There is happy coincidence in that the very day the nation's largest maritime environmental disaster was getting national attention, the largest ship ever to visit Port Nelson was slipping carefully and safely back through the Cut, bound for Port Chalmers.
At 238 metres, the Olivia Maersk is 14m longer than the previous record-holder and the port company made special efforts to ensure the visit went well. Insisting on daylight berthing for the first visit and setting wind limits during berthing, while also observing the ship's handling at North Island ports before its arrival here, were sensible and necessary precautions.
That all went well is a good sign for Nelson's ongoing place on the regional-international container trade network. It can be a fast-changing, cut-throat sort of business and is of key importance to Nelson's economy, given the absence of rail and the somewhat challenging road links to and from other markets. Maersk this year was seriously considering dropping Nelson from its schedule, but switched tack and added the port to a run that takes in Asian container hubs in Malaysia and Singapore along with three other New Zealand ports.
Given our increasing trade links with Asian economies, the decision was critical, and it is to be hoped the relationship is long and profitable. For port watchers the ship's arrival and next-day departure were arresting. To motorists heading to town from Tahunanui, the vessel looked from some angles as if it were being carefully manoeuvred to park atop Haulashore Island. The care and diligence paid off, and the huge vessel slipped away uneventfully on Friday - the first anniversary of the Rena disaster.
The contrasting attention to detail between those in charge of the vessels could not be more marked. One year on from the Rena's grounding on Astrolabe Reef near Tauranga, the salvage and cleanup continues. The consequences of some inexplicable goings-on and flawed decisions on the bridge last October are at the extreme end of a very large scale.
The current estimate of the disaster is about $47 million, with between $28m and $38m recoverable from the owners, depending on whether part of the destroyed ship is allowed to lie submerged on the reef. Other costs include to those East Coast business owners whose season was wrecked, even if the damage to beaches was less severe than feared, and marine wildlife paid the price of human carelessness, too.
The Government has just confirmed an inquiry into the disaster will be headed by a former spy agency boss linked to the Dotcom raids. Simon Murdoch is charged with assessing Maritime New Zealand's response to the grounding and factors which contributed to or limited its effectiveness.
The inquiry has been criticised as too narrow. Some aspects of the case are for the courts to deal with - rightly - and, given widespread criticism of the Government's and Maritime NZ's response in the first days following the grounding, this focus is appropriate. However, wider questions around the effectiveness of our maritime laws, liability limits, taxpayer exposure and preparedness for maritime disaster should be asked. How would we cope if the next big ship destined for Nelson wound up parked on Haulashore, bleeding oil into the Haven?
- © Fairfax NZ News