THE bulk carrier Portland Bay lost power after it departed Port Kembla on 3 July and drifted towards the shore, dropping its anchors about 1 nautical mile off the Royal National Park.

An image showing the track of Portland Bay from Port Kembla

Throughout much of the day, it was perilously close to shore, with the tug SL Diamantina, and later SL Martinique and Bullara, keeping it from grounding on the rocks.

As of the morning of 5 July, Portland Bay appears anchored off Cronulla.

The vessel discharged its cargo at Port Kembla and departed at about 1300 AEST 3 July. It appeared to first run into some trouble at 1700 and then commenced drifting towards the coast at 0445 on 4 July.

At about 0700, the vessel’s AIS status changed from “underway using engine” to “not under command” and at about 1000, the tug SL Diamantina arrived to assist the vessel, which had all but come to a stop roughly 1 nautical mile off the coast.

As of 1700 on 4 July, the vessel is moving out to sea, assisted by three tugs: SL Diamantina, SL Martinique and Bullara.

Port Authority of New South Wales chief operating officer and incident controller John Finch said the weather conditions are “atrocious” for the tug crew and the ship crew to be operating in, and the safety of the crews is paramount.

“[The Portland Bay crew] departed Port Kembla yesterday, suddenly they have a main engine failure and they’re drifting towards the rocks. Our compassion towards the crew and the safety of all responders are key,” he said.

“[The weather] is going to make the towage operation quite difficult. As you can imagine in eight-metre swell, the vessel is going to be rising and falling, pitching and rolling, that’s going to put a lot of stress on the towage equipment.”

Mr Finch said the vessel continued to drift after it dropped its anchors moving from about 1 nautical mile offshore to 0.8 nautical miles from shore.

He said there was an initial plan in the morning to evacuate the ship of non-essential crew. However, once it deployed its anchors, the master asked to keep the crew onboard because they were confident that they were able to make an engine repair once they get out to deep water.

“They are fairly confident they know what the issue is with the main engine and they do have spare parts onboard, they have qualified marine engineers onboard who can make the repairs,” he said.

“They think the problem is the main engine turbo blower, the bearings have failed. If that is the case and there are no further issues, it should be a relatively straightforward repair, they say up to six hours.”

Mr Finch said two tugs would remain with Portland Bay while repairs are carried out on its engine.

“We are not out of the woods, but we are heading in the right direction.”

In an update at 1800 on Monday night, Mr Finch said all response crews would continue the operation well into the night despite the tough ocean conditions.

“Our thoughts are with them and the crew as they continue the slow and delicate operation to remove this vessel to deep water and well away from the state’s coastline,” he said.

“I reiterate my acknowledgement of the enormous team effort, particularly the crew of the Engage tug SL Diamantina, in difficult conditions to undertake this operation, giving us the best possible chance of getting this vessel away,” Mr Finch said.

According to AIS data, the vessel started coming near the shore at 0900 and started slowly inching towards shore. At about 1500, the tugs began moving the vessel away from the coast. This image is from about 1700. Source: MarineTraffic

Earlier in the day, a NSW Police spokesperson also confirmed a sea rescue operation is currently underway off the coast of the Royal National Park in Sydney’s south.

“A co-ordinated operation utilising Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Marine Area Command, and officers from Sutherland Police Area Command and Wollongong Police District are responding to reports a commercial vessel had encountered mechanical issues about two nautical miles off-shore,” the spokesperson said at the time.

“Two helicopters have been deployed to rescue 21 crew onboard. Two vessels attached to Port Kembla and Botany Bay Marine Area Command are onsite assisting.”

At a press conference in the morning of 4 July, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said the Commonwealth was trying to airlift eight non-essential crew from that bulk carrier.

“We have dispatched here in New South Wales a small tug and a larger tug is now on the way from Port Botany,” Mr Perrottet said.

“It’s obviously a very precarious position. Our thoughts are with those onboard. The New South Wales government is continuing to work with Commonwealth agencies to ensure that that situation is rectified as quickly as possible, ensuring that all 21 crew on board are lifted to safety as quickly as possible.”

Australian Transport Safety Bureau chief commissioner Angus Mitchell said the ATSB is taking an active interest in the circumstances surrounding today’s loss of engine power of the Portland Bay bulk carrier.

“As the ATSB gathers further information to assess whether to conduct a formal investigation into the incident, of particular interest will be the mechanical state of the ship on sailing, the known weather conditions it was sailing into, and the initial actions taken when the ship’s crew first realised they had a problem,” he said.

“The ATSB also remains in on-going contact with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, the NSW Port Authority and the ship’s owner.”

Mr Mitchell acknowledged the potential seriousness of a stricken bulk carrier being so close to shore, both for the crew onboard and for the natural environment.

“As the national transport safety investigator, the ATSB’s role is to determine how the situation arose, and how we can help prevent similar reoccurrences,” he said.

A spokesperson for SL Diamantina operator Engage Towage Sydney said they had received a request from AMSA to provide immediate emergency assistance to Portland Bay.

“Engage Towage deployed the SL Diamantina immediately after the request for assistance and she arrived at the stricken vessel around 1000am local time. The SL Martinique was mobilised for departure shortly after, following preparation of full emergency response requirements, to provide full assistance,” the spokesperson said.

“The SL Diamantina is currently holding the vessel and awaiting further assistance before a recovery plan can be implemented. Unfavourable weather conditions are hindering the rescue efforts.”

The Bureau of Meteorology has issued gale warnings and hazardous surf warnings for the Sydney and Illawarra coasts for today and tomorrow.

The bureau said a trough extends from a low off the coast of New South Wales. This trough is generating onshore winds and a very heavy surf from the east or south east.

“Significant wave heights of over five metres are likely, with peak periods around 11 seconds,” the BOM said.

“Wave heights of five metres and above have been recorded at the Sydney wave buoy during this morning and Sunday evening.”

Portland Bay is a Hong Kong-flagged geared bulker. It is 169 metres long (LOA) and it is 27.2 metres wide.