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On 12 June 1996, the barquentine rigged STS Leeuwin was cruising in the Timor Sea. On board, in addition to the permanent and volunteer crew, were 31 trainees, mainly young unemployed persons, drawn from all over the Northern Territory and sponsored by the Commonwealth Employment Service.

Shortly after 0830, a team of three trainees, led by their Watch Leader, climbed aloft on the mainmast, to release the gaskets securing the main gaff topsail, so the sail could be set. The second of the three trainees, a woman in her late twenties, fell as she negotiated the futtock shrouds. Although she had clipped on her safety line, the free end of her safety belt slipped through the buckle and she fell 18 m to the deck.

Fortunately, the fall was partially broken by the nock sail sheet. Even so, the trainee suffered severe multiple fractures to her knees and to her thighs, also a collapsed lung. A helicopter medivac was arranged to transfer her to the Royal Darwin Hospital, where she remained in intensive care for 16 days.


These conclusions identify the factors contributing to the incident and should not be taken as apportioning either blame or liability.

The trainee fell from the futtock shrouds because, although very frightened, she intentionally let go her hand hold in the belief she would be all right.

The main contributing factors to the trainee's fall to the deck are considered to be:

  • The trainee had not fastened hersafety belt properly, so that it came undone instead of preventing her from falling further.
  • The absence of a safety check system, which meant that the trainee was able to climb aloft with an improperly fastened safety belt.
  • The onboard philosophy and procedures that removed the safety barrier of safety belt checks before trainees ventured aloft.

Other factors that are considered to have contributed to the accident are:

  • The onboard procedures that allowed a trainee to climb aloft for the first time on the mainmast.
  • The absence of an onboard philosophy or procedure whereby a trainee with a slow learning capability is afforded supplementary attention.

It is also considered that the shiny surface of the well-worn, fine-weave webbing created difficulty in the tight fastening of the safety belt, which may have contributed to the trainee not fastening the belt correctly.

It is further considered that the trainee's death was averted only by her left arm hooking over the nock sail sheet.

Download Final Report
[ Download PDF: 433KB]
General details
Date: 12 June 1996 Investigation status: Completed 
Location:Timor Sea Investigation type: Occurrence Investigation 
State: International  
Release date: 05 May 1997  
Report status: Final Occurrence category: Accident 
 Highest injury level: Serious 
Vessel details
Vessel: Leeuwin 
Flag: Australia 
IMO: 8510855 
Type of Operation: Barquentine - sail training vessel 
Damage to Vessel: Nil 
Departure point:Darwin, NT
Serious: 1001
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Last update 19 May 2016