea invariably have some form and the buccaneering entrepreneurial spirit typically encourages the deification and accumulation of profit.
This is usually acknowledged as the ultimate test of human achievement and is often rewarded or bestowed with an order of chivalry, which further encourages devious, dishonest or amoral behaviour to fulfil sinister objectives and attain recognition.
Posted by: william Dunlop | 28 March 2020 at 07:47 AM
Harold Wilson and Denis Healey et al were far too right of centre for my liking.
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 27 March 2020 at 08:39 AM
Bernard you have produced a massive tome of 1058 pages. It's surely not for a quick read. Must have taken much effort and time to write it.
The possible 12 weeks isolation here in UK certainly would provide time to read it properly. I skimmed through some of the pages this morning and it seems full of insights into corporate shortcomings.
I noted you used Aberfan as your cover page. That was a very traumatic moment for the mining communities in South Wales and beyond.
One of my best mates at College in 1966 was from the devastated village. Only three weeks ago in the period of very heavy rain several 'safe' grassed over coal tips showed landslips that reawakened fears for those living in small villages below.
I must commend many of the short sentences of wisdom from many sources that grace many of your pages. Thanks for allowing it to be freely downloaded.
Posted by: Arthur Williams | 26 March 2020 at 09:04 PM
Herr Corden, morgen. Spoken like a disciple of the late Harold Wilson, Moscow's man in London & UK.
Posted by: William Dunlop | 26 March 2020 at 11:32 AM
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 26 March 2020 at 08:55 AM
Bernard has given us a great example of where letting the market rip, unfettered by effective regulation, combined with blindingly obvious conflicts of interest, leads to disaster in the service of accumulating vast profits.
And, once again, "the weak suffer what they must".
An effective, efficient and honest public service can be a bulwark against the worst excesses of capitalism yet is now regarded by far too many of the political class across the globe as an obstacle to a thriving economy. This is a fallacy relentlessly promoted by the promoters of the neo-liberal experiment.
Even in the face of utter disaster, promoters of this fallacy like Donald Trump propose giving huge sums to corporate America while simultaneously implying that it is better for millions of Americans to die from COVID 19 than allow the economy (i.e. the rich and powerful) to take a hit.
It is time for us all to wake up to this and other fallacies lying at the heart of neo-liberalism.
For example, the notion that there is equal opportunity in our society is complete bullshit. One glance at the socio-demographic statistics tells you otherwise. The wealthier always do better and tend to preserve or even extend their advantage across the generations. Donald J Trump is a prize example of this.
Another fallacy is that it is by individual effort alone that we succeed or fail in life. This is true to a point but ignores the blindingly obvious. If parents can afford to send their child to Geelong Grammar and then Melbourne University to do medicine or an MBA, that child is hugely more likely to do well in life than a child coming from Redfern or Salisbury North or some other highly disadvantageous post code.
In a PNG context, if you are sent to Australia for your secondary and tertiary education, your life chances are hugely better than someone from your home village who goes through the PNG education system.
All this is blindingly obvious and even given lip service by our political class, but nothing really changes anyway. This is because the notion that a properly organised and funded array of critical public services such as education, health care and housing can produce a better overall outcome for all citizens is utterly subordinated to the user pays, every man for himself philosophy that under pins neo-liberalism.
Capitalism doesn't have to take the form of a winner take all contest in which the weak and the poor are left to endure miserable lives while the wealthy and influential have their yachts moored at Monaco.
It is not socialism to say this, let alone communism. It is a question of fairness and equity. It is a moral and political question to which we have yet to formulate a sustainable solution.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 25 March 2020 at 04:29 PM
I would place them a rung above Scott Morrison, Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop, Peter Dutton and many other untermenschen but the scale is by no means linear. Even the late Russell James Hinze BFC had more integrity.
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 25 March 2020 at 01:04 PM
Would it be reasonable to assume that you don't think much of the Sharps, Bernard?
Posted by: Dave Ekins | 25 March 2020 at 12:35 PM