* Mark Dodd
* February 03, 2007
AN urgent recall of the $550million fleet of new Armidale-class patrol boats because of recurring fuel contamination problems has forced the deployment of a "Dad's navy" flotilla to secure the vulnerable Top End.
All seven commissioned Armidale patrol craft, designed and constructed by West Australian shipbuilder Austal, are now tied up in Darwin because of fears that the fuel pumps could cause a catastrophic engine-room fire.
Marine engineers told The Weekend Australian the pump on HMAS Armidale had cracked as a result of fuel contamination, spewing an explosive fuel mix into the vessel's confined engine-room space, a repeat of the circumstances that led to four deaths on HMAS Westralia in 1998.
Fearing another catastrophe at sea, the Royal Australian Navy has ordered its entire patrol fleet back to base until the problem is fixed - but so far there is no solution in sight.
It has ordered new fuel pumps for the ships, the first of which entered service in mid-2005, but has not been able to rectify the cause of the contaminated fuel.
The navy said it was premature to speculate how long the problem would take to repair until "current trials and a design review have been completed early next week".
"Investigations have determined that the failure appears to be related to water contamination in the fuel system. Similar failures led to the operational pause for the Armidale-class patrol boats in late 2006," it said.
"Replacement (fuel) pumps have been obtained to minimise the impacts of these defects."
The navy has moved quickly to plug the defence gap with a flotilla of warships that include ageing Fremantle-class patrol boats due for decommissioning.
It is relying heavily on the Australian Customs Service to provide back-up with a loan of eight Bay-class boats.
Additional naval support includes the mine hunter HMAS Gascoyne and a heavy landing craft, both of which can be easily outrun by fast illegal Indonesian fishing boats.
The Armidale patrol boats were purpose-designed for long, fast-pursuit operations in the northern fishery zone, from Broome to Cairns.
The northern maritime security force was joined yesterday by a "floating prison ship," the federal Government's latest weapon in the war to combat illegal fishing.
Dubbed the prison ship by its critics, the 98m, $17 million Triton trimaran took to Australian waters for the first time in Darwin, ahead of an inaugural border patrol last night.