‘Guam Ocean Tow Evidence of Regional Capacity’
Pacific Towing continues to safely crew and despatch its vessels throughout South East Asia and Oceania despite COVID-19. Evidence of the company’s unthwarted capacity in the region is its recent successful towage of a vessel and crane barge to Guam. The towage project was significant not just because it occurred in the midst of the region’s COVID-19 induced lock down but because it was the first time in its 42 year history that Pacific Towing had one of its vessels in American waters.
COVID-19 is severely hampering the global maritime industry. Pacific Towing, like any other marine services provider is feeling the pandemic’s impact but is fortunate in that its services are in demand due to their centrality to ships being able to unload vital food, medical and fuel supplies and hence keep countries running.
General Manager, Neil Papenfus, admits that being headquartered in Papua New Guinea has also been an advantage. “COVID-19 didn’t hit PNG until several weeks after it had caused devastation in other countries which gave us vital additional time to prepare.” Pacific Towing now finds itself in the enviable position of being able to take on new business as it supports other marine service providers, including those that service oil and gas clients.
Marine Operations Manager, Gerard Kasnari, notes that numerous changes have been made and risk controls introduced in accord with World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations. “Some of the measures we’ve taken include new cleaning and disinfecting protocols, not allowing staff to take shore leave, as well as banning all non-essential visitors from our worksites, vessels and accommodation facilities. We’ve also introduced a range of measures to keep crew safe when it comes to transferring customs and quarantine staff or marine pilots, such as social distancing, not allowing the transferred persons inside the tug, and no longer letting them use our lifejackets.”
Significantly, Pacific Towing has also converted its decommissioned tug ‘Koranga’ as its designated Isolation Unit in the event that any of its crew contract COVID-19. The ‘Koranga’ is moored at Pacific Towing’s dedicated tug base and headquarters in PNG’s capital, Port Moresby. Also located at the tug base is the company’s warehouse of oil spill response and salvage equipment as well as its specialised response personnel, including its commercial dive team.
Emergency Response & Salvage
“A key concern in the maritime community at present” says Papenfus “is the impact COVID-19 will have on the capacity of salvors and emergency response teams to come to the assistance of vessels in distress.” Flights normally used to despatch equipment and response personnel in the event of a maritime disaster continue to be cancelled and crew are being quarantined throughout the world. “When it comes to salvage and emergency response in our region, which includes large parts of South East Asia and Oceania, we are one of very few service providers who can assist.” Pacific Towing has nearly 40 years of salvage and emergency response history including partnered responses with salvage operations based in Australia, Greece, Japan, Netherlands, Singapore and the US.
Guam Ocean Tow
The tandem tow of offshore supply vessel ‘MV Marianas Voyager’ and a crane barge from the PNG Dockyard in Port Moresby on 18 March to Guam’s Apra Harbour on 1 April necessitated a 3825 NM (i.e., 7,084 KM ) round trip. On board the tug ‘Pacific Salvor’ were a PNG crew of 12 including Captain Lepan Maluira as well as two cadets from the ‘Women in Maritime’ scholarship program.
Kasnari concedes that the main challenges of the project were not the weather conditions or the technicalities of a tandem tow which included a less than streamlined, 65 metre crane barge. Instead, the key challenges were largely administrative due to the strict United States maritime regulatory requirements for Guam and that these were exacerbated by COVID-19.
“It is a very big deal to get a PNG flagged and classed vessel in to a United States port. It hasn’t happened for a long time” explains Kasnari. “The US Coast Guard’s enforcement of maritime rules and regulations are extremely high. Hence it took the PacTow team a lot of effort to ensure that the vessel and crew were properly prepared and in full compliance with all regulations in terms of lifesaving, fire-fighting, and pollution prevention. Above all we had to have all of the necessary documentation or their exemptions. Furthermore, we had to provide our COVID-19 plan to the Guam authorities before the ‘Pacific Salvor’ could depart PNG.”
Papenfus is quick to acknowledge the vital role various PNG government departments and regulatory agencies at all levels played in the success of the Guam towage project, especially the National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA) and the Department of Transport. “The NMSA helped us get the ‘Pacific Salvor’ ready for US waters and conducted the Port State Inspection, as well as helped us with additional documentation. Just as significantly, the Department of Transport issued us with an International Ship Security Certificate, a critical requirement for getting in to Guam.” Notably, the ‘Pacific Salvor’ is the first PNG tug to ever achieve this level of certification and Pacific Towing is now embarking on securing certification for several other tugs in its fleet with open ocean towage capability.
Although not as much a challenge as getting in to Guam, the return trip to PNG was not all smooth sailing. Kasnari recalls how “we were initially supposed to clear quarantine in Rabaul but were re-routed to Madang due to PNG recording its first case of Corona Virus and Rabaul being locked down to all incoming vessels.” Pacific Towing liaised directly with the State of Emergency Controller who gave them the necessary clearances. “Things didn’t go strictly to plan on the way home but with the help of the various agencies it was without a doubt an extremely successful international towage project and we’re greatly appreciative of everyone’s support.”