Upstream to Kopi – a difficult tow by an ex Bank Line Apprentice

Upstream to Kopi, via Kikori and Paia Inlet

One afternoon, just after returning from lunch, I was sitting in my office in Singapore when the phone rang. It was an old friend from my seagoing days, who now resided and worked in Australia as a Marine Advisor for a large conglomerate engaged in the development of LNG Pipeline project in remote Papua New Guinea. Being General Manager of an offshore company operating a wide range of vessels and equipment, including offshore, the crux of his enquiry was to seek my views as to the viability of towing a 300 man accommodation barge up the Kikori River in New Guinea, to a small mining township called Kopi. 

Kopi was situated almost 55 river miles upstream from the mouth of the Kikori River, about 10 miles further upstream from the main regional township of Kikori. My clients had established a significant development and logistics facility at Kopi in support of their LNG project. Entry to the Kikori River delta was at the head of the relatively wide Pai Inlet, which was mainly used by log ships. The river was extremely fast flowing and had its source at Lake Kutubu, which flows into the Kikori River, it was notorious shallow in places and only navigable to the shallowest drafted vessels.  

The telephone call was indeed fortuitous, because my shipping company had recently acquired a new building 300 man Accommodation/Work Barge of almost identical specifications on a long term Bareboat Charter. I later discovered that the phone call was not entirely coincidental.

A feasibility study conducted by my operations staff gave an initial indication that the Kikori River did not have the water depth to allow for the safe navigation of such a vessel 55 river miles upstream. However, I knew the inland rivers of PNG from past experience and considered we were in with a reasonable chance, reasoning that there would be more water depth once past Paia Inlet and into the fast flowing narrows of the Kikori River. The river was also influenced by tides in the lower reaches where the shallowest water would likely be encountered. With this rational in mind I decided to explore options more thoroughly.

My first reaction was to arrange with the potential charterer to have a trip upstream on one of their small coastal craft. This little boat was operated by a couple of Australians who kept the 2.5m water depth theory on the boil (perhaps partially because of their own business interests). True enough, at low water there was only about 2.8m water depth in certain places of Paia Inlet but in other areas it ranged between 5-7m and of course it was tidal towards the estuary. I worked on the premise that if 5000 DWT log ships could cross the shallows and reach deeper water close to Gouri logging camp at the head of Paia Inlet, then so could our Barge with a minimum draft (even Keel) of around of 3.2m.  If we could cross the shallows with minimum fuel and fresh water on board at the top of the tide and safely reach the entrance to the Kikori River where the water was deeper, albeit in very narrow channels, then there was an excellent chance we could reach Kopi where we could replenish our consumables.

Having completed the trip up to Kopi, and parts of the Ivy River which I thought may be an alternative route (which I later abandoned), I became more convinced that the venture was viable, so I set about talking with local River Pilots who endorsed my reasoning. I took the Twin Otter charter flight from Gobe to Port Moresby, where I planned to meet with the potential charterers at their offices to discuss the pros and cons of the intended project. The worst case scenario was that the barge would ground on very soft mud and sustain no damage as it was flat bottomed, to be refloated again on the next rising tide. After much discussion, the charterers confirmed they wished to proceed so I returned to Singapore on the first available flight with the view to securing the approval of our Managing Director and Board of Directors. 

The 6 month (extendable) charter at a very lucrative daily hire rate certainly aided their decision making, but I was at lengths to point out the strictest safety procedures must be observed and fully implemented, I would conduct a very in-depth Risk Assessment, and at the first hint of anything untoward I would pull the barge out and proceed back tp Paia Inlet or even Port Moresby, whilst we reassessed the situation. They fully agreed, so I started the ball rolling by tracking down two of the very best helmsman that had served with me when I worked on the Fly River, some years earlier. The national shipping community in PNG is quite small so they were not difficult to trace. When offered the job they both accepted immediately (obviously attracted by the high pay and good conditions – by local standards) which I offered, playing significantly in their decision making. They needed to be at ease with their working conditions so they could focus exclusively on the tasks ahead, besides in reality it was their local river knowledge that would make or break our enterprise, since they would be on the tug designated for the river tow.

