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Navy plays key role in Operation Rena

At 0220 on 5 October, 47,000-tonne container ship Rena ploughed into Astrolabe reef in calm waters off Tauranga. 

Navy ships and crew, together with Army and Air Force personnel, were among the first responders to what has become New Zealand’s worst environmental maritime disaster.

“The Navy’s specialist skills and knowledge have been vital, given the maritime nature of the incident,” said Capt Wilson Trumper, who was on-scene commander of Operation Rena in the initial weeks.

“The shared professional understanding of the maritime environment also helped Maritime New Zealand and the Navy achieve positive outcomes at all levels of the operation,” he added.

Within two days after disaster struck, Operation Rena was in full swing.

MANAWANUI, which had just returned to Devonport Naval Base after weeks of training at sea, sailed for Tauranga before midnight on 7 October. ROTOITI, also fresh from weeks of training at sea, followed the next morning. ENDEAVOUR joined the operations on 9 October and was immediately set up as a command post. PUKAKI arrived three days later.

In the initial stages of the operation, the SH2G Seasprite helicopter ferried salvors to the wrecked 47,000-tonne ship and made reconnaissance runs. It also provided search and rescue capability when the salvors worked through the night.

Operation Rena was backed by around 350 Defence Force personnel, including 130 sailors and the Navy’s Mine Countermeasures Team. Another 150 were on standby.

Owing to the fluid nature of the situation, “the mix of assets and units deployed initially was meant to cover a range of possible scenarios,” according to Capt Trumper.

The location of Astrolabe reef, which is 12 nautical miles off the Tauranga coast, also influenced the choice of assets and units as well as the response options that were considered. “Being further out at sea means the Rena is exposed to more severe weather and civilian vessels that may be used to get within close-range, had the incident happened ashore, would not be suitable,” Capt Trumper explained.

Defence Force personnel had their work cut out for them. Two severe cracks run across Rena’s hull and regular bouts of stormy weather left the ship listing 20 degrees to starboard.

Rena cargo included approximately 1,368 shipping containers, of which at least 22 contain hazardous substances. Some 350 tonnes of heavy oil from the ship’s damaged fuel tanks leaked into the sea in the first weeks, whilst over 88 containers fell overboard. The slick had reached the popular beach at Mount Maunganui, prompting residents to join around 150 Defence Force personnel in clean-up operations.

“The initial weeks were marked by 16-hour workdays and call-outs overnight as the situation was very unstable,” Capt Trumper recalled.

Specific tasks were assigned to each of the vessels. ENDEAVOUR, the fleet’s replenishment tanker, served as a contingency oil storage facility.

ROTOITI, MANAWANUI and PUKAKI patrolled the navigation exclusion zone to ensure unauthorised vessels did not get in the way of the salvors removing the estimated 1700 tonnes of oil from the ship, said Lt Layamon Bakewell, ROTOITI’s Commanding Officer. Due to media’s repeated incursions into the exclusion zone in the initial weeks, the three vessels later ferried journalists so they could take photographs and video footage of the stricken ship.

“We monitored the locations and movements of fallen containers and provided hourly weather and situation updates to the command headquarters in Tauranga,” said Lt Alexandra Hansen, Commanding Officer of PUKAKI.

The up-to-date information provided by PUKAKI, plus the infrared pictures taken by the Seasprite showing where large blocks of oil were inside Rena, informed the salvage operations.

“The day after we got on station was the most challenging,” Lt Hansen recalled. “We were operating on the north side of Rena when we spotted three containers in the water. The bridge team could not relax for a second and we had to have extra lookouts and safeguards to keep the containers from damaging our ship.”

PUKAKI also served as a search and rescue platform for the salvors. Diving support ship MANAWANUI, on the other hand, served as a platform for a Navy hydrographic team tasked to ensure the harbour and channels were safe for commercial vessels.

 “We worked with a team from Maritime New Zealand to load oil booms on board the ship,” said Lt Cdr Wiremu Leef, Commanding Officer of MANAWANUI.

“The ship’s 22-man crew also learnt how to launch and recover the booms should we be required to deploy them and assist in the control of a significant oil spill.”

The NZDF stood down some of its operations in Tauranga on 19 October as there had been no new spillages of oil or containers. However, officials say the Navy’s involvement is likely to continue in the immediate future as the salvage plan entails three phases – the removal of oil, followed by the removal of containers and finally, the flotation of the vessel – and is expected to last several months.

“The Inshore Patrol Vessels provide a versatile platform that can respond to an emergency situation at short notice. The evacuation of Rena’s crew, in particular, demonstrated the professionalism and capability of Navy personnel and highlighted the flexibility of the Lake-class Patrol vessels,” according to Lt Bakewell.

Maritime New Zealand and members of the public have lauded the NZDF, particularly the Navy, for its support to the salvage operations. National on-scene commander Nick Quinn commended the NZDF for providing ”a centre of gravity for assurance and stability.”

In a post on the Navy’s Facebook page, Selina Murray wrote: “And people think that we have no use for the Navy! Funny how you guys drop everything and help out and have the best people for the job time and time again.”


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