Fijian navy battles to save new patrol boat, and environment, after grounding on reef

People in helicopter look down on Fiji navy patrol ship grounded on a reef

Salvage operations are continuing as Fiji’s navy battles to save what it can of its recently gifted Australian-made patrol boat. RFNS Puamau grounded midway through a two-week patrol tasking. The incident occurred on 11 June as Puamau was on its first patrol. The Republic of Fiji Navy (RFN) took ownership of the vessel in March. The boat hit a reef on Fiji’s remote Lau group of islands. Now questions are being asked about what it was doing there in the first place.

A forthcoming inquiry will assess what happened in the incident with the circumstances leading to the ‘regrettable incident’ being ‘comprehensively investigated’ according to RFN. But for now, with the crew secured, the tight focus remains on minimising any environmental impacts.

The navy claims that the debunkering operations, with fuel transferred to a salvage vessel, have almost been completed.

‘Oil booms were deployed to safeguard against fuel transfer operations risks. A second salvage vessel with specialist recovery equipment and personnel is expected at Fulaga within the next forty-eight hours for the recovery phase off the reef, weather permitting,’ says a statement on RFN’s Facebook page.

Navy divers and engineers are on scene to continue to monitor the situation.

‘Since the grounding, only the stern compartment experienced water ingress, which has been isolated and currently being managed. The vessel’s position and stability on the reef’s outer edge slope continues to be monitored by the navy salvage team on site.’

navy patrol ship grounded on a reef in Fiji

Specialised recovery equipment has been flown in from Australia, to be used in the recovery of the vessel from the reef. The salvage operations have prioritised safety, fuel extraction, and the careful recovery of the vessel from the reef. RFN says it has a ‘steadfast commitment to minimising environmental impact’.

Additional support on scene included aerial assistance from the Australian Defence Force, following the safe evacuation of all crew members.

The area where the RFNS Puamau ran aground is so challenging to navigate, most local ferry operators do not pass through it, according to local news source ABC.

Salvage planning has to account for the challenging conditions presented by the reef passage. RFN posits that this may mean phased approaches to the ultimate recovery.

“Years of operating in the waters of Fiji have taught us never to enter island lagoons through narrow passage with an outgoing rip tide,” says Grahame Southwick, a captain of 50 years plus, writing in the Fiji Times. “Many of these passages run at 5/6 knots during their peak and this is enough to turn an incoming vessel across the passage and drive it onto the reef uncontrollably.

“The inquiry needs also to look as if our officers are getting enough sea time and not just classroom time. . . one has to wonder with budgetary retrains how many days a year our navy captains are given.”

overhead image of rescue efforts around Fiji navy patrol boat grounded on a reef

Of course social media is alive with theories.

“Seems like the Fiji Navy weren’t aware of any of Southwick’s seamanship or navigational rules that may have avoided the unfortunate grounding,” says one commentator while another adds: “I spent 17 years driving small boats amidst small islands. Plagued with poor nav charts, no navigation aids, treacherous passages. Need good training. Lots of common sense and don’t enter if unsure. Send in the seaboat mark the passage? Wait for slack water? Check sun not reflecting into eyes? Get the local pilot onboard.” Many others have posited that such a new high tech vessel could find itself in that situation.

According to ABC, numerous problems have been identified on Australian-built patrol boats with advice issued on how to ‘minimise risk’ for the countries that operate them. The Guardian-class patrol boat is a popular choice with Pacific countries, with many using them to survey and protect vast marine zones. As part of the Pacific Maritime Security Program, 19 boats have been so far handed over to Pacific nations.

MIN understands that the images are all courtesy of Republic of Fjii Navy, however, if this is incorrect, pls contact MIN’s editorial department.

Recently, a ship grounded at the mouth of Port of Silloth in the UK, for the second time this year. The vessel, 89.88m cargo ship Bremen, grounded on the 8 May after the Zapadnyy, a cargo ship, grounded in February.

Continue reading about unusual marine news from around the world.

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This article was written and/or edited by the UK-based MIN team.

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