BY ROWAN CALLICK
THE RABAUL QUEEN was a vessel doomed to die. When it finally turned turtle, it took with it more than 200 people - mostly children and students - most trapped in overcrowded cabins, down to the 3000m depths where it now lies.
Its story, and that of the ships that sail between Papua New Guinea's hundreds of islands, tell much about the sorry state of the nation: of hopes dashed, of good intentions and poor implementation, of apparent venality.
But the openness and persistence of an inquiry into the sinking also hint at the possibility - held out by elections approaching next month - of better prospects for the battered country of seven million.
Dozens of survivors and others affected by the tragedy have been testifying at a dramatic and horrifying commission of inquiry chaired by Australian judge Warwick Andrew into PNG's worst peacetime disaster except for earthquakes and tsunamis.
The Rabaul Queen, buffeted by heavy seas and high winds, capsized and sank soon after 5am on February 2, 17km off Finschhafen in Morobe province, near Lae.
The number who drowned is still not known because the number of passengers on the boat remains uncertain, but those already certified place the disaster as worse in such terms than Victoria's Black Saturday in 2009 and the Christchurch earthquake last year.
Children under three did not need tickets, so it is not known how many toddlers drowned.
Patilias Gamato, the deputy provincial administrator for Morobe, in whose waters the ferry sank, says he calculates there were 453 people on board, including crew - about 100 above the licensed number - and that 219 went missing.
Following the sinking, the Rabaul shipping office in Kimbe was attacked and staff were stoned, and three small boats owned by the company were seized and burned by angry people at Buka in Bougainville, where the ill-fated voyage first departed. Arson charges were laid 10 days ago.
The story has been carefully pieced together by questions from the two counsel assisting the inquiry, Brisbane barrister Mal Varitimos and his PNG colleague Emmanuel Asigau, through the hearings in Port Moresby, Lae, Kokopo, Buka and Kimbe, the final stop before the fateful voyage to Lae. Further hearings will follow in Port Moresby.
What has been uncovered in the inquiry is not merely tragic. It reveals a chain of causality from ship survey requirements that were not obeyed, overcrowding so severe that passengers stood for hours crammed into toilets, life jackets in padlocked boxes, unqualified crew to weather forecasts that went unheard.
The inquiry decided at the outset that it would cost too much - about $5.8 million - to locate and photograph the sunken ship.
George Turme, a 20-year-old university student, who paid $170 for his ticket to travel from Rabaul to Lae on the Rabaul Queen, described how the boat was packed: "The floor was full, no space for us to walk. They were lying down, squished up, head to head and shoulder to shoulder, you could not turn around."
Some male passengers were standing inside the men's toilets during the whole 17-hour voyage.
As the wind strengthened overnight, an unidentified man asked male passengers to shift to the right of the vessel, because it was listing to the left. More than 20 responded but it made no difference.
Two large waves hit the ship and turned it sideways, exposing it to the force of a third wave that caused it to start sinking. The crew pulled out life rafts, but the life jackets were kept in padlocked cupboards, according to all the passengers who have testified to the inquiry. Crew members deny they were locked. There were no life jackets for children.
Less than 10 minutes after the ship turned over, it sank swiftly. The 249 survivors were rescued - most after hours in life rafts - by international vessels alerted to the disaster by the Canberra-based Rescue Co-ordination Centre.
PNG National Weather Service acting director Sam Maiha said the area where the Rabaul Queen sank was "one of the roughest oceans anywhere in PNG".
He said the service's forecasts were faxed to the shipping companies and broadcast via coastal radio. But they were not available via internet because the internet bill had not been paid since last August, Maiha said.
Peter Sharp, the Australian-born owner of the Rabaul Queen and the dominant operator of passenger shipping in PNG, said there were 16 crew, including two "canteen boys" on the boat when it sank. Three remain missing.
Sharp said his great-grandfather and his father were ships' captains, as he was too, after first going to sea with Ampol, aged 16.
He sailed the Rabaul Queen from Japan, where he bought it, and where it was designed for use in the inland sea. It had plied the same route for almost 13 years.
Sharp said he no longer sent staff to the PNG Maritime College for training because "it's an inferior institution". He said: "We do far better than any training that's conducted anywhere in PNG."
The Transport Department's survey certificate specifies that a maximum 295 passengers could travel on the Rabaul Queen, with a minimum crew of 10, and a maximum of 15.
However, Sharp said that when the boat sank it had 360 passengers - which was acceptable, he told the inquiry, "because the vessel was operating safely". He claimed it was operating within the Merchant Shipping Act under which "a vessel is deemed not to be overloaded if the load line mark is not submerged".
