Sometimes, when you look out to sea off the Illawarra coastline, you can see ships queuing up for their turn to enter the Port of Port Kembla.
Other times, you might look out and not see any ships at all – but they’re still out there waiting. They’ve just been sent away over the horizon by Port Kembla Harbour Master Kell Dillon.
When the weather looks like it’s about to turn, Dillon orders the ships back out to sea. It’s to avoid an incident like the fate that befell the Pasha Bulker off the Newcastle coast back in 2007.
With a storm approaching, the ship was one of the last to head towards deeper water. When the storm hit, the Pasha Bulker ended up running aground and remained there for four weeks.
“We allow them to anchor off the port at the master’s discretion, more than three miles off the coast,” Dillon says of the practice at Port Kembla.
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“We clear the anchorage when bad weather comes in. We send them 12 miles off the coast. So they’re all sitting out there over the horizon.
“That massive storm that came through in June 2016, we saw that coming and we cleared the harbour and we sent all the ships way out to sea.”
Dillon says some people may see the line-up of ships off the coast and take it as a sign of inefficiency; that the effort of loading and unloading is going so slowly that it’s causing ships to back up.
But Dillon says some of the ships arrive ahead of their scheduled arrival and, rather than steaming aimlessly around the Pacific, the captain will drop anchor and do some maintenance work or give the crew some R&R while the ship awaits its turn in the schedule.
Also, the line-up helps reduce any downtime caused when a ship doesn’t have all its paperwork ready to enter the port.
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“They take weeks to get here so you bring them in and stack them up and as soon as one ship sails, the next one gets called in,” he says.
“If the next one gets called in and he’s got some chartering problems [with his paperwork] – which happens all the time – then you just go to the next ship
They take weeks to get here so you bring them in and stack them up.Port Kembla Harbourmaster Kell Dillon explaining why you see ships sitting off the coast of the Illawarra.
“What you don’t need to be doing is waiting two days for the paperwork to be sorted out before he comes in. If he’s not ready, you just go to the next ship and he takes a turn after that.”
Dillon served in the navy for 18 years and spent time managing the port at Garden Island before being appointed harbour master at Port Kembla 10 years ago.
In 2014 he also took on responsibility of the port of Eden.
The harbour master role gives him oversight of all marine operations in the port, including shipping schedules and even maintaining the depths of the harbour.
Above his office is a room that resembles an airport control tower.
Manned 24 hours a day, it gives staff a full view of the comings and goings of the port and, with the help of high-tech cameras, they can even spot the names of pleasure craft sneaking into the port (and also the licence plate of cars as the owner loads their boat on the shore afterwards).
“It’s a 24-7 operation every day of the year,” Dillon says.
“We don’t have any downtime. We run day and night no matter what the weather is. Unless it’s horrendous and then I might have to close the port or put restrictions in place on what size ship can come in.”
Speaking of size, the cruise ships that have been coming in are 311 metres long; 11 metres longer than the current ship limits for the port.
That meant a trip down to the maritime college at Launceston to use a ship simulator to see whether the cruise ships could actually be brought into Port Kembla.
“We assessed it on the simulator to see whether we could bring it in, under what conditions,” Dillon says.
“And then you can dial up the wind and sea conditions to see what the maximums are. So we assess the risk of it and then we make a determination whether the ship can come in.”