The stricken cargo ship MV Portland Bay will remain at a standstill until at least Wednesday morning as ferocious conditions at sea continue to delay efforts to tow it to deeper waters.
Attempts to tow the 170-metre ship to deeper waters were suspended on Monday night after lines being used to pull the vessel broke in the extreme weather.
The Port Authority of NSW warned the complex rescue operation might continue for days as the multi-agency response team prepared for “slow and steady progress” after the vessel lost power south of Sydney.
The vessel remained at anchor in a sheltered, safe position near Cronulla beach, on Tuesday evening. The Port Authority chief executive, Philip Holliday, said it would remain there overnight with two tugs attached as the crew awaited improved conditions.
The 21 crew on board were safe.
“The ship is in the same position since the early hours of this morning, about a mile south of Port Botany,” he told Guardian Australia.
“We’re waiting until breakfast tomorrow, we’ll put a couple of pilots onboard, some additional support for the crew and assuming weather is favourable we’ll bring the vessel in to Port Botany early afternoon and hopefully get repairs under way.
“We’ll sit there until either we have a good window to bring her safely in or something happens which means we have to move. We’re hoping it’s the former and weather improves as forecast.”
An additional larger tug remained available to tow the ship out to sea if conditions further deteriorated.
“It’s been a long couple of days, fortunately the ship’s in a secure position as we wait for a weather window,” Holliday said.
“The crew have had an opportunity to get some rest and will be looking forward to reflecting upon the whole adventure once in a good space.
“They’ve taken some very professional and impressive actions …. alongside the crews of tugs who’ve worked tirelessly to make sure we stay in a good position.”
Holliday said the tug crews had attempted to get some rest on Tuesday but it wasn’t “the easiest thing in the world” amid dangerous conditions.
“They’re really getting thrown about but they’ve certainly played their part to make sure the situation has remained under control,” he said.
“There’ll be lessons learned … maritime issues like this do take some time, you always desire to see them end quickly and they never do – it’s about taking the right action at the right time and not panicking.
“The work of all crew involved has been outstanding in truly atrocious conditions.”
The third emergency tow vessel, Glenrock, arrived onsite on Tuesday afternoon after conquering strong southerly headwinds and seas more than 10 metres high during its passage from Newcastle.
Holliday said Glenrock would be “key” in the next phase when the Portland Bay was eventually moved to safety.
The Portland Bay, carrying nearly 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil, has remained at anchor since Tuesday morning, attended by the tugboat SL Martinique.
On Monday night it was hoped the vessel might be able to moved to about 12 nautical miles off the coast, but wild weather snapped tow lines and made moving the ship dangerous for rescue crews.
The Portland Bay had unloaded a cargo of cement at Port Kembla and returned to sea early on Monday morning. But the turbo fan in the ship’s main engine blew up shortly after 7am, leaving it stricken in seas of up to 8 metres and 42-knot winds. The ship’s engineers initially planned to repair it at sea, but conditions made that impossible.
The deputy secretary of the Sydney branch of the Maritime Union of Australia, Paul Garrett, said the crews on board the tugs had done an extraordinary job in treacherous conditions.
“It’s akin to going to sea in a washing machine,” he said. “I spoke with the guys: they described the seas as mountainous and said they were getting thrown around a bit.
“They haven’t had much sleep, and it’s uncomfortable work, but that’s part of the job. You get the call, you go out to sea.”
He said the crews had averted a potential “catastrophic” accident if the Portland Bay had run aground, with the potential for 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil to be spilled on to the shore at Royal national park.
“If it had gone on to the rocks and broken up, it would have been an environmental disaster.” Garrett said the 21 crew on board the Hong-Kong registered Portland Bay were in reasonable health despite a rough night at sea. “I understand they are doing OK.”
New South Wales’s wild weather continued overnight on Monday, with heavy rain and strong winds lashing the state.
The Bureau of Meteorology said the east coast low was expected to weaken, but up to 100mm of rain was still predicted to fall in the next 24 hours, stretching from Newcastle to southern Sydney.
– Australian Associated Press contributed to this report