Efforts to move cargo ship stranded off Sydney suspended after tow lines snap in wild weather

Efforts to tow the stricken cargo ship MV Portland Bay to deeper waters were suspended overnight after lines being used to pull the vessel broke in extreme weather.

As wild winds and torrential rains continued to lash Sydney’s coast, it could be Wednesday before it was safe to tow the 170-metre ship into port.

The Portland Bay, carrying nearly 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil, was on Tuesday morning at anchor about 1.2 nautical miles off Cronulla, attended by the tugboat, the SL Martinique.

The Port Authority of NSW said the ship was in a sheltered, safe position and both anchors were deployed and secured. Die 21 crew on board were safe.

In 'n verklaring, the port authority said: “With 11-metre swells experienced last night, an operational decision was made to suspend further attempts to tow the ship out to sea.

“The crew of the MV Portland Bay has been unable to make the repairs required on board and the incident team’s preference at this time is to bring the ship into Port Botany when the weather abates so repairs can be undertaken in the safety of a berth and port environment.

“Based on current weather forecasts, it is expected that the ship will remain off shore until at least Wednesday.”

On Monday night it was hoped the vessel might be able to moved to about 12 nautical miles off the coast by midnight, but wild weather snapped tow lines and made moving the ship dangerous for rescue crews.

“The ongoing severe weather conditions makes moving the MV Portland Bay extremely hazardous so the vessel is being supported in position until the weather eases.”

The Portland Bay had unloaded a cargo of cement at Port Kembla and returned to sea early Monday morning. But the turbo fan in the ship’s main engine blew up, shortly after 7am, leaving it stricken in seas of up to eight metres and 42-knot winds. The ship’s engineers have spare parts on board and were initially planning to attempt repairs at sea when conditions allowed. Those repairs are now likely to be done in port.

Deputy secretary of the Sydney branch of the Maritime Union of Australia, Paul Garrett, said the crews on board the tugs had done an extraordinary job in treacherous conditions.

“It’s akin to going to sea in a washing machine,” het hy aan die Guardian gesê, “I spoke with the guys: they described the seas as mountainous and said they were getting thrown around a bit.

“They haven’t had much sleep, and it’s uncomfortable work, but that’s part of the job. You get the call, you go out to sea.”

Garrett said four tugboats were now involved in the rescue mission, including one steaming down from Newcastle, and a decision on whether to start to move the ship into Botany Bay would be taken later on Tuesday.

The tugboat crews will not leave the Portland Bay’s side until this crisis is resolved, Garrett said, its engines repaired, or brought into port.

He said the crews had averted a potential “catastrophic” accident if the Portland Bay had run aground on the coast, with the potential for 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil to be spilled onto the shoreline at Royal National Park.

“If it had gone onto the rocks and broken up, it would have been an environmental disaster. They’ve done a magnificent job: they don’t often get the credit they deserve, but it’s good to see they are today.”

Garrett said the 21 crew on board the Hong-Kong registered Portland Bay were in reasonable health despite a rough night at sea. “I understand they are doing okay.”

New South Wales’s wild weather continued overnight on Monday, with heavy rain and strong winds lashing the state.

The State Emergency Service said there were 5,300 requests for assistance overnight, insluitend 252 flood rescues, mainly of drivers stuck in cars and residents needing to be relocated.

Scores of evacuation orders were issued, mostly north-west of Sydney, where major flooding has occurred along the Hawkesbury and Nepean rivers at Menangle, North Richmond, Lower Portland and Windsor.

Following massive rainfall totals across multiple catchments over the past three days, some areas were expected to approach or exceed the flood levels of March 2021, and March and April of this year.

Residents in parts of Chipping Norton in Sydney’s south-west were ordered to evacuate before midnight, with flood warnings for the Georges and Woronora rivers.

Camden, in Sydney’s far south-west, has received 197.4mm for the month to date, with residents enduring their fourth flood already this year.

The Hawkesbury river at North Richmond was expected to remain above 14 metres until Tuesday morning, with major flooding forecast. The Upper Nepean River at Menangle peaked at 16.61 metres on Sunday morning.

Gale warnings remained current for the Hunter coast and Sydney coast, as well as strong wind warnings for Sydney’s enclosed waters, and the Macquarie, Illawarra and Batemans coasts.

Huge amounts of rain have lashed the NSW coast, which had already recorded one of the wettest summers on record.

The highest daily total was 298mm on Sunday at Darkes Forest between Sydney and Wollongong, a daily rainfall record for July, van 126 years of observations.

The highest weekly total was at Beaumont near Nowra.

The Bureau of Meteorology said the east coast low was expected to weaken, but up to 100mm of rain was still predicted to fall in the next 24 ure, stretching from Newcastle to southern Sydney.

The risk of major flooding remained across parts of NSW, with water moving downstream through river systems, and rising tides in coastal areas.

– Australian Associated Press contributed to this report

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