When Tampa was en route from Fremantle to Singapore in round-the-world service on 26 August 2001, it received a message from Australia’s Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) about a stricken vessel. The ship’s master Arne Rinnan changed course and five hours later, reached the KM Palapa I. Chief officer Christian Maltau and his team lifted each person onto Tampa from a gangway amid high waves and constant motion.
Despite initial belief there were 80 people on board, 438 people were eventually rescued including 26 women and 43 children from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Rinnan laid a course for a secure emergency port on Christmas Island.
Then the unthinkable happened. The Australian authorities, who had instructed Tampa to rescue the people in distress, refused to allow the ship to dock. Rinnan refused their instructions to head to Indonesia because the conditions on board were becoming critical, with several serious medical cases.
What had initially been regarded as a well-conducted rescue operation developed over the next few days into a stand-off, with Tampa anchored off the coast of Christmas Island. It became a global media story, with key ministers in Australia and Norway as well as the UN and its high commissioner for refugees involved. With the Australian general election just around the corner, premier John Howard was keen to take a stand on immigration as Australia had long had a problem with the so-called boat people. Peter Dexter, head of WWL in Sydney and Norway’s consul-general, came under immense pressure.
After making a final mayday call, Rinnan made for Christmas Island and was boarded by a military doctor and heavily armed Australian Special Air Service (SAS) personnel, although they did not take control of the ship.
Pressure on the Australian government increased from all sides, not least the international media. Six days after the initial distress call, an agreement was reached whereby the refugees would be taken to Papua New Guinea and onwards to New Zealand and Nauru, while the people smugglers would be dealt with by Australian police. Two days later, the Australian troop transport HMAS Manoora came alongside Tampa and the transfer of the refugees could begin.
The Tampa incident deserves a permanent place in the history books. It presented major humanitarian, commercial, political and media challenges. The challenges were overcome, thanks to the efforts of the many people involved. But praise is fully deserved for Dexter and his Sydney staff, and by Wilhelmsen’s emergency response team at Lysaker under the management of operations vice president Håvard Hareide. Most importantly of all, the shipwrecked refugees emerged with their lives.