SYDNEY Ferries captains are smoking cigarettes, taking phone calls and reading newspapers while at the controls of passenger vessels.
Just as frightening, a majority of masters have no idea how to use expensive radar equipment in Freshwater class Manly ferries and JetCats, a damning report has revealed.
NSW Maritime investigators, who rode on the bridge with ferry crews during their investigation, observed: "Assessment of contacts was purely by eye. No attempt was made to utilise radar or compass bearings."
"No master ever checked the vessels' quarter for the presence of another vessel prior to altering course," the report noted.
It also found compasses are not maintained in precise working order - one compass had not been "swung" since 1984.
"The navigation charts are out of date and in some cases misleading - one was stamped 'not to be used in navigation'," NSW Maritime said.
Masters are also prone to allowing deckhands and other non-essential staff to ride on the bridge, "considerably elevating the noise levels" in the cabin.
The Daily Telegraph yesterday observed a Manly ferry crew lighting up cigarettes in the wheelhouse mid-trip, in breach of workplace laws.
The damning assessment of the seamanship of ferry masters was contained in a report into two separate near misses in heavy fog in October 2005, obtained under Freedom of Information laws.
In what could have been an unprecedented disaster, two JetCats crossed within 50-70m of each other doing a combined speed of 42 knots (about 60km/h).
Two Manly ferries - which can carry more than 1000 passengers at peak times - passed within 25-200m of each other.
Although visibility was a pea soup-like 0-200m on that morning, none of the crews used radar to ensure safe passage.
The incidents occurred just over a year before the two recent ferry tragedies that claimed five lives and sparked the current safety inquiry headed by barrister Bret Walker SC.
Sydney Ferries yesterday said ferries no longer operate in heavy fog. "The policy of ceasing ferry operations in heavy fog was introduced in May 2006 and has proven effective, with no near-miss incidents during fog recorded since its inception," a spokesman said.
One ferry master yesterday dismissed the NSW Maritime findings on poor seamanship.
"Those guys are like failed police recruits who end up as security guards," he said.
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