The Pasha Bulker storm: The day the ship hit the sand

MOTHER Nature is in one of her moods - cranky and showing no respect. For hours, she has furiously lashed out with 110kmh winds from deep in the southern Tasman Sea to buffet the east coast.

And now, as a murky dawn creeps in and Newcastle wakes to a filthy Friday morning, she turns her fury on to a 40,000-tonne Panamanian-registered carrier.

The Pasha Bulker - once a 225-metre-long symbol of man’s power over the oceans - is now a defenceless cork in a vast bathtub, floundering off a brutal coastline and just minutes from stubbornly entering Hunter folklore.

Veteran newsman Greg Wendt first hears of this ghost of the darkness from some old salts at Merewether Surf Club as he cowers in the winds waiting for his morning coffee.

They tell Wendt the big red ship had earlier found itself just off the famous surf break, battling the gales and 10-metre swells as its captain tried valiantly to get the propeller of the unladen carrier, already very high in the water, to gain some traction and send her back out to the relative safety of open water.

Wendt heads into work at the Newcastle Herald to find phones ringing off the hook. Word of the Pasha’s fight headed up the coast quicker than the swells could push her.

With photographer David Wicks, Wendt speeds passed the old Royal Newcastle Hospital and down Shortland Esplanade to be greeted by a sight so vivid it has burnt in his memory.

“There is this 40,000-tonne bulk carrier just floundering almost. Battered by big waves and looking like it was perilously close to the baths. And in trouble,’’ Wendt recalls.

“The captain of the ship was trying to reverse it and then jerk the bow into the teeth of the storm, so he was reversing down towards Nobbys.

“There is a great shot that [former Herald photographer Darren Pateman] got of the Pasha Bulker being hit by a wave and was bent almost over the rocks at the Cowrie Hole.

“I thought that’s where it is going to end up. But it kept going in reverse towards Nobbys at a rate of knots.

“This wave just swamped it and all you could see was a bit of the funnel and a little bit of the bow and then it disappeared in the murk towards Nobbys.’’

Former police officer and Nobbys Surf Life Saving Club president Dave Edwards is around the corner, rechecking the club’s windows as he tries to give them every possible chance to survive the growing storm.

“I came up to the kiosk after I closed the club up and spoke to the girl in the kiosk and when I was talking to her I saw the big red ship getting pushed back past Groper Rock and was getting blown backwards,’’ Edwards says.

“The girl who was at the kiosk saw it as well and all we could say, well, there were a few swear words.

“I had driven by the baths and I could see it out the back of the baths but it didn’t register to me how close it was, I was too intent to get around here in the wind and the rain to secure the surf club.

“But as time marched on I came down the kiosk and looked through the kiosk and there she was.’’

Wendt and Edwards quickly become part of a growing crowd of onlookers caught in the awesome moment.

Wendt remembers: “It was unbelievable, and it was more unbelievable that it was happening in front of everyone who were just standing there with hands on their mouths.’’

But to Edwards, a veteran of decades of police work with a passion of Nobbys Beach and its iconic status, these were worrying moments.​

He watches, hoping against hope it does not run aground between the Cowrie Hole and Nobbys Beach “because we could have still been picking it off the rock shelf’’.

“It was getting hit by these massive sets because Nobbys, when we get big seas the swell gets that big it breaks in one massive wave. And that is what occurred here,’’ he says.

“There were a number of set waves and it got hit sideways and got pushed in slightly, got hit again and then there was a break.

“There was a definite break in the sets.

“ And whilst I was still in the doors of the kiosk, the engines, the propeller, took grip and for 30 seconds or so it started to move forward across the bay here.

“And I thought ‘my God, it’s going to come aground here in the corner’.

“This massive great bow coming directly for us. Then, again, the sets came and hit it again. Bang, bang. And again. Bang, bang.’’

In all the “bad positions”, the Pasha lands “in the best of those bad positions’’.

But even through the howling gales strong enough to hurl people across the slippery pavement, the noises from the Pasha emanate.

Wendt says you could hear the moans of buckling steel and concerns move to whether, like the infamous Sygna which crashed into Stockton Beach 33 years previous, the big girl would break up.

“But the Pasha Bulker was a fairly new ship and apparently that might have helped a little bit.

“It was also sitting on some sand so the back half of it was jammed on the reef and the propeller had gouged into the reef.

“But you could hear the buckling and just the thunderous roar of the ocean hitting it, slamming into the side of it.’’

The cavalry quickly arrive - Edwards helping to set up a command post for emergency services as authorities work out how to get the 22 Filipino seamen off.

Two Westpac rescue helicopters hover overhead and the rescue operation begins with crewman Glen Ramplin beginning the first of seemingly endless descents onto the deck to start carrying the seamen to safety.

“[Helicopter crew chief] Graham Nickisson said every time [Ramplin] went down the rope and touched the ship he got a massive electric shock because the blades had set up its own static electricity,’’ Wendt says.

“So he was getting these zaps that were contorting his body. Every time. But he knew he had to keep going.

“And he said the last one was the worst one but he went about 18 times out there and brought them in. They had to get them in, check them out, debrief them, customs and everything was there. It was a giant quarantine station.

“The chopper was into the wind and the pilot must have been flying blind with the weather.

“It would break for a little while, you would get a little bit of a reprieve and another cell would come in again. It really was difficult conditions for us, so I hate to think what it was like out there hanging above this ship and a slick deck and all that sort of thing.

“[The ship] was still pitching, even though it was stuck fast, it was still moving every time the waves hit it. Terrible conditions.’’

Veteran lifeguard Warren Smith and others jump on jet skis and into the washing machine of the boiling sea next to the ship, hoping no one would fall but patrolling just in case there is a need for a quick rescue.

After 90 minutes, the extraordinary rescue - which continues to be lauded as one of the great maritime operations - is complete.

Ramplin collapses on the sodden turf outside the surf club. Spent.

Nickisson tells people that if you can rate rescues with a difficulty of one to 10, “then this was definitely a 10’’.

No one is injured. Everyone is safe.

And even in such precarious times, there is still time for some humour.

“It was pretty slick,’’ Wendt says.

“Towards the end of it, quite a few of these [Filipino seamen] were run past the media and were shepherded into the club, and one of the radio blokes yelled out to one of the seaman coming up the ramp: ‘how are you feeling’’.

“And we all looked and thought how is he going to answer, he probably doesn’t even understand the question.

“But he stopped, and looked, and he went: ‘I okay. Captain f---ed’. And that was it. He took off inside.

“And we thought that has to be the headline but we will never be allowed to use it.’’

Whoever may or may not have been to blame is for another day, week and even month. There is still work to do.