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Making Heavy Weather of the Rena

“Black Tide: The Story Behind the Rena Disaster”
By John Julian. Hodder Moa. (2012.) $40

Review by Alison McCulloch

Oil is still washing up along the Bay of Plenty’s beaches. Head out near my place at low tide without jandals and you’re likely to come back with black splotches decorating the soles of your feet. Sure, they’re not the big stinking oil patties of last October, but these freckles of tar make it clear that although it’s been more than six months since the Rena hit the rocks on 5 October 2011, the oil is still out there. And no one really wants to know about it anymore.

As a Tauranga resident who took an active role in the Rena clean-up, I was eager to read “Black Tide”, John Julian’s new book about the wreck. According to its subtitle, the book tells “The story behind the Rena disaster”. But actually, it only tells part of that story. The focus of “Black Tide” is primarily off shore, on shipwrecks and salvage operations and the men of the sea – the mariners and salvors – for whom Julian clearly has both close connections and the highest regard.

Of course, these are crucial parts of the story, but they are by no means all of it. Other important elements – the environment, the community involvement, the politics, to single out just a few – are covered in far less depth, with chapters ostensibly about “The Beach” and “The City”, for example, ending up being not so much about the beach or the city. Five pages into “The Beach”, Julian writes that, “it would take another book to include all those who have given of their time, energy and expertise”. Yes, it would, but a bit more detail, colour and on-the-scene reporting about the beaches and the clean-up would really strengthen this one. He does discuss the important issue of locals being kept out of the process for too long, but there’s little indication Julian spent time on the sand (or rocks) talking to those involved, getting first-hand accounts. (Space for more coverage could easily have been found by cutting back on some of the extensive history of world shipwrecks.)

The clean-up effort was, as Julian makes clear, inspiring in many ways, yet with the inevitable frustrations that come with such an undertaking. One day out on the harbourside very early on in the organised clean-up, I recall being told by our crew’s boss – an environmental official from the Tasmanian state government – not to pick oil patties out of the water. Why not, I asked, looking longingly at the big black blobs bobbing along in about 5 inches of water. Because, she said, health and safety rules bar us from going into the sea – even, apparently, 5 inches of it on a calm harbourside beach. I still think I was more likely to suffer heatstroke from being enveloped in gloves, gumboots and a sperm suit than I was to drown at Pilot Bay. But the only decent response was to smile, nod, thank her for coming all this way to help us out, wait till she’d headed off to check on the crew at the other end of the bay – then head straight back into the water. I’m sure she knew what we were up to, but had been obliged to give the official warnings. She was a good sort, and I saw her frequently over the ensuing weeks, working tirelessly to help us try to fix our hideous mess.

The main headlines to issue from “Black Tide” so far have been that the Rena was “an accident waiting to happen” (to quote The New Zealand Herald and the question asked by Kathryn Ryan on Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon show), and that a window of opportunity to refloat the ship soon after it hit the reef may have been missed. The latter argument, from a senior salvage master whose help Julian enlisted for this book, has caused some debate. In a letter to The Bay of Plenty Times, Julian Fitter, an author and local conservationist who was directly involved in the aftermath of the disaster, took issue with the claim. “The ship hit the reef at 17 knots, at high tide, so seriously damaging the forward section that fish were swimming in the holds,” Fitter wrote. “The next higher tide was due on October 24. There was no tug remotely capable of removing the Rena available in New Zealand, and there was a serious storm brewing.”

Who’s right? As Julian says, we’ll never know. “I would venture to suggest that had there been a suitable tug or had there been a number of tugs that could have been connected to the back of the vessel, and had the effort been made, the outcome could have been different,” he told Ryan.

The other big question in the world of the Rena disaster is who’s to blame. The captain and several subordinates have already been in the dock, but what about the deeper, structural problems?

