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The mate of the container ship Bunga Teratai Satu allowed it to ground on Sudbury Reef off Cairns on 2 November 2000 because he was distracted by his wife's telephone conversation while in charge of the watch. This was the principal finding of a report into the accident released by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) today.

The mate had called his wife to the bridge wing while within mobile telephone range of the shore for her to speak to her mother and their children in Karachi. The mate was distracted from his duties while establishing the telephone link and while listening to the conversation between his wife and her mother. As a result he neglected to make a routine alteration of course off Fitzroy Island and allowed the ship to run aground 20 minutes later at full-ahead speed.

Alarms connected to the ship's global positioning system (GPS), to indicate the vessel was arriving at an alter course position and, subsequently, that it was off-course, did sound. The investigation was unable to determine with any certainty why the alarm failed to trigger an appropriate response from the mate, or when it was actually cancelled. The report found that the alarm tone could have been more distinctive and was similar to an alarm connected to the radio system.

The report found the management of the ship and its procedures to be of a good standard, but the lack of motivation and professionalism on the part of one person led to the grounding.

There was no pilot on board Bunga Teratai Satu at the time of the grounding. The ship had disembarked its pilot about an hour and a half before off Cairns. The issue of pilotage in the Great Barrier Reef is subject to a separate review, commissioned by the Minister for Transport and Regional Services, John Anderson, immediately after the grounding. The Strategic Review of Ship Safety and Pollution Prevention Measures report is expected to be released mid-year.

The ATSB's report of the accident also suggests that, given the container ship's speed of over 20 knots and the level of inattentiveness apparent on the bridge of the Bunga Teratai Satu, it is doubtful that any warning that could have been issued by Reefcentre after the vessel crossed into the restricted area would have averted the grounding.

The ATSB has made recommendations to the ship's owner, particularly in relation to bridge procedures and GPS alarms. The ATSB has also recommended a review of the role of the Great Barrier Reef ship reporting system, including an assessment of the feasibility of Reefcentre providing a full advisory service to ships in the inner route of the Great Barrier Reef. These issues have already been incorporated into the review commissioned by the Minister.

Read the ATSB investigation report

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Last update 29 January 2014