Pasha Bulker 10 years on: The 24-day operation to get the 40,000-tonne carrier back off Nobbys beach

IT is 9.37pm on July 2, 2007, some 24 days since her grand, if not unwelcome arrival, and the temperature is about as cold as the stares. The Pasha Bulker’s pig-headedness appears to have dashed another attempt to pull her free.

Then NSW Ports Minister Joe Tripodi and Newcastle Port Corporation chief executive officer Gary Webb are halfway through a press conference on Fort Scratchley, high above the deserted Nobbys beach on this Monday evening.

And then, one of the cameramen notices something behind the men. Hold on a second. Is that light supposed to be moving.

“We had come to a point where, you know what, she has turned fully but she just didn’t want to let go,’’ Mr Webb recalls.

“So we were again in a tone of transparency saying ‘well, it mightn’t be tonight, but there will be another time’.

“And suddenly my phone was going bananas and I suspected that behind me the ship was wanting to move. So the incident control centre was letting me know. But I couldn’t look at my phone.

“Suddenly the media guys said ‘will you get out of the way, it’s moving’.’’

After all this time, after all the theories about how wedged the Pasha Bulker was into the reef and whether it would become another Sygna, the big 40,000-tonne girl decided to leave without fuss.

No crunching of steel or grinding on the rock. No more monster whip-cracking from cables snapping. Nope, she had turned on her heels and was out of there.

Even high on the hill where guns once peppered Japanese submarines, and despite a one-kilometre exclusion zone allowing this moment to only be witnessed by a lucky and chosen few, there were euphoric scenes.

There were cheers and pats on the back. Minister Tripodi even threatened to do an Irish jig. Those present have promised he didn’t.

“I enjoyed the drive home that night but even then I was very aware of what the next steps were going to be,’’ Mr Webb says.

“Because you have a dead ship that needs to come in to port, so clearly your mind moves to that very quickly, you can’t get too euphoric for too long.’’

And there was also no euphoria on board the Pasha Bulker.

Salvage master Drew Shannon, working for Svitzer, remembers the moment like yesterday.

“I was on the bridge and she just squatted back down a bit in the water and off she went,’’ Mr Shannon said.

“There was a huge wave of relief but believe me, that is some of the most critical times.

“You take the ship off the rocks where she was steady and back into the water. Is there another hole we don’t know of. Is there a leak. The next 24 hours was crucial.

“I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief until we were back in the harbour.’’

That mindset of always looking towards the next challenge appears as a common denominator throughout the salvage – even since the moment the Pasha Bulker crashed onto the beach.

In fact, back on the morning the Pasha Bulker hit the sand and reef, and as word was still emanating through the gale-force winds, authorities had turned their attention to other dangers.

Gary Webb was in Melbourne at a ports conference when he got the first call about the Pasha getting close. And when it was confirmed that it had beached, there was no time to worry about it. Webb headed home as the situation worsened.

There were at least two other bulk carriers which were threatening to hit Hunter beaches, including the Sea Confidence in Stockton Bight.

“The Pasha wasn’t going anywhere,’’ Mr Webb says.

“We would come back to her. But it was the other two that occupied most of our focus on that Friday afternoon whilst we set up the response centre.’’

He later adds: “I’m not trying to overplay it, but it is well on the record and your records show those two vessels being a risk.

“So that is really where we were the first night, establishing the incident control centre for the Pasha and working out what happens if.

“We were always hopeful at worst it might be one other, at two it would have really have stretched our resources and we would have had to really have changed our thinking a bit.’’

There was also a few other things happening too. Like flooding. Like the expected silt to hit the harbour needing dredging. The harbour was obviously closed. Not that it mattered too much because a rail line used to transport coal to the harbour had also been washed away.

But no one else really cared. The attention was on the big red ship on Nobbys. And how they were going to get it off.

And there was a lot of advice being sent to authorities. Some good, some not so good.

“Sometimes the incident control centre would say to me we have been given some free advice today from the general public,’’ Mr Webb says.

“So I would say pick your favourite for the day. Someone thought we should put kites on the ship and help it fly away. Something thought we should dredge a channel through Macquarie Pier onto the main channel. Someone wanted the 50 ships to come back and put the anchors on there and drag it off.’’

Enter salvage master Drew Shannon and his crew. Again. They needed to find out what damage had been done to the Pasha before they could even think about how to pull it off.

In their industry’s terms, was the damage fatal or not.

And that took days of watching how the Pasha behaved in different tides with the bow on the sand and the stern on the rocks.

Those characteristics were looked at by a naval architect, who then had his opinions “peer reviewed” by others across the world. Three or four days in, and this had become a 24/7 operation.

Once it was confirmed that the Pasha was not dead, the logistics really hit. They needed the massive tugs, the 15-tonne anchors to be laid seaward and the 450-metre long cables which the Pasha would use to help pull herself free.

In the meantime, Mr Webb had decided there needed to be a one-kilometre exclusion zone during the salvage operations.

Some critics suggested it was because the port corporation didn’t want people to see them fail.

“[Our thoughts were] what happens if something does go wrong. Or what happens if someone gets excited and, in the dark, ends up down on the beach and something goes wrong,’’ Mr Webb says.

“We were not going to have someone killed so there is no doubt that when you have the lines underweight and remember the ships winches were working offthe anchors as well as the pull from the three tugs that were on it.’’

It would take three attempts over five nights to finally drag her free, with several cables snapping as the window of opportunity – including high tides – was getting narrower and narrower.

“Mother Nature did not play ball during the preparation and the night of the first attempt Mother Nature was cruel because the ship was moving quite violently {before a cable snapped],’’ Mr Shannon says.

And just like she had been throughout the ordeal, Mother Nature failed to help on the night of July 2, 2007, stubbornly deciding it was time to be calm when the salvors needed some swell.

But even without the help of Mother Nature, they won. The Pasha was free.

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