Early Lessons from the Rena

The Rena emergency is notable from a number of viewpoints in addition to the obvious one of the environmental damage it is already causing.

The first is that, in the era of GPS and electronic navigation, it shouldn’t have happened at all. As a one-time student of both coastal and celestial navigation (Yachtmaster Coastal), I can assure all and sundry that, even 25 years ago, when the above devices were not ubiquitous and most of us had to make do without them, giving well charted reefs a wide berth was not too hard, even for amateurs. For professionals, it was routine, so, in today’s world, where a $200 device instantly presents anyone with both their latitude and longitude down to the nearest few metres, there is basically no excuse for what happened.

It has already been suggested that the captain or helmsman might have been drunk or asleep but there may be another, more complicated cause (but, again, not excuse), based on the very ease and ubiquity of automatic navigation in the 21st century. We are all familiar with the term “Auto Pilot” in the context of aircraft flights but, of course, the term “pilot” was originally applied to the person who guided incoming and outgoing shipping through his own local harbour. I gather they still do, at least in critical cases but, just as with motor vehicle GPS, a ship can, in principle, be automatically piloted not just in and out of port but all the way to the next one up to an ocean away. That’s providing the electronic chart and the GPS is accurate, in full working order and the correct starting and end points have been entered.

If this is starting to sound familiar to older readers, it should. The Erebus Crash , 32 years ago was caused by a correction made to the coordinates of the flight path the night before the disaster, coupled with a failure to inform the flight crew of the change, with the result that the aircraft, instead of being directed by computer down McMurdo Sound (as the crew assumed), was re-routed into the path of Mount Erebus. The Rena incident is not remotely as tragic as that (no, sorry, oily birds just don’t compare) but the basic underlying causes, though separated by 3 decades, may prove to be remarkably similar.

It remains to be seen just how well the authorities deal with removing first the oil, then the containers and finally the ship itself. One thing seems already clear – that the real cost of the whole operation will be in the tens of millions. As we boaties are painfully aware, everything to do with the marine environment is anything from 3 times to 10 times more expensive than broadly similar things on land. An overturned and gushing petrol tanker on the motorway, might cost a few tens of thousands of dollars in overall costs to clean up and remove but that operation is typically complete in a few hours. Here, off the coast of Tauranga, nothing very much has happened a full 3 days after the grounding and any liable insurers must already be weeping into their double whiskeys.

This, finally, brings me to the point I’d like to leave you with for now so that, when it arises again, you’ll have had time to think about it: Generating electricity from ocean wavesall things considered – would prove to be too expensive an option for New Zealand. More on this topic in a later blog.


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