The Barge was situated at Batam, in Indonesia, just across the Singapore Straits, so once the Charter Party had been executed, ensuing weeks comprised of preparing the barge and selecting the most suitable crew. I was fortunate to be able to secure the services of a very experienced Australian Barge Master, who conveniently resided in Indonesia. The venture was all slowly starting to come to fruition as our plans were converted into realities. In the meantime I had become engrossed in numerous scenarios and calculations that would provide optimal stability at minimum draft – I finally came up with a solution that provided an even keel minimum draft of 3.2m. There was no scope for error so I checked and rechecked until I was fully satisfied.

Included in the charter was two of our Ocean going Tugs, one of the 6000 BHP Class, ideally suited for the tow from Batam to Paia Inlet, located at the head of the Gulf of Papua and which was the point of entry to the Kikori River. Our intention was that our tug would tow the barge as far as Paia Inlet then transfer the tow to one of the charterer’s smaller inland tugs (small, shallow drafted but highly maneuverable and powerful little ships) which they used for towing barges up to Kopi, to complete the upstream part of our tow. In the meantime our tug would proceed to Port Moresby to stand-by until the Accommodation Barge had safely arrived in Kopi and was situated alongside the main wharf, before returning to our base in Singapore.  Our two PNG “River Pilots” who would be in charge of the river transit, would be onboard the towing tug from Paia Inlet to Kopi and remain with the Barge for the duration of the charter in case of unforeseen emergencies if the Barge was required to depart urgently. 

We were fortunate inasmuch the intended tow to Papua New Guinea would be during the inter-seasonal Monsoon period, so under normal circumstances we could expect relatively benign conditions for the ocean passage. Nevertheless, it was decided that the Accommodation Barge would be crewed with essential personnel only, during the passage for security and safety purposes. This would also give the crew who would be remaining with the Barge at Kopi an opportunity for some degree of familiarization and to redistribute ballast water as stipulated in my calculations to ensure arrival at Paia Inlet on an even keel of 3.2m, after her ballasted ocean passage trim.

Below the intended route from Paia Inlet to Kopi (Best viewed at 150%)

Once all was in order with our Ocean-going Tug and Accommodation Barge we set off. I arranged departure for 0700 Hrs so that the tow would be well clear of the Singapore Straits by the onset of darkness. This was important because only weeks before one of our towing combos almost came to grief when rundown by a rogue vessel (which turned out to be Iranian manned). The tow was cut but fortunately there were no casualties. All because the vessel did not observe the Anti-Collision Regulations or the officer of the watch on the offending vessel did not know of their existence. The rogue vessel did not stop but just continued on her way, as if nothing had happened, which we later found out to be Hong Kong.  However, the incident was reported to both Singapore and Hong Kong Marine Authorities.

The sea distance between Batam and Paia Inlet was about 2700 Nautical miles, so at an average speed of 5.0 knots it was estimated to take just over 20 days. So, the towing combo departed from Batam on its voyage to Paia Inlet. We also sent along another Tug to act as an escort and safety vessel. 

The voyage was uneventful and the Accommodation Barge arrived at Paia Inlet on schedule. I had travelled to Papua New Guinea a day or so earlier, took a small charter flight to Gobi Airfield which serviced Kopi. The one hour drive to Kopi was hell, potholes in the rough jungle road the size of dustbins. Once I had arrived at Kopi and recovered from the hellish drive I embarked on the same fast workboat on which I had undertaken the initial river survey for the trip downstream to Paia Inlet. The two Aussie crewmen were still on board. Our intention was to send this workboat upstream about a mile ahead of the main tow to warn us of any rogue illegal log barges coming downstream and to check water depths. In actuality, upon my arrival at Paia Inlet I found it to be quite crowded with several medium size log ships busy loading their timber cargoes. Amongst them was our Accommodation Barge at anchor, and already connected up to the tug that was to perform the tow upriver to Kopi. Our other two vessels were there obviously, awaiting my instruction to proceed to Port Moresby as prearranged.

A review of the tide prediction charts indicated that they were rising over the next 3-4 day period, which was advantageous to us, so we decided to remain at anchor overnight and commence our tow at first light the following morning. A good survey of the Accommodation Barge’s draft confirmed it was exactly as predicted, 3.2m even keel. At my request our charters had provided an additional, small shallow drafted tug, which we intended to secure to the stern of the Accommodation Barge by means of a short wire, to act as an “Emergency Stop”, a safeguard in case our towing tug grounded ahead, to prevent our Barge colliding with the grounded tug. 

