Shipowner at the centre of PNG’s biggest maritime disaster dies

Memorial for the victims of the Rabaul Queen ferry disaster in Lae, Papua New Guinea. Credit: Zoe Reynolds

The shipowner at the centre of Papua New Guinea’s (PNG’s) worst civilian maritime disaster, Peter Sharp, has died.

The British national was subject to legal proceedings after the Rabaul Queen ferry sank killing an estimated 172 passengers, mostly women, children, and students off the PNG coast in 2012. Only four bodies were ever retrieved.

A commission of inquiry was held into the sinking, chaired by Judge Warwick Andrew, found the ship unsafe, unseaworthy, and overloaded, as well as the crew lacking competence and training.

Andrew made 34 recommendations to improve PNG maritime safety. He called for Peter Sharp and the captain to be put on trial for manslaughter by negligence under section 287 of the criminal code.

The Rabaul Queen ferry was built in Japan in 1982 specifically for short voyages in harbours and on calm waters, according to the Commission report.

In 1998 Sharp purchased the ferry and obtained a survey certification to carry 295 passengers.
However, on the morning the ferry capsized and sank on 2 February 2012, it was carrying between 360 and 440 passengers and crew in gale force winds and 4 m swells on a 40-hour voyage in open seas.

Despite the Commission findings a subsequent court case acquitted Sharp and the ferry’s captain of all charges and the case was dropped.

“Not one victim got compensated by Peter Sharp for this Rabaul Queen disaster,” Tommy Yep, a spokesperson for the survivors and families of those lost at sea, told SAS last week.

PNG Attorney-General Davis Steven announced in March, the case had been reopened and the public prosecutor had commenced civil negligence proceedings. However, in April, Steven resigned from his portfolio and his cabinet position, saying he had deep concerns with the current state of governance and that the rule of law was at stake, Radio New Zealand reported.

Sharp’s daughter, Claudene Patel, told SAS her father passed away on 4 May after a long battle with cancer.

His funeral was held in Sydney, Australia, on 10 May, “it would have been his 75th birthday”, she said.

A memorial mass was held for Peter Sharp in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, in Lae, PNG on 16 May.

In her eulogy to her father Claudene Patel said the sad thing was everyone forgot the good he did.

“He learnt early on that maritime standards in PNG was not up to his or international standards,” she said. “He sent staff down to do their tickets in Australia. (He) would bring lecturers to Rabaul and train his staff properly. He believed safety was paramount.

Dad would always try to keep his vessels up to international standards. He was always asking me for the latest in regulations. He would regularly be challenging NMSA as he had higher standards.

“Dad was so strict with safety and people’s safety that he went above and beyond constantly in order to look after people around him,” she said. “This is the person no one talks about. He was acquitted because (the Judge) couldn’t find evidence of any wrongdoing.”