Death of a Seaman Maritime incidents on our coast

Text: Ross Duncan

As the YM Efficiency limped into Port Botany, having lost eighty-three of the containers it was carrying off the New South Wales coast on 1 June, another serious maritime accident was unfolding even closer to Sydney shores.

On Sunday, 3 June, at about 9.30am, an electrical officer aboard the Singapore-flagged OOCL Kuala Lumpur was crushed to death. The incident occurred just 17 kilometres east of Cronulla as the ship was en route to Port Botany.

Most workplace fatalities get at least some mainstream coverage here. In contrast to the overboard containers accident, this fatality of a foreign worker in Australian territory, involved in the transportation of goods for our consumption, has only been reported in industry publications.

Reverend Un Tay, a chaplain with Anglican charity, Mission to Seafarers, has visited the OOCL Kuala Lumpur and spoken to the all Indian crew. Reverend Un Tay also spoke to some members of the crew aboard the YM Efficiency, as authorities investigate the containers mishap. He has given Neighbourhood an account of how each crew is coping.

“For different reasons, the crew on both ships were traumatised, and far from home,” Reverend Tay says. “While investigations were continuing into both accidents we were concerned to ensure the welfare of the crews wasn’t being overlooked.”

The electrician who died on the Kuala Lumpur had been carrying out repairs on the ship’s elevator, according to a spokesperson for the Australian Marine Safety Authority (AMSA). He was reported by the ship’s master to have been crushed between the lift door and shaft. He was 31 years old.

“I spent about 4 or 5 hours on board that Sunday afternoon,” Reverend Tay says. “Initially, they [the crew members] were quite hesitant because they were all shocked, quite traumatised. The chief cook was there because I was in the mess room. We spent almost an hour in silence, but finally he came to me and opened up. All of them were grieving and in shock. The cook said to me no one had touched the lunch he cooked that day.”

Seafarers spend up to twelve months at a time at sea. Reverend Tay says one crew member told him he just wanted to sign off (end his contract early) and go home. “A number of the crew had no SIM card, no way to call anyone,” he says. “We provided them with a global SIM card. It was a relief for them. They could make phone calls, use Facebook, Skype whatever… something they didn’t have access to on board.”

Reverend Tay says the International Transport Workers’ Federation arranged for a professional counsellor to go on board. Neighbourhood asked the ship’s charterer, OOCL, what support, including counselling, it arranged for the captain and crew but it did not respond to that specific question. It said it was working closely with the ship owner and local investigative authorities.

NSW Police have prepared a report for the coroner.

Reverend Tay made two unsuccessful attempts to go aboard the YM Efficiency after it docked at Port Botany. It was understandable, he says, given the captain was no doubt already dealing with a lot, including AMSA investigators wanting to know how scores of containers could end up in the ocean, and some of the contents wash up on our beaches. Waterfront workers, like players in a high-stakes game of Pick Up Sticks, have been going about the delicate task of unloading the remaining containers, which appear about to topple at any moment. On his third attempt, on 13 June, the chaplain encountered an AMSA officer on the gangway who put in a good word for him with the ship’s Second Mate. Soon he was in the messroom talking to some of the Chinese and Taiwanese crew. Reverend Tay speaks five languages, including Mandarin.

Crushed containers on the YM Efficiency. Photography by Reverend Un Tay

Crushed containers on the YM Efficiency. Photography by Reverend Un Tay

He says the crew were restrained, possibly under instructions from the Captain not to say too much. “Also,” he says, “there are cultural elements. Even if there is no fault, if something bad happens, it is a shameful thing.”

Despite having been six weeks at sea and, by then, a whole week in port and provisions running low, no one had been able to go ashore. “I don’t know why, probably because of the investigation,” Reverend Tay says. “But personally I thought it unfair for them. They needed some space, to come out, and unwind.”

Reverend Tay visited the ship again on 20 June and found that the crew have still not been ashore, two weeks after arriving.

An AMSA spokesperson says it has detained the ship as it assesses compliance with the Safety of Life at Sea Convention, and “that could take some time.” However, there is no AMSA direction restricting the crew from going ashore. Ships’ captains generally approve shore leave.

Seafarers are responsible for 99 per cent of imports into Australia. Their perilous existence goes largely unrecognised. Mission to Seafarers Sydney visits ships when in port, offers support and counselling. If and when seafarers are able to go ashore for a few hours, Mission to Seafarers offers free transportation for seafarers into the city and a dry land sanctuary.

It’s been a particularly rough month for seafarers along the New South Wales coast. Earlier this week, on 18 June, a large fire broke out on a bulk carrier at Port Kembla. The ship, Iron Chieftain, was carrying dolomite, used in iron and steel production. Blue Scope steel operates a major steel mill in Port Kembla. About one hundred firefighters attended the blaze. Fortunately, the 22 crew were evacuated and there are no reports of injury.

Update: Neighbourhood’s Ross Duncan reports that around 9pm tonight (Thursday 21.06.18) Reverend Tay has informed him that “eight seafarers from YM Efficiency went ashore earlier, brought into city on MTS bus. Great news.”


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