Jump to Content



At 0155 on 9 October 1999, the prawn trawler May Bell II was about 50 miles east of Newcastle, NSW, heading slowly west. The skipper and the deckhand were recovering their nets when the deckhand heard the sound of a ship's wash just forward of the trawler. He ran to the wheelhouse where he put the engine full astern but, a few seconds later, the two vessels came into contact.

The deckhand sounded the trawler's horn, leaving it on, but there was no answering signal from the ship. He was unable to make out a stern light or the ship's name on the stern as the ship continued on towards the northeast.

The bow of the trawler was holed by the impact, but there was no ingress of water. The skipper called Sydney Radio on VHF (very high frequency radio) to say that the trawler had been struck by a ship, informing the station of the position and time of the collision and adding that he was returning to Sydney.

The trawler returned to Sydney that afternoon, whereupon the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) interviewed the crew and obtained samples of paint deposited, as a result of the collision, on the stem of the trawler.

AusSAR, the Australian search and rescue organisation, provided the ATSB with a surface picture (surpic) of ships in the area at the time of the collision. Positions were obtained from certain ships on the surpic and a woodchip carrier, Craig The Pioneer, was close enough to the position of the collision to warrant further investigation.

When Craig The Pioneer arrived at Bell Bay in Tasmania in November 1999, interviews were conducted with the master, deck officers and the AB (able-bodied seaman) who had been on watch with the 2nd mate. The 2nd mate and AB, who had been on the navigation watch at the time, denied all knowledge of the incident stating that they had not seen the trawler either visually or by radar.

The ATSB also obtained paint samples from the ship. Paint samples from both vessels were analysed by the Scientific Unit, Forensic Services, of the Australian Federal Police at Canberra, the report concluding that there was strong evidence that the ship and fishing vessel had come into contact.


These conclusions identify the different factors contributing to the incident and should not be read as apportioning blame or liability to any particular organisation or individual.

  • On the basis of the positions of both vessels and the analysis of paint samples from the fishing vessel and the ship, the Inspector is satisfied that Craig The Pioneer collided with May Bell II.
  • Those on watch on the bridge of Craig The Pioneer did not maintain a proper lookout either by sight or by radar. Under the conditions of optimum visibility at the time of the incident, the lookout being maintained on board the ship would have to be considered seriously deficient to miss seeing the trawler prior to the collision.
  • The skipper and deckhand of the trawler were on deck, concentrating on retrieving nets, when the collision occurred and were not keeping a proper lookout.
  • The vision of both the skipper and deckhand of the trawler was significantly impaired from working under bright lights.

It is also considered that the fitting of a radar reflector or similar device to the fishing vessel to enhance its radar returns would have increased the likelihood of it being detected by a ship.

Share this page Comment