Then National, Tuesday 11th September, 2012
AT about 11am on Feb 1 this year, passengers began to board the Rabaul Queen for an overnight voyage from Kimbe to Lae.
At the completion, it was claimed that the vessel’s master was informed that 360 passengers had boarded.
In addition there were 13 crew members, two canteen boys and the master of another vessel,
Solomon Queen, who was on leave and returning home.
At 12.47pm, the Rabaul Queen departed for Kimbe, 280 nautical miles away to Lae.
Passengers described on-board conditions as packed and overloaded.
People were sitting shoulder to shoulder.
Some passengers were also sitting on the stairs, inside and outside.
The sea was calm and a less than a 10-knot north-westerly breeze was blowing.
The conditions prevailed until the ferry reached Cape Campbell on the eastern side of the Williaumez Peninsula at about 4pm.
Now it was on the way to Cape Gloucester (at the northern end of the Dampier Strait) and conditions became livelier.
Rain started. The ferry pitched and rolled and the motion made many on board sick.
Exposed passengers were getting wet from the rain and from the sea spray.
Trying to keep dry, many passengers moved over to the port side or inside.
With the wind picking up and the movement of the passengers the ferry developed a port list (lean).
While the list was probably no more than five degrees, the ship was rolling to port and returning to the upright position but had the tendency not to roll back over to starboard too much.
At about 2.20am (Feb 2), the ferry reached Cape Gloucester and the chief mate altered course to head for Nessup Channel at the southern end of the Dampier Strait.
At about 3.30am, the chief mate called the master to navigate the ship through the Siasso Islands and into the Vitiaz Strait.
As the ship left the leeward side of the Umboi Island, it was exposed to the prevailing north-westerly which were now between 20 and 30 knots, with the 3m swells visible.
The ship began to steer a little uneasy, so the master switched off the auto pilot and took the helm.
During the 35-nautical mile crossing of the Vitiaz Strait, the wind intensified to near gale force and water was flowing on the starboard upper deck.
The ferry had maintained its list to port.
At about 5.30am, the chief mate went to check on the passengers because he could hear some of the younger men shouting “one more, one more” as the ship rode the waves.
When the chief mate got to the upper deck, he asked the passengers to move back over to the starboard side so the ship was more balanced.
Only some passengers moved but returned as the waves were breaking on the side of the ferry and sending big sprays up.
Then, at about 6.15am, a large wave crashed on the starboard side.
The stern of the ferry was pushed vigorously to port and the ship heeled over heavily with the beam slanting into the sea.
The steerage was lost and the master was unable to force it back.
Another wave crashed from the same angle, and the hull was exposed and the ferry capsized.
It happened so quickly that the master could not send out a mayday signal.
He and three other Rabaul Shipping employees found themselves in the wheelhouse as it filled up with water
Three of the four men were able to swim to clear of the ship before it sank.
Some passengers were jolted overboard and some managed to steer clear of the upturned ship.
The Rabaul Queen remained in the capsized position for about 10 minutes before it was sucked under. Fuel bilge covered the sea surface.
Then life rafts popped up and automatically inflated but were blown away.
A few life jackets and floating devices also surfaced.
Of the survivors, some managed to swim to the rafts and some were assisted. Some found life jackets.
They clung on to whatever came their way.
The first ship to the rescue arrived at about 9.40am, more some three hours later.
The ship, MOL Summer, was able to rescue 116 passengers, and its master coordinated the other ships that arrived at the scene to help in the search and perhaps rescue.
Eventually 246 were rescued.