There was no difficulty navigating Paia Inlet and we reached the delta of the Kikori River incident free. The river was quite high and consequently flowing very fast. As we slowly progressed upstream some of the river bends became quite acute, causing the barge to drift sideways as we rounded the bends, gently brushing the riverbank. It should be remembered that the Accommodation Barge was 100m long, add to which was the length of towing wire from tug to barge (which was maintained as short as possible due to the narrows and extreme bends encountered in the river) so some lateral movement or drift  was only to be expected when rounding the sharp bends. In any event the riverbanks comprised the softest of mud so no damage was sustained to the Barge when it glanced the riverbank; the worst was a few tree branches on deck which was easily remedied.

The surrounding jungle started to crowd in on us as the river continued to narrow. Our small picket boat that was running ahead reported that the river broadened about 1 mile further upstream and that slightly less water was detected. As the tide was on the ebb there was every possibility we could ground, but at least we were ready and prepared for the eventuality. True to prediction we grounded about 15 minutes later, right on the river bend that had been reported by the picket boat. The river bed was even and flat so we sat comfortably. At this point we had transited about 15 miles upstream, it was about 3pm and the next high tide was estimated to be about midnight at our river location. We would be monitoring the rise in water and ready to move once we refloated. Meantime the picket boat was on station about one mile upstream acting as our sentinel.

By 9pm the water had risen sufficiently and we floated free, once again we progressed slowly upstream. Our guard ship reported that there was a long reach a little further upstream – this is where I intended to run an anchor fore and aft and hold up until daylight. This was a safety measure because of two reasons; from this point upstream the river bends became far more acute and navigation at night was not recommended in addition to which, our worst nightmare was illegal log barges moving down stream under the cover of darkness. The illegal logging barges were usually more active at night.

The many deck lights on the Accommodation Barge set the surrounding jungle alight and created a loom that could be seen for miles, hopefully as a warning to any illicit loggers. We had tried to keep to one side of the channel, leaving sufficient room for other river traffic to pass. At about 1 am we were alerted by our picket vessel a motorized barge loaded with logs was detected moving downstream in our direction. The crew on the safety vessel had attempted to warn the log barge of our presence. No acknowledgement was received from the river barge. Some 15 minutes later we heard the engines of the approaching craft. The noise of her engines was very distinct in the still quietness of the jungle which engulfed us on every side. Sure enough she soon emerged and having sighted us thankfully moved to pass down our Port side, clearing us by about 10 meters. Even then there was not a sign of any movement on board of her, no lights, nothing. Fortunately, that was the only rouge vessel we encountered.

By 9am we had recovered our anchors back to the “Cowcatchers” and were once again underway towards Kopi. Slow but steady progress was made. As the river looked quite full I anticipated a clear run all the way to Kopi. We negotiated the sharp river bends without much difficulty due to the skill of our 2 local river pilots and by lunchtime we were passing the township of Kikori (really just a large village of ramshackle wooden buildings). Our towing combo attracted many onlookers who came out in their canoes – perhaps many had never seen a vessel of our size previously. Kopi was only about 10 miles further upstream so all going well we should arrive and be anchored by 4-5 pm.

The remainder of the tow was uneventful and by 4.30pm we had laid a 4 anchor spread in mid stream. Each anchor being marked by a yellow buoy. Naturally, we were soon visited by various managers and section heads from the Logistics Base, all eager to see their new “Floating Hotel”. The plan was that we would remain mid-stream for several days whilst preparations were made to secure permanently, for the duration of the charter, alongside the main wharf.

Once I was satisfied all was under control it became necessary for me to negotiate that terrible jungle track by 4 wheel drive to Gobe Airfield in order to get the charter flight back to Port Moresby. The so called road was littered with pot holes of unimaginable size. 

I considered the Barge Master aided by our two river pilots was more than capable to place the Accommodation Barge alongside the jetty. I had instructed the barge be swung and berthed starboard side alongside, bow heading downstream, so to make matters easier when departing. The small safety tug was also to remain connected by the tow line in case of the urgent need to pull the Barge off the wharf and anchor in mid-stream.

I was quietly pleased we had satisfied our charterers and clients; my team had achieved the objective of a safe arrival at Kopi, despite all the earlier noise made by various skeptics who had now become conspicuous by their silence.

The Accommodation Barge performed very well and was popular by all who stayed on her during her stay at Kopi, remaining on site for about 9 months. When she did depart and return to Singapore, the Kikori River was running very high (and fast) but she had an incident free trip down stream to Paia Inlet where she once again rendezvoused and connected to her towing tug for her passage back to Singapore.

all comments welcome!

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