As the Cape Sapphire made its way into Port Kembla harbour yesterday morning, assisted by multiple tugboats, locals lit up Facebook with the question of whether this was the biggest ship ever to come into Port Kembla harbour.
At 300 metres long and 50 metres wide, the capesize vessel, named for the fact that the ships of this size are too large to fit through the Panama and Suez canals and must instead travel around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of South Africa and Cape Horn at the bottom of South America, was certainly much larger than the car carriers and feeder ships supplying machinery and bulk goods to the port.
But keen ship observers noted that the Cape Sapphire was by no means the largest cargo vessel to dock in Port Kembla.
In fact, that title is held by a once frequent visitor to Port Kembla.
A 1987 report in the Illawarra Mercury noted with foresight that the Iron Pacific was likely to retain its mantle as the largest ship to dock at the harbour at 315 metres long and 55 metres wide.
The ship's unique configuration was designed to enable it to handle the vast amount of coal transported from Port Kembla and Newcastle to Asian markets for BHP, as part of the fleet of ships then working for the mining giant.
Not only carrying coal from Port Kembla, the Iron Pacific and its sister ships in the BHP fleet carried iron ore from Western Australia to the steelworks in Port Kembla.
Not only Australia flagged, these ships were crewed by Australians, scores of whom lived in Wollongong and the Illawarra.
But as BHP sold off most of its fleet in the early 2000s, and other large corporations reliant on seaborne freight to cheaper international shipping firms that operated in Australia through a loophole which allows Flags of Convenience ships to sail between Australia ports with "temporary" licences, Australian crews aboard vessels docking in Australia became few and far between.
In 2019, when BlueScope terminated its contract with the company which chartered MV Mariloula and MV Lowlands, putting their Australian crews out of a job, Illawarra Labor MPs issued a joint statement saying the "cynical move" was not in the national interest.
"The iron boat trade has for more than 100 years secured Australian industry in times of war and peace and is absolutely essential for our economic independence and national security," the MPs said.
Currently, there are only about a dozen merchant vessels that are Australian flagged, but a discussion paper released earlier this month proposes the establishment of a "strategic fleet" sailing under the Australian flag and crewed by Australians, following the Albanese government committing to establishing an Australian-flagged and crewed fleet in the lead up to the 2022 election.
The 12 vessel fleet would operate commercially, but could be requisitioned by the government for service in the national interest during times of crisis.
"The creation of a Strategic Fleet will build Australia's resilience, and protect our national security and economic sovereignty by enabling the movement of cargo in a time of crisis," federal transport minister Catherine King said when the government's response to the discussion paper was released.
The government either agreed or agreed in principle with most of the report's 16 recommendations, while noting recommendations about the fleet's composition, a levy on vessel arrivals to fund the fleet and training and labour requirements.
Maritime union national secretary Paddy Crumlin welcomed the government's response.
"The MUA looks forward with enthusiasm to the next stage of implementation and realisation of the Strategic Fleet commitment and to seeing Australian seafarers go up the gangway of new Australian ships to work in this essential industry for the benefit of all Australians," Mr Crumlin said.
While the realisation of this commitment remains a way off, the next time a record for the largest ship is broken in Port Kembla, it could be an Australian crew that retains the gold medal.