YEAR OF THE SEAFARER | Another day in the kangaroo courts

Michael Grey | LLOYD’S LIST

IT WAS my first voyage to Australia and we were alongside in Sydney, preparing to sail northwards to complete the discharge in Brisbane, thence to load in the ports of north Queensland.

“You’ll have a great time in Queensland, mate,” a Sydneyside wharfie assured us. Life, he suggested, was slower and more relaxed on the Tropic of Capricorn. The beer was colder, the girls more beautiful, the Queenslanders hospitality itself.

I suppose he could have been a Queenslander himself, but this parochial view of the state was not to be confirmed by the forthcoming visit, or any other subsequent voyages to this curious place.

It is probably true to say that although we were regular traders into Australian waters, we invariably had more trouble in the north than in any other parts of the Commonwealth. The waterfront unions were more militant, and employed an official called a “vigilante”, whose job it was to come aboard our beautifully turned-out ships and condemn our cargo gear as “unsafe”.

This gave the wharfies an excellent excuse to go ashore and play cards in the shed for a couple of hours, while the chief officer, shaking with rage at this slight, would give orders for all the derrick guys to be renewed or the gangway net doubled up.

They also gave the impression, particularly in the ports of north Queensland, that they didn’t like the Poms very much. It wasn’t that we had thin skins — being a “Pommie bastard” was par for the course around the Australian coast — but you felt they really meant it in this part of “the land of sand and prickly heat”, when it was a bit of a joke in the south.

That was long ago and far away, and most of the coastal centres of Queensland today are large and prosperous, besieged by tourists from Asia, who rush to city resorts such as Cairns to play golf and view 20 ft saltwater crocodiles in aquaria.

Cairns in my day was one street, a wharf and about 15 pubs, full of sweat-soaked, drunken stockmen in enormous hats who had driven cattle across from Arnhem Land and had to be disarmed of their rifles by the local constabulary before they entered the town.

But I was thinking back over the years, and reflecting that Queensland’s attitude to visiting foreign seafarers maybe hadn’t changed that much when reading about the ludicrous committal proceedings in Brisbane, where Bernardino Gonzales Santos and his employer Swire Shipping are to be tried on a series of ridiculous charges resulting from the accident to the Pacific Adventurer in March 2009.

Queensland’s contribution to the International Maritime Organization’s Year of the Seafarer does not exactly inspire faith in local justice, being apparently driven by politicians and the media, whose reaction to this marine accident has been bizarre and malicious.

With the perfect hindsight of those whose ignorance of marine operations appears profound, Capt Santos is being prosecuted for his “recklessness” in being caught by a severe cyclone, and for permitting some of his deck load of containers to break their lashings and fall over the side, where they collided with the ship’s shell plating, in the way of a bunker tank, which was pierced.

The master, who most professionals would suggest had handled his ship commendably in terrible circumstances and deserved congratulation, rather than the abuse he suffered from the politicians of Queensland, faces a series of charges, along with his employers, who themselves behaved in an exemplary fashion in the face of downright political thuggery and extortion in the aftermath of the accident.

In this ridiculous trial we can see encapsulated just what mariners complain about when they declare that the criminalisation of maritime accidents has become endemic and hugely unjust. Perhaps it is because there really is a complete disconnect between what goes on at sea and society on land, in a way that has never been seen before.

The Queensland politicians and the media and greens who are baying for blood and punishment for these environmental crimes have long forgotten that were it not for shipping, their state would be occupied by a few subsistence farmers, and that all the prosperity they enjoy today is entirely dependent on marine transport. But that won’t make them suddenly ashamed of the way they are treating seafarers.

Curiously, while the Queenslanders are licking their lips at the prospect of prosecuting Capt Santos and his management, other government agencies in Australia are worrying about the terrible shortage of professional mariners who wish to become pilots in Australia’s ports and along the Barrier Reef.

Could this possibly be a consequence of the way mariners are regarded in Australia — as polluters and people to be criminalised in the event that the weather turns nasty, there is an accident and oil ends up on the beach?

It might also be something to do with the way the Australian shipping industry itself has been marginalised and driven to a shadow of its former self, with only foreign vessels ever seen in home waters.

But the Australians I am so busily traducing here could possibly argue that their treatment of Capt Santos is just par for the course in 2010, and no different to that found in France, Spain, Greece, the US, South Korea,Venezuela or Norway, to name but a few countries where they enjoy prosecuting people involved in marine accidents. And they would be right.

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