Rising tide of danger
It has been more than a week since the tugboat Neftegaz-67 sank with 18 of its crew in a collision off Tuen Mun, but the recovery work, anguish and questions raised by the tragedy have barely begun.
The accident - Hong Kong's worst marine disaster in decades - has aroused acute interest and sympathy at home and abroad but, for the local seafaring community, it also elicits a strong sense of deja vu.
The Ukrainian tugboat sank just a few kilometres west of the spot where a small Russian-owned dredger capsized after it was hit by a massive container vessel almost exactly six years ago.
Last Saturday's disaster echoes the earlier accident in detail after detail - a collision with a far larger vessel, the loss of Russian-speaking sailors and the sinking on a passage across Hong Kong's waters, not into its ports.
The 2002 collision between the Hong Kong-registered dredger A.M. Vella and the 160-metre container ship Kota Hadiah near a maritime black spot west of Ma Wan killed eight seamen - with one body found off the Brothers Islands where the Neftegaz went down.
The accident prompted a rare judicial inquiry that led to a harbour pilot having his licence suspended for six months and the Legislative Council passing an amendment to the Shipping and Port Control Regulation in an attempt to improve marine safety. The new rules severely restricted the movement of large vessels through the Ma Wan Channel and extended the pre-registration requirement for entering Hong Kong waters to vessels of less than 300 tonnes.
Yet over the following years the harbour's marine accident rate has continued to creep upwards, with 426 accidents reported in 2006 - the latest year for which figures are available - compared with 416 in 2001, and 233 collisions in 2006, up from 205. The volume of maritime traffic also increased: 230,960 ships of all sorts arrived in 2006 compared with 214,750 in 2001, with ocean cargo vessel numbers up 2.4 per cent and ocean passenger vessels up 30.4 per cent.
Notably, local and regional passenger traffic also rose substantially, with ferries to Macau up 29.98 per cent, other ferries up by 30.32 per cent and river passenger vessels up 23.8 per cent. There was a fractional fall in river cargo vessels.
'Traffic has increased because Shenzhen port has grown rapidly,' says Arthur Bowring, chairman of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association.
'All the ships going to Shenzhen come through Hong Kong because that is the only way in. We have one of the best vessel traffic control systems in the world. They know exactly what's going on but that doesn't stop people doing the wrong thing.'
The issue of vessel traffic control through Hong Kong waters is always revisited after every accident - and it was bound to take place again following the Neftegaz incident, but Hong Kong has to be 'quite careful' not to bring in restrictions that limit access to Shenzhen's port, Mr Bowring says. 'Anything that Hong Kong does, Shenzhen might turn round and say, 'You are doing that to destroy our business'. You have got to look at vessel traffic control in the whole Pearl River Delta and say that Hong Kong waters are very congested.'
Danny Butt, the Marine Department's general manager for operations, says the pattern of traffic through Hong Kong waters is 'very stable' and traffic to the city's ports has not increased 'too significantly', but he concedes that there has been a slight increase in the volume of transit traffic.
'We have an elaborate set of rules for ships,' Mr Butt says. 'Before they come to Hong Kong, they have to give us notification information about their destination, the size of the vessel - its draught, width ... They send us the plan at least 24 hours before arrival and just before they cross the boundary of Hong Kong waters, they call us on their VHF radio.
'The collisions we have are mainly ... in congested waters like Yau Ma Tei,' Mr Butt says. 'In 2004, we created three more anchorages at Kellett Bank to ease the congestion in the Yau Ma Tei Anchorage and the Western Anchorage.'
The department has a solid international reputation for its management of Hong Kong's complex of ports and fairways, but rogue ships entering our waters can bring hazards.
The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 spurred the first Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, and it was renewed in 1960 by the International Maritime Organisation, which has since worked tirelessly to strengthen the regulations and controls.
A network of regional bodies set up under the organisation's rules through memorandums of understanding (MoU) between signatory states have tightened the controls on rogue vessels over recent years through a system of forced inspections and detentions by port authorities.
The Paris MoU region - one of the strictest - keeps a blacklist of countries with the most ships that have undergone frequent inspections and detentions sailing under their flag, as well as a 'grey list' of mid-range flags and a 'white list' of good performers.
Top of the black list is North Korea, followed by Albania and Bolivia - all labelled very high risk by Paris - with Cambodia, which has seen breakneck growth in shipping over recent years, the only blacklisted country in Southeast Asia. It is rated medium to high risk.
Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Russian Federation and Ukraine are on the grey list while the shipping registries of Hong Kong and Singapore are on the white list.
Lee Kai-leung, the assistant director of shipping, says Hong Kong's port control authority used to 'target factor records' for individual ships provided by the Tokyo MoU for ships registered within the region and collected similar information from other MoUs for other vessels to identify the incoming ships that it would inspect.
'We don't target the flag state - we target the individual ships,' Mr Lee says. 'The average standard of shipping coming into Hong Kong has improved. That's why our detention rate has gone down. Now there are more ports carrying out the port state control inspections - many regions previously were not - so it has built up to a worldwide network.'
Marine Department figures show a marked decline in the number of ocean-going vessels inspected by the port authority, from 890 in 2001 to 596 in 2006, and the number of such vessels found with deficiencies, down from 693 to 546. However, over the same period, inspections of coastal vessels were stuck at the same level - 78 in 2006 and 76 in 2001. Worryingly, deficiencies were found in all the inspected vessels in both years.
The Mariner's Club in Tsim Sha Tsui runs a mission to seafarers that sends chaplains to more than 40 ships a month, including many detained ships. The senior chaplain, the Reverend Peter Ellis, says: 'We would be the people at the sharp end who meet up with those people who have a problem.
'It may not be on the first visit but the second one, somebody will say, 'May I see you afterwards? I'll come ashore or come down to the boat' because they don't want to be seen making a complaint. Sometimes, the whole ship from the master down to the able seamen will have a problem. It is usually a pay issue where they haven't received any money for maybe five or six months.'
Mr Ellis says that, in addition to mechanical and maintenance problems, low levels of victualling remain an issue on some detained vessels, although the living conditions for crew are usually acceptable.
'There are so many new ships coming on stream at the moment that we have thankfully got rid of a lot of the old rust buckets,' he says.
'But I think we've always got to be aware that if this buoyant market doesn't last, we may see some of them coming back.'