Saturday, October 16, 2010

Voyages to Lord Howe Island

It's been a while since I've updated my blog, been a bit busy with work/new job/studies etc.

Started working on the general cargo vessel MV Island Trader the last several weeks. Doing my 4th trip this coming week. Lord Howe Island is just over 300nm East of Port Macquarie, NSW. The boat delivers everything that a small community of 300 + 400 or so tourists need on the island including diesel for the island's power station, petrol, LPG, A-1 jet fuel for the airport, frozen and refrigerated goods, building materials, cars/trucks, mail and all kinds of other general cargo. The Island Trader departs Port Macquarie usually every second Thursday and on the return trip picks up garbage, return mail, empty fuel drums etc from the island for disposal back on the mainland. A one way trip takes just under 2 days.


The previous day and on the day of departure, the derrick cranes on the boat and forklifts are getting a good workout loading the cargo onboard, crew secure all cargo and make sure everything is well strapped in. Final drafts of the vessel are taken, stability calculations done, cargo gear stowed and secured, final checks done, we then wait for the next high tide to leave port. Leaving the wharf which is a few Kilometers up the Hastings River near the Pacific Highway, we venture downstream past the two cable car ferries that service the Port Macquarie area further down from Dennis Bridge.

Getting to Lord Howe Island is pretty easy, after crossing the bar at Port Macquarie head East and eventually you'll get to the Island. From the island head dead West 270° T to get back to Port Macquarie. There can be busy shipping traffic near the coast but once clear of the coast there is very rarely any vessels in sight after 50nm.

During the trip I typically do regular 4 hour watches on and off as Officer Of the Watch (OOW) in the wheelhouse. The boat is on autopilot so I'm not actually steering the boat in the above photo ;-) however minor course corrections need to be regularly made as the autopilot steers by the steering compass. According to the GPS, our speed over ground is usually around 8Kn however sometimes the ocean currents will make us go slower or faster for our given engines RPM and our SOG can vary from 6.5Kn to 12.5Kn (record so far), big difference! This can affect our ETA to the island significantly to the point where sometimes we can miss the high tide or we would arrive too early which in this case we would slow down during the last leg. There are quite a lot of sea birds visible along the way as well including Albatrosses. Close to the coast we saw the usual migrating whales and dolphins.

Our destination at the island is the wharf constructed in front of the site which used to be the island's flying boat airport terminal when flying boats used to provide regular flights to the island from Rose Bay, Sydney. The island now has a 1Km runway and Qantas provide usually 3 flights a day out from Sydney, Port Macquarie and Brisbane using Dash-8s.

The wharf is inside the lagoon on the western side of the island which is surrounded by reefs however there is a narrow passage for vessels to enter the lagoon marked with transit leads and sector lights. To get to the wharf we also need a high tide and the Lord Howe Island Harbour Master will give us a reading of the current tide at the wharf via VHF radio as the current tide readings can vary depending on weather conditions (such as barometric pressure) compared to predicted tide table readings.

Getting through the channel can get a bit hairy when the sea is a bit rough and the Captain (Master 3) who has lots of local knowledge will decide whether to enter or not. If conditions are too rough to make an entry, the boat can either do circles around the island or drop anchor at a sheltered location till things settle down. Once inside the lagoon the waters are usually pretty calm however at high tide big waves can still go over the surrounding reefs and cause surges in the lagoon.

Once secured at the wharf, the Engineer will start emptying the ballast tanks so the boat sits at the bottom, this makes it safer for cargo unloading however even then one has to be careful with the derrick cranes as at high tide the boat can still surge a bit. There can be quite a large crowd at the wharf apart from the wharf crew, tourists turn up to check out all the maritime action. It will take the rest of the day and the next day to unload all the cargo with the help of the wharf crew who live on the island. Supplies and goods are then delivered to their destinations by several trucks that go throughout the island. The Captain was kind enough to let me off so I could hop on one of the trucks to get a sightseeing drive of the island on my first trip.

The boat usually stays at the island for a couple of days. During those days it's very busy as after all the cargo is unloaded, there is the back load cargo to be taken onboard, stowed and secured. However sometimes we finish a bit earlier in the afternoon and on one trip managed to go for a walk to some other areas on the island. Ned's Beach which is on the eastern side of the island was interesting with big King fish swimming around my legs when I was feeding them nibblies. I also introduced myself to the local cows and went hill hiking to get a better view of the scenery:

There are many resorts on the island and tourism is the main revenue maker and the export of the local Kentia palm tree seeds which is native to the island. There are a few boats that also do diving, fishing and sightseeing trips to Elizabeth and Middleton coral reefs which are located 150Km north-east of the island. These are the southern most coral reefs in Australia. If you venture at night to have a beer at the local bowling club, bring a torch with you because there are no street lights (which is great because you can see the Milky Way, should have brought my telescope with me ;-) There is no mobile phone reception on the island however there is a Telstra public phone available and we can watch TV onboard when we are at the island.

The back load is usually light, skip bins full of garbage, recycled plastic etc, lots of empty 200L A-1 jet fuel drums, empty LPG tanks and IBCs (Intermediate Bulk Containers) for petrol and other stuff. I'm told that the airplanes that land at the island have to always refuel in case they can't land back at their destination and have to be diverted so no one wonder they go through a lot of fuel drums.

Heading back to Port Macquarie is pretty much the same routine with watches and I'm finding sleeping in the bunk with the boat rolling side to side relaxing however the trips that I've done so far haven't been that rough. One of the deckhands onboard cooks dinner for the crew every day and he's a pretty good cook too. The most relaxing part of the job is while we are at sea as in port things get busy and this gives me a chance to catchup on my readings.
On the second day of the return sea voyage we also do an emergency drill such as Man Overboard, Fire drills etc and test equipment. After we are docked at the wharf back at Port Macquarie up the Hastings River all the back load is unloaded and we give the cargo hold and boat a good cleanup and any maintenance required on the cargo gear and boat is carried out. After signing off it's a 5 hour drive for me back to Sydney. Till next time.