Australian Reef Pilots "Hydro" anniversary tribute
Date: 16.02.2015

It was only 30 years ago that a medium sized carrier, the 61,000 tonne World Jade, made maritime history when she cautiously nosed her way through what would become one of the most important and valuable sea passages on Earth.

For years, mariners had been wondering what lay beyond several wide gaps in the outer Great Barrier Reef, 100 miles off the North Queensland town of Mackay.

It was to become known as Hydrographers Passage - the international gateway to incredibly rich coal fields on Mackay’s doorstep.

Surveying the passage would become a feat of perseverance, charting and navigational skill in the days well before the luxury of GPS.

After months of tedious investigation, the code was cracked by none less than Bond… James Bond. Commander James Bond of the Royal Australian Navy.

On 5 October 1984, Hydrographers Passage appeared on Australian Chart number 821.

Two months later, World Jade, under the command of Captain Bob McKechnie, welcomed aboard pilot Captain Donald Grant and his colleagues Captains John Foley and Eric Whittleton, who steamed into the untested waters.

The rest is history but this bold venture remains a classic example of applying the principles of safety and commercial reality over less advantageous options. 

The passage known as ‘Hydro’ has since proven to be one of Australia’s safest - accident and incident free and taking hundreds of miles and millions of dollars off the old routes. But the Great Barrier Reef continues to be an inherent trap for underprepared shippers; especially on the unpredictable and untamed Torres Strait.

While the Australian coal trade has been on bumpy ride in recent times, all official studies indicate a huge growth in the amount of traffic on the Reef in the next two decades, mostly in coal and to a lesser extent LNG and other bulks. Additionally it is believed larger ‘Capesize’ vessels will be required to transport bigger volumes.

Of course, more shipping also increases the inherent risk of accidents and incidents. To offset this danger, new pilotage practices and procedures need to be developed. It’s not just a matter of employing more pilots; they must be equipped with the latest skills and technology.

Keeping ahead of the game is the only sure way of managing and limiting emerging risk factors.

Australian Reef Pilots (ARP) is striding ahead with a world-first proactive model Pilotage Operations Safety Management System (POSMS), which overturns traditional ideas about marine safety preparation.

Whereas traditional marine safety planning functions largely by anticipating the 'expected' activity of marine vessels, without detailed consideration for one-off or unlikely incidents, ARP’s project stemmed from an ambition to prepare for catastrophic but rare incidents (low probability/high risk) and limit the devastation to communities, crew, clients and the environment.

Not satisfied with the standard required by the ISO 31000 risk management methodology for Low Probability/High Consequence events, ARP decided on a new model which exceeds this convention. 

With guidance from renowned maritime consultant Captain Ravi Nijjer, ARP tailor-made an unparalleled safety system that is specific to the complex waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

During a year of intensive research, they studied investigation reports from Reef accidents, as well as pilotage and shipping incidents worldwide, drawing on information from other hazardous industries such as aviation, road, rail, medical and offshore oil and gas.

They studied accident investigation reports dating back more than a century and examined academic literature to figure out the most common mistakes and what provoked these miscalculations, including loss of situational awareness, human error, and fatigue or team communication issues.

Armed with a full list of possible risks and situations, ARP ran a series of exercises testing the various scenarios and planning appropriate responses.

The exercises used the training simulator at Smartship Brisbane, which recreates the Prince of Wales Channel, the most complex section of Torres Strait and the Great Barrier Reef.

After months of rigorous testing, the POSMS was born; the industry now has access to a proactive safety program that is specific to Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait pilotage.

Its development has helped ARP ensure hazards, risks, and risk controls are properly understood and acted upon across the organisation, from the office to the Pilot boat to the bridge.

In the spirit of discovery and growth, ARP has invested heavily in sharing its POSMS across the industry and hopes that it will become an international benchmark for safety management. Commander James Bond would have approved.

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