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On a route navigating some of the most unforgiving water along Australia’s southern coastline, the need to get everything right from the start becomes imperative.

For veteran tug master Steve Kennedy, setting sail from Sydney last December with former HMAS Darwin in tow came after a month of intensive planning and cross-checking. Every foreseeable risk had to be assessed and minimised— eliminated if possible.

By the time he and his crew set sail on 1 December, the biggest remaining challenge in his mind was the weather.  Probably the least predictable element, it would be among the most closely watched—especially as they set out across the Great Australian Bight.

With more than 20 years’ experience as a master and engineer, Steve is co-ordinator of all offshore requirements including towage, for Sydney-based Polaris Marine Pty Ltd.

Taking the Darwin from Sydney to Perth was the third ex-Navy vessel and second frigate Steve had moved through open seas in three years. Earlier tows were the former HMAS Sydney over the same distance and the somewhat larger Tobruk landing craft, from Sydney to Bundaberg.

‘Weather is always on your mind with this type of work, especially when you have to cross something like the Bight from east to west,’ Steve said. ‘You don’t need anything to go wrong, so you eliminate every risk you can with extensive planning, long before you leave port on the first leg of the trip.’

‘In the case of the Darwin, our planning started as soon as the Navy ordered the 18-day tow to Western Australia.’ ‘But before this, the Navy would have spent about six months in its preliminary steps to get the vessel ready to go. It would have cleared any possible pollutants and emptied the fuel and oil tanks. In short, it would have removed anything its experts could see would be a risk that we might have to tackle on the tow.’

The Polaris team started with a detailed run-down on the state of the vessel as it presently stood.  ‘It began with Navy experts briefing us on the liquid state of the vessel—what ballast it was carrying and the like. We needed to have a clear picture of its stability. All of this information was then checked by our naval architect as an added precaution,’ Steve said.

‘I then drew up a voyage plan covering the entire tow. Not just the course, but emergency procedures and plans for how we would tackle any contingencies. Then we submitted the detailed plan to AMSA for approval.'  ‘Both AMSA’s surveyor and our surveyor carried out a full inspection of the ship, along with our insurance inspector and myself. It took us half a day to confirm Darwin was fit to be towed,’ said Steve. ‘The inspection included all towing gear. It was fully set up on board and closely inspected before being given the all-clear,’ he said.  ‘This is the time when we would have found any things like a vent or hatch needing to be boarded up to prevent the vessel taking in water during the tow.’

With all inspections completed, all parties signed-off and AMSA issued a certificate for the tow.

‘That’s the time when weather really came into play. We started looking closely for a suitable window,’ Steve said. ‘Apart from our own judgment and experience, our tow certificate defined the acceptable weather conditions that we could tow in.’

When the tow started, all eyes were out for any potential problems ‘These might have included a failure in any of the tow gear, any leaks, whether the towed vessel was sitting low or listing—that sort of thing,’ he said. ‘But whatever else, we knew especially on a long tow like this, we always had to keep a close eye on the weather ahead and where the next port of refuge was. As it was, we stopped in Eden for about 36 hours to dodge poor weather.’

During the tow, the crew checked in with head office twice daily. ‘These reports included our position report, our speed and how much fuel we were using,’ Steve said. ‘The reports also went to AMSA, the Navy and our insurance surveyor.’

Standard procedure included advising Sydney Port Authority of their departure. ‘We advised our arrival port about three days beforehand to let it plan for us. We also advised local ports along the way, so they could advise other shipping we were in the area.’

For most of the trip, the crews communicated with families using their mobile phones. When this wasn’t possible they used satellite communications.

And what was the most picturesque part of the trip?
‘From Botany Bay to Eden is quite good, but seeing Perth coming up through the front window and knowing the next meal would be something like roast lamb served at a steady table instead of a microwaved pie in a heavy sea was hard to beat,’ Steve said.

Source: polarismarine.com.au /AMSA Working Boats