Julian – and those he quotes – make some important points about the systemic causes of both the disaster and the problems dealing with it. He raises the issue of our dependence on foreign shipping lines; argues that we have fallen behind in signing up to international treaties and maritime regulations on oil spills and wreck removal; suggests we may need to invest in powerful emergency towing vessels, especially if offshore oil exploration is to be expanded; wonders about the possibility of setting up a vessel tracking system that would help us warn ships off hazards like the Astrolabe Reef; and touches on the pitfalls of the modern-day ruthlessly competitive shipping industry, with crew “tired from long hours of work, the rapid turnaround in each port, the limited opportunities for … a cup of coffee and a telephone call home”.
Julian is also quite critical of the paucity of professional mariners in Maritime New Zealand (MNZ), observing that “accountants and regulators may not be best quipped to deal with a casualty like the Rena”. There are, he writes, a good number of active Master Mariners and Chief Engineers in New Zealand who “have already called for a reserve list of volunteers with the necessary experience to be maintained”.

The book includes 30 colour photographs, some of them quite powerful images – of the ship, the shore, the wildlife. But diagrams of the Rena would really have helped the reader follow Julian’s detailed accounting of what was going on aboard the vessel in the weeks and months that followed her grounding (“Having failed to replace the pontoon hatch covers to No. 7 hold, the salvors had apparently left No. 6 hold open while removing two pontoon hatch lids from No. 5.”). Similarly, a chart or two showing the route the ship should have taken alongside the one she ultimately did take would have been illustrative, and may have helped with some of the rather impenetrable (to this laywoman at least) prose: “The vessel was making 2 degrees to the south of the vessel’s gyro heading under the influence of set, leeway and gyro compass error.”
There’s some pretty jarring repetition throughout the book, speaking to a need for better organisation. On page 76 we read about “our ex-Labour leader … wearing a suit and wielding a bucket and spade!”. Twenty-seven pages later, there he is again – “the then Labour Party leader’s televised appearance on the shore wearing a suit and wielding a spade!” Even more glaring, on facing pages, we read that “In the late 1980s the Israeli shipping company Zim launched a programme of renovation and fleet expansion” and “By the late 1980s, Zim embarked on a huge project of renovation and fleet expansion”. There’s too much of this – though the fault is surely as much the book’s editor (did it have one?) as it is Julian’s. A good editor might also have warned against including long, unbroken direct quotes from reports, media releases, articles, spokespeople and experts. One direct quote, from a former director of the old Maritime Safety Authority, takes up 2 ½ pages, while in the chapter titled “The City,” another combined 2 ½ pages’ worth of text comes straight from Tauranga’s mayor, Stuart Crosby. The frequency and extent of lengthy direct quotation, particularly from “official” voices, gives the book too much of a colourless cut-and-paste feel.

Still, I learned a lot reading this book. I didn’t know that “maritime academies in the Philippines reportedly turn out an astonishing 280,000 graduates every year” or that “one seafarer in five is of Filipino provenance”; or that the charter for the Rena was $15,000 a day (down from a pre-2008 crash rate for such vessels of around $27,000 a day); or, for that matter, that the quoted charter rate for Awanuia, the marine fuel barge eventually dispatched to Tauranga, was $150,000 a day. “Whether this was a straightforward piece of commercial opportunism,” Julian writes of the Awanuia’s cost, “or the reluctance of MNZ to exercise their powers of requisition is still not entirely clear.” He quotes a sea captain and tanker master as arguing that the director of MNZ, Catherine Taylor, “had the power to requisition the Awanuia and send her directly to Tauranga…indeed it was her duty to speed this process up by doing so”.

Ultimately, while “Black Tide” contains a lot of important and useful information, it suffers from the handicaps typical of insta-books, having been researched, written and produced too quickly, while too much was still unfolding. Julian himself acknowledges the latter point, resorting occasionally to the “by the time this book appears” device, and noting finally that, “there are some years left in this story”. Indeed.

Alison McCulloch lives in Tauranga, and contributes reviews to The New York Times Book Review. She also writes for Werewolf.