By Graham Nowland
From the car park on the roof of Coles in Fremantle shoppers can see the MV Artania. It’s on the old Passenger Ship Terminal in Fremantle Inner Harbour. This is where the poor and hopeful got their first look at the new land. First Australian port of call, Gateway to Australia. Now the terminal just handles cruise ships. There are said to be about eight of these vessels stranded around Australia.
Australian Border Force personnel are on guard at the gangway to the MV Artania and, far above, the master is locked in battle with the government over its fate. Skipper Captain Morten Hansen is Norwegian, so the West Australian has cast him as a Viking charmer somewhat out of his depth.
He seems more like his fellow Norwegian, Captain Arne Rinnan, master of the car freighter Tampa, who defied the Federal government back in 2001. The Tampa left Fremantle and shortly after rescued 400 asylum seekers from their sinking boat. Rinnan took them to Christmas Island. At that moment John Howard was embroiled in an election battle where ‘asylum seekers’ was the key issue. The PM ordered Rinnan to clear off, to dump these illegal immigrants somewhere else, anywhere, he didn’t care, just not in Australia.
Rinnan refused. He held his ship off Christmas, a very tricky port, using a risky back and forth manoeuvre under power. He did it for days. He won and ADF people took the asylum seekers off his ship. John Howard won the election with the tough guy act but maritime people were not so impressed. Howard had contravened SOLAS – the sacred maritime law of Safety of Life at Sea – for politics. The boat people ended up at Nauru and it was the beginning of an agonising two decades of Australian border policy.
Captain Morten Hansen is at the centre of a quite different battle, but he is proving just as stubborn, imaginative and probably just as principled as Rinnan. Scott Morrisson seems to have learnt from John Howard. He is letting Labor WA Premier, Mark McGowan, deal with it.
All big ship’s masters are clever, resourceful and wily. They have to be as they pick their way round the world’s ports keeping ship, crew and passengers out of trouble. In addition, they have a huge battery of international maritime laws to draw upon. At sea they have almost unlimited power.
In port this diminishes but they deal mainly with other Masters. The harbourmaster is a former ship’s Master. The pilots are Masters, the tugboat captains are Masters. They have a code and are used to wielding absolute authority. They stick together and almost enjoy these tussles with land governments. It’s hard to imagine, if you haven’t seen it in action, and they keep it all quiet, but it’s true.
OK given all that and given the COVID 19 crisis is tricky, why doesn’t Captain Hansen just set off with his crew back to Germany. It’s a German ship isn’t it?
Well quite apart from the crew being mainly from South Asia, which has a considerable number of implications, the ship is not German owned. Finland built, the vessel was originally christened Royal Princess in 1984 by Diana, Princess of Wales. The first cruise ship to have all cabins on the outside with a sea view it was a P&O liner and British (more or less).
It was renamed Artemis the following year. Artemis cruised with P&O for over 25 years. In 2009 a British Virgin Islands company, MS Artania Shipping, was formed to own Artemis but P&O continued to operate it. Two years later the ship became MV Artania and the Virgin Island company leased it (or perhaps sold it) to Phoenix Reisen. At this point Phoenix and Johannes Zurneiden, its founder-owner, acquired shares in the Virgin Islands company.
Pheonix Reisen is a German travel agency which charters ships to operate cruises. Did Johnannes Zurneiden somehow find the vast amount of capital needed to buy the ship outright? Is that the right question? Should it be more like does P & 0, itself now owned by the British-American shipping giant, Carnival Corporation, still really own it? Here is a bit more of the story.
Johannes Zurneiden dreamed up Phoenix Reisen initially while studying publishing. It was a theoretical model, but he suddenly had the bright idea of making it real to finance his studies.
The company’s MO is leasing ageing ships to run cruises until the vessel has to be scrapped. The first one was the Maxim Gorky which Phoenix leased from a Soviet Union company, Black Sea Shipping. It had a lot of mechanical problems so Zurneiden began leasing better old ships. He currently charters five but he has had over a dozen in total. The rest have been cut up or changed livery.
Zurneiden is a skilful promoter. In the last few years he has let a TV company make MV Artania into a kind of reality show called ‘Crazy for the Sea’. The stars were Captain Hansen, his officers, the fading ship, the charming crew and the ageing wealthy passengers.
When Mark MacGowan ordered the ship back to its port of origin this history is what he was dealing with. No wonder he looks so exasperated and gets so testy at the daily COVID-19 press conferences when reporters ask him about it.
What is the port of origin? The ship operates under a Bahamas flag with a British Virgin Islands owner. Tracking the voyage of the Artania before it came here reveals it is, like so many of these ships, a sort of nomad. Since P&O distanced itself, the MV Artania hasn’t really had a real port of origin.
Now the Royal Princess/Artemis/Artania may have reached the end of the line. Most of the crew are from the Philippines or Indonesia. The passengers have nearly all gone home. This is a very old ship with little hope of another cruise. Captain Hansen is playing for time and seems to be trying to get an outcome for his crew. He must know the ship itself might be doomed. This is the sort of story many of the cruise ships currently in or just off Australian waters are likely to have.
Graham Nowland is an ex-staff news reporter/photographer on world-leading shipping paper, Lloyds List DCN. Graham was also a regular freelance feature writer for West Australian, Sunday Times, and Brisbane Courier-Mail and many others.
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