He said that there were times when "you do ignore" the survey certificate's conditions: "We've been doing it for a number of years."
He admitted that when it sank, the ship exceeded the number of passengers lawfully prescribed.
But he said he insured the boat to carry 350 passengers and said a Japanese document suggested when it was built, 29 years ago, that it could carry 358 passengers.
He said that when he discovered the vessel had gone missing, he called the Canberra rescue centre rather than the National Maritime Safety Authority's Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre because "from past experience, it would have been a waste of time" to call the latter.
He said his company "has planned maintenance" for its fleet, "but it's not written down anywhere".
Nor is the maintenance undertaken written down. The company works to ensure its major ships, such as Rabaul Queen, "are ready to provide an uninterrupted service" during the busiest months of the year, from the end of October to the end of February.
Sharp said the passengers on Rabaul Queen were sitting on the floor, even on a journey for up to 40 hours, "because that is how we carry the passengers".
"I consider that extremely upmarket compared to the way passengers were carried when I first came to PNG, which was on the decks of cargo ships under canvases and washed in all conditions. What we have provided here on our passenger ships is a huge leap forward. They select to travel with our ships. We don't force them."
He said neither the Rabaul Queen nor seven other of his vessels had current load line certificates because the NMSA had not issued them.
The captain of the Rabaul Queen for the 23 years it operated in PNG waters, Anthony Tsiau, survived the sinking. He earns about $18,000 a year, plus accommodation.
He was in the wheelhouse when the ship capsized, less than a minute after losing power. The ship overturned, he said, because of the three waves that hit it.
He had told Sharp more than five years ago that "we are over the required number (of passengers) on the certificate". Sometimes the ship carried more than 375 passengers at peak period, but Sharp told him that because there were life rafts for more than 350 passengers, it could carry more.
In the Vitiaz Strait, the area where it sank in the waves of 1.5m to 2m, the weather and sea conditions had been at times "much worse".
He did not communicate with PNG coastal radio during the voyage since he was provided with a weather forecast by Sharp.
The survey certificate, which expired on March 24, 2007, and had not been revised by NMSA, entitled the vessel to operate only in winds below force 7, about 30 knots, which were exceeding in the early morning of February 2.
He said he only once decided not to sail the vessel because the weather was too bad, during a cyclone. But he also said that if he had known there was a severe wind warning on February 2, he would have taken the ship to shelter.
He knew the ship lacked a current and valid load line certificate. He said that in 2007 he had mentioned it to Sharp, who told him "he will follow up from there".
Tsiau said he had never carried out a stability calculation for the Rabaul Queen. This, he admitted, was a gross dereliction of duty. He had asked Sharp for a stability book, but it had not been provided.
He admitted that of all the officers on the ship, he was the only one qualified for his position, and that he knew his officers were not competent.
Sharp said he viewed Tsiau as "a very, very good seaman".
But Rony Naigu, officer in charge of the Lae regional office of the NMSA, said he had served on several ships with Tsiau, and that Tsiau had previously lost two vessels - the Glomaris in 1990 and the Kris, in which five people died, in 1992.
Naigu said: "I believe we could have avoided this accident" if NMSA's head office had responded to his reported concerns.
He said: "If he (Tsiau) could not comply with simple radio rules, then he was placing this ship and the contents in grave danger."
QBE Insurance (PNG) Ltd operations manager Bruce Avenell said that from 2001, QBE had insured most of Rabaul Shipping, until the start of 2010, when it decided no longer to insure some of the vessels in the fleet.
The insurance was taken over by Pacific Assurance Group, whose chief executive Paul Affleck said that if Sharp had advised that he intended to carry more passengers on Rabaul Queen than prescribed on the survey certificate, his company would not have insured it.
Arthur Muir, a marine surveyor with Nationwide Marine Surveyors and Loss Adjusters, said certificates of seaworthiness were not policed in PNG.
Joseph Kabiu, a surveyor with NMSA, agreed that many vessels operated in PNG without valid and current survey certificates because the agency was undermanned and under-resourced.
He said there was no capacity for NMSA to enforce the rules and regulations for the more than 700 ships registered in PNG and the thousands of international vessels that visited annually.
Kabiu said: "There is a very big shortage of qualified seafarers in PNG. There are so many unqualified people manning vessels all around the country at this time."
Sharp told Bougainville chief administrator Lawrence Disin that the sinking was a natural disaster, and that his company was not responsible.
The shipowner told the inquiry that he intended to replace the Rabaul Queen with another vessel, to sail the same route.