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On the morning of 17 August 1996, the 25,093 gross tonne Hong Kong flag container ship Matilda Bay was crossing the Great Australian Bight, on passage from Melbourne to Fremantle in Western Australia. At 0800, the ship was in the position 3722'S, 13150'E, approximately 240 nautical miles WSW of Kangaroo Island. At about 0800, the Second Engineer reported to the bridge that sunlight could be seen coming into the forecastle through the small 'booby' hatch on the forecastle head.

The Chief Officer, after leaving the bridge, made his way forward along the main deck to investigate, taking the Bosun and two Able Seamen (ABs) with him. He had not advised the Third Mate, now on watch on the bridge, nor anybody else, that he was going to the forecastle. He had no radio with him. The four men went onto the forecastle where they found the lid of the booby hatch had been torn off. Attempts to replace it proved fruitless, as it was distorted, so the Chief Officer sent the Bosun to get materials with which to improvise a hatch cover.

Shortly after this, a green sea swept the forecastle, carrying one AB right over the top of the windlass and the other AB against the front of it. The Chief Officer was swept underneath the windlass. The AB who had been swept over the windlass, stunned, called out to the other two who did not reply. He, thinking they had been washed overboard, made his way off the forecastle and told the Bosun what had happened. The Bosun sent the duty AB to the bridge to inform the Officer of the Watch of a man overboard situation.

The Officer of the Watch commenced a Williamson turn and sounded the 'man overboard' alarm. Shortly before 0900, while the vessel had started searching for the men believed overboard, the other AB, recovering on the forecastle, found the Chief Officer under the windlass. Making his way aft he told the Bosun that the Chief Officer was still on the forecastle. The Chief Officer was stretchered aft to the ship's hospital. He had suffered severe head and chest injuries and a broken leg. It was found later that the two ABs had not sustained serious injury. At 0945, the MRCC in Canberra was contacted asking for medical advice and for the nearest port for a medevac of all three.

Those tending the Chief Officer were unable to stem the profuse bleeding from his head injuries. In spite of prolonged CPR and the administering of oxygen, all vital signs had disappeared by 1330 and it was concluded that he had died at some time before that. The ship resumed its course to Fremantle where it arrived on the evening of 19 August.

The incident was investigated by the Marine Incident Investigation Unit on behalf of the Hong Kong Marine Department.


These conclusions identify the different factors which contributed to the circumstances and causes of the incident and should not be read as apportioning blame or liability to any particular organisation or individual.

  1. The Chief Officer died as a result of multiple injuries received when he was swept underneath the windlass by an unexpectedly high sea coming over the forecastle.
  2. The ship, at the time of the incident, having slowed down on the previous evening, was proceeding at an appropriate speed for the prevailing weather conditions.
  3. The forecastle had not been properly secured for sea when the ship sailed from Melbourne, on 15 August, and this resulted in the cover of the booby hatch being torn off by the heavy weather encountered crossing the Bight.
  4. The fact that the Chief Officer had not informed the bridge or the Master of his intention to proceed forward meant that no assessment was made of the risk of working on the forecastle, repairing the hatch cover, in the prevailing sea conditions.
  5. The fact that the Officer of the Watch was unaware that men were to work on the forecastle resulted in the course of the ship being maintained into the heavy weather when it could have been changed to run with the weather for the duration of the repairs, thereby making it safer to work forward.
  6. Neither the Chief Officer, nor anyone else in the group on the forecastle, had a radio with which to maintain contact with the bridge. This, combined with language difficulties and shock, contributed to the confusion which prevailed for a while after the incident and to the delay before the Chief Officer was found underneath the windlass.
  7. The Master and officers of Matilda Bay did everything possible under the circumstances, and with the medical equipment available on board, to save the life of the Chief Officer.
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