On Saturday 18 March one of the troubled Emerald Class generation II ferries, MV Fairlight, experienced steering problems during a routine trip from Circular Quay to Manly. It has since been taken out of service for an investigation and repairs.
152 passengers were onboard when, at around 7.30pm and in dense sea mist, the vessel swerved suddenly to port (left). However, there were no reported injuries.
Coincidentally, Northern Beaches Councillor Candy Bingham, the Chair of the Save the Manly Ferry Alliance campaigners, which have been highly critical of the new Emerald II ferries, was on the Fairlight when the incident occurred.
Ms Bingham told Manly Observer she is “furious” about the latest breakdown and disruption to service from the three new Chinese-built, twin-hulled Emerald II vessels.
“What is it going to take for Transdev and the NSW Government to acknowledge that these ferries are just not suitable for the Manly route?
“I was personally on board when this latest major steering failure occurred,” she revealed. “We were surrounded by thick fog and completely vulnerable. The stress on the crew must have been extreme. They just didn’t know what would happen next.
“For everyone’s safety it’s time to remove these highly defective vessels from the Manly route.”
The breakdown comes just six weeks after another Emerald II ferry, MV Clontarf, suffered ‘catastrophic engine failure’ during a training run (when there were no passengers aboard), and had to undertake emergency repairs in Balmain shipyard – as reported in Manly Observer.
Nine times now
This is the ninth steering failure involving the Fairlight since it began service on 31 October 2021, the first of the three generation 2 Emerald Class ferries with ‘wave piercing hulls’ that operate on the F1 Manly-City route.
On 5 December 2022, the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that the Fairlight had been beset with eight steering problems in its first 13 months of carrying passengers.
The Herald’s report stated: “Internal figures seen by the Herald show the incident two weeks ago [19 November 2022] takes the number of steering failures involving the Fairlight to eight since late last year, while the Balmoral has had three and the Clontarf one.”
On 19 November 2022, Fairlight’s steering system failed near Sydney Heads on a Saturday morning while carrying passengers from Manly to Circular Quay.
Sydney Ferry operators Transdev issued a statement about the incident: “Initial findings indicate that it is a specific electrical component within a particular switch unrelated to the previous hydraulic failure. We are confident that the issue will be rectified and endorsed by the Australian Maritime Safety Regulator (AMSA) before returning to service.”
AMSA are Australia’s national agency responsible for maritime safety, protection of the marine environment, and maritime aviation search and rescue.
Just eight weeks earlier, on Monday 26 September 2022, Fairlight was in the national spotlight after it experienced a steering failure near Fort Denison, 1km east of the Opera House. The ferry was in the path of the cruise ship Coral Princess at the time, which was departing Sydney Cove, escorted by a tug boat.
In July 2022, according to a report leaked to the media, independent inspectors employed by Transdev found serious structural damage to the Fairlight after a series of sea trials.
As Insurance Marine News reported: “In April this year independent inspectors found a deformed plate, buckling to a crucial internal rod, and cracked coatings and welds near the front of the ferry. These had not been evident during an examination about four months earlier….
“The leaked report… warned that the damage to the ferry’s port side would increase with time due to further fatigue of the area. The inspectors said that, while unlikely to compromise the ferry’s structural integrity, it was likely that eventually the damage would also appear on the starboard side of the Fairlight as well as the two other new Manly ferries (which share the same design and operational loadings). ‘Some evidence of this is already present on Balmoral,’ the report stated…
“The inspectors who examined the Fairlight in April thought that the damage to the plating near the front of the ferry was the result of flexing of its hull, and not due to the ferry hitting a wharf or other structure.”
Transdev Australasia, the French multinational transport corporation that manages the contract for Sydney Ferries, began operating the fleet (and the Balmain Maintenance Facility shipyard in Mort Bay) in July 2012. The contract is due for renewal in June 2028.
Choppy conditions ahead
The three Emerald Class generation 2 ferries, Fairlight, Balmoral and Clontarf, were designed by Port Macquarie-based boat builder Birdon (an Australian firm that grew out of a family-run dredging business founded in 1977).
However, the trouble-prone trio were actually ‘fabricated’ in China by Jianglong Shipbuilding company, then delivered to Newcastle in late 2020, from where they were towed to Birdon’s marina in Port Macquarie for modifications.
Hence why they’re often described in the media (and by campaigners who criticise their shortfalls) as ‘Chinese-built’.
The six generation 1 Emeralds (Catherine Hamlin, Fred Hollows, Victor Chang, Pemulway, Bungaree and May Gibbs), which the three generation 2 Emeralds succeeded, were built by Tasmanian-based shipbuilder Incat.
However, when it came to choppy seas, these six Emerald I ferries (which entered service in the latter half of 2017) had limitations. They were designated ‘Inner Harbour Ferries’ by Transport for NSW as they were not equipped to cope with the large waves that roll into Sydney Harbour through the Heads.
The three Emerald II ferries were subsequently fitted with ‘wave-piercing’ hulls, designed to give them a better buoyancy in rough sea conditions, so they could be deployed on the frequently choppy City-Manly F1 ferry route.
On 12 March 2022, after sea trials, the three new ferries were cleared to operate in swells of up to 4.5 metres, although, as Manly Observer reported, in late-November 2021 the Fairlight suffered rudder damage and a smashed window during one trial.
Despite the 12 March clearance to operate, just two days earlier, on 10 March 2022, a Fleet Operations Temporary Memorandum issued by Transdev (and anonymously released to the media in April) warned ferry captains that the new wave-piercing vessels risked becoming ‘airborne’ when steered into large waves.
The memo cautioned: “It was evident during the trials when navigating the Emerald Class generation 2 vessel directly into the waves or on a 45-degree angle to the waves at speeds of round 10 knots, caused the vessel to become airborne and resulted in tunnel slamming. This can be detrimental to the vessel’s integrity and the safety and comfort of the crew and passengers.
“Running ahead of the swell must be avoided, as this may cause ‘trapping’, which results in the vessel bow-diving or broaching, and a loss of control.”
Long-time Save Manly Ferry activist and Labor Candidate for Wakehurst, Sue Wright, had strong words to say about the latest setback for the Emerald II ferries.
She told Manly Observer, “No one should be at risk like this just going to work or taking a ferry ride… The outgoing Transport Minister, David Elliott, has blasted the operators of the NSW government’s ferries, saying they need to ‘step up their game’ after the steering failed for a ninth time … while it had passengers on board.
“Why wasn’t Elliott saying this 12 months ago? He still won’t accept the petitions with 51,000 signatures from our concerned community, trying instead to have us present it to James Griffin, MP for Manly…
“It was the NSW Lib/Nat Govt that bought the Emerald II’s for the Manly to Circular Quay run. Transport for NSW also has a lot to answer for, with a long line of CEOs who have done nothing to rectify this problem…
“Where is their duty of care for the safety of the crews and passengers? … Surely enough is enough? What is it going to take, an injury or worse?”
Transport for NSW were contacted for comment.