The ATSB has found that the use of starboard instead of port helm led to the grounding of the Singapore registered woodchip carrier Crimson Mars in the River Tamar on 1 May 2006.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigation found that an unsuitable conning position, ineffective bridge resource management and the distraction caused by the use of a mobile telephone may have contributed to the helm being applied the wrong way. It was also found that inadequate monitoring of the helm orders and their execution led to the error not being detected in time to prevent the grounding.

At 1400 Australian Eastern Standard Time on 1 May, Crimson Mars, nearly fully loaded with a cargo of woodchips sailed from Bell Bay with a pilot on board. The sky was cloudy, visibility was clear with a light south-easterly wind and the tide was flooding. The ship's master and third mate were on the bridge for the pilotage and a helmsman was steering the ship as instructed by the pilot.

The pilotage progressed as intended by the pilot until about 1440 when a turn to port around Garden Island, a critical part of the passage, was being executed. During the turn, starboard instead of port helm was applied for approximately one minute. By the time the error was detected and maximum port helm applied at about 1441, grounding was inevitable. Soon after, the pilot ordered both anchors to be let go and the main engine to be run at emergency full astern in an attempt to reduce the effects of the impact. At 1442, Crimson Mars grounded on Long Tom Reef and shuddered to a stop as the port anchor was let go and the main engine was run astern.

At 1446, the ship, with its engine running astern, moved off the reef and refloated. The pilot ordered the anchor to be retrieved. This resulted in the failