Sri Lankan Vimarshana Serosh Vidanagamage, Captain of ‘M.V. Kwantung’ recalls how as ‘on-scene’ commander, 246 men, women and children were rescued from the angry seas of PNG By Kumudini Hettiarachchi The “rendezvous” on the roiling high seas will haunt him forever. Peering through goggles and gloom, battling gale-force winds and a sleet of rain on the [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

A fight for life in the waters


Sri Lankan Vimarshana Serosh Vidanagamage, Captain of ‘M.V. Kwantung’ recalls how as ‘on-scene’ commander, 246 men, women and children were rescued from the angry seas of PNG

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

The “rendezvous” on the roiling high seas will haunt him forever. Peering through goggles and gloom, battling gale-force winds and a sleet of rain on the bridge-wing, the scene that met 40-year-old Captain Vimarshana Serosh Vidanagamage was devastating.

A few flimsy life-craft overflowing with men, women and children and many more flailing people in the water, literally clutching at anything. What broke his heart were the numerous infants, many along with an unknown number of adults who perished in that mass grave off the Papua New Guinea (PNG) coast.

Bringing pride to his country: Capt. Vimarshana Vidanagamage. Pic by Nilan Maligaspe

Several hours earlier, Capt. Vimarshana, the only Sri Lankan working for China Navigation Co. Pvt Ltd., of the Swire Group based in England, had been making ready to guide his cargo vessel, ‘M.V. Kwantung’ from Lae Port in PNG at 1300hrs. Their voyage was chartered. They were to head for Japan passing the Philippines.

What was destined, however, was an unscheduled drastic path-change, leading to the saving of 246 hapless men, women and children, which would not only bring Capt. Vimarshana a prestigious Lloyd’s List award but also fame for his homeland.

“The award is for my whole crew,” says Capt. Vimarshana in all humility, stressing that although he “kick-started” the operation on his ship, their support helped him as on-scene commander at the disaster site, along with six other ships, directed by the Australian Rescue Coordinating Centre (RCC) based in Canberra to save lives and also recover some bodies. With no other help forthcoming, it was the RCC which took command, although the tragedy had occurred in PNG waters.

During an emotional presentation he made to his peers, seniors and juniors at a felicitation organised by the Company of Master Mariners of Sri Lanka and the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA) last Tuesday and an interview with the Sunday Times thereafter, the memories come fast. The fateful day was February 2, last year. The Kwantung, a multipurpose cargo and container carrier had 28 crew members, a fine mix of British, Chinese, Ukranian and Filipino.

The distress call from ‘M.V. Rabaul Queen’ had come on telex at dawn. But the Kwantung’s radio station was unmanned, for they were in the port. At 12 noon, when they were making ready to leave on their voyage and the bridge checklist was being ticked off that his Second Officer informed him that the overloaded Rabaul Queen had sunk. The ferry was plying the Kimbe-Lae route and on that day had departed Kimbe for the 280-nautical mile overnight journey to Lae. There were no life-boats because inter- ferries were not required to have them but the few life-crafts that were accessible had not inflated, literally leaving the people in troubled waters.

It was a split-second decision. There was no hesitation, nothing to mull over. “We had to go,” says Capt. Vimarshana, although many other ships, even passing by the tragic scene had sailed along, with scant a glance or thought for the drowning people.

I only informed my company that I was going there, he says, commending the management for immediately allowing him to do so without considering commercial interests.
The Kwantung was about 80 nautical miles and 4.5hrs away from the scene. Changing course from the Lae Port, the Kwantung under the command of Capt Vimarshana was soon on its way, arriving at sunset at the disaster site.

The weather was bad, the angry waves were 5-6 metres high and visibility very poor, less than a mile. With fog horns sounding and searchlights sweeping the desolate sea, they could only give hope to the people in the water, he says, explaining that then they would know that they were not alone. It was difficult to distinguish between human and debris and they just could not “stop and drift” the ship but had to face the weather head-on.

Pointing out that as time goes by the search area becomes bigger and bigger, he says that the next morning when he saw the plight of the people, particularly the children in the water, his mind rushed home to Sri Lanka and his four-year-old son.With the arrival of the Kwantung, the first on-scene command ship ‘MOL Summer’ having rescued over a hundred people had departed.

It was then Capt. Vimarshana’s turn to carry out the “search and rescue” as the on-scene commander, while coordinating the manoeuvres and also acting as an information channel between the RCC and the vessels assisting the operation. Referring to the roles of the different players, he says that the RCC appointed the on-scene commander, coordinated the rescue operation and issued navigational warnings.

His duties as the on-scene commander included coordinating the rescue operation on the scene, providing information to the RCC, identifying the other vessels participating in the operation along with their capabilities and limitations, changing search patterns for survivors and salvage patterns for victims when necessary and monitoring all vessel movement during the operation and providing them with relevant information.

His whole team was assigned different tasks and “look-outs” for survivors placed strategically on cranes. Meanwhile, the other vessels provided assistance and information to the on-scene command vessel. The search and rescue operation at different times included six to 11 vessels, three helicopters and six fixed-wing aircraft deployed from time to time.

Pinpointing a few problems that they faced, Capt. Vimarshana says that when moving forward in a line searching for people, it was difficult for the large vessels to turn suddenly on spotting survivors. Some of the other ships involved in the operation were manned by nationalities that didn’t speak English and passing on instructions to them became a problem, which he solved by using his multinational crew to communicate with them, he smiles.

Recreating the scene on his own ship, he gets into a sombre mood as he recalls how disheartened his crew was when they saw the first body. But when people were hoisted up alive from the waters the morale would go up. Lamenting that up to now the numbers that succumbed to the deadly embrace of the sea are still not known, he says they would have included mainly women, the elderly and children.

Capt. Vimarshana sees no glory or valour in what he and his crew performed that day………“I just did my job as a Master and led my team by example.”However, the words of RCC’s Security and Safety Manager, Dave Watkins say it all: “RCC Australia writes to convey our sincere gratitude to the Master, Officers and Crew of MV Kwantung for their professionalism and dedication to the preservation of life at sea. In particular, Captain Vidanagamage’s tireless efforts as on-scene commander were invaluable to the search effort. The Captain’s command over two days of searching in rough seas, and under such tragic circumstances, ensured that the victims of this tragic incident were given the best possible chance of survival.”

What makes Capt. Vimarshana happy though is that for the first time Sri Lanka has won the Amver Assisted Rescue at Sea Award presented at the Lloyd’s List Global Awards 2012 ceremony in London, England on September 26, last year, taking the “Sri Lankan seafaring name to a different level”.

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