New Horizons

RTM Weipa points way to future.

When the RTM Weipa became the proud flag bearer of Australian ship reform, it was MUA seafarer Andrew Gray who led the first Australian crew up a gangway of a new ship in more than decade.

It’s a good feeling,” he said. “Teekay told me to pick the crew I wanted to take with me. They let me choose. I brought five of the crew from the Endeavour River – all good blokes. We all wanted to stick together. If we can get the ship working and prove it’s viable, we know there will be more Australian crewed ships to come.”

The Maritime Union brokered a framework agreement with Rio Tinto Marine this year that will see a minimum 70-80 per cent of Rio’s coastal cargoes carried on vessels with Australian crew.

The agreement was partly completed due to the government coming good on shipping reform. It was also dependent on the union delivering on labour reform.

“It’s a small crew and hard work,” said Andrew. “But that’s what we’re here for. On our last ship we had an extra IR and one or two trainees. Now we’re down to an MUA crew of eight, four engineers, the skipper and three mates. We replace a crew of 26 Filipinos.”

Andrew has been a seafarer 29 years. And that’s what’s changed the most. Crew numbers. Down from 42 when he first started going away to sea to the 16 on the RTM Weipa today.

And it’s not only seafarers’ numbers that are down.

“We’ve lost a lot of ships over the years, so the ones you’ve got you to try to look after,” he said. His last ship, the Endeavour, was decommissioned this year.

Rust Buckets

“There’s nothing more important than keeping Australian ships on the coast,” said Andrew. “It’s good for the economy and the environment. Foreign ships aren’t safe. They don’t pay taxes. They work under a whole different set of rules. Heaps of them are rust buckets. You watch them come into port with no garbage to dump. It’s obvious they’ve already thrown it all over the side.”

Andrew has been on the Gladstone run for 13 years. The ship loads bauxite in Weipa to feed the Comalco alumina plant down south. It’s a four to five day voyage up to Thursday Island where they take on a pilot to navigate the ship around Cape York then down hugging the coast inside the Great Barrier Reef.

“Usually it’s pretty flat,” says Andrew. “If we hit a cyclone we head out to sea and ride it out. It can get a bit rough. But it’s nothing like going across the Bight down south.”

Australian crew are more safety conscious and more professional, Andrew says.

“I love going away to sea. It’s my home. I take big pride in it. Having a clean tidy ship is a safe ship,” he says, noting missing ladders, hoses and slings on the new ship. “You treat it like you treat your own house and yard. We stick to the rules – no dumping rubbish or washing down at sea. We’re going through the Great Barrier Reef. But we’d do the same anywhere.”

Federal transport minister Anthony Albanese recently released a discussion paper seeking input on legislative and education changes needed to boost the Australian shipping industry.
In January the government is committed to setting up three refence groups to work on separate areas of reform and report back by May next year.

“We’re a test case; virgin sailors,” IR Brian Carpenter told the local Geraldton Weekly. “We hope we are just the start of many more Australian crews.”

The crew wrote their thanks to Paddy Crumlin and Ian Bray, MUA for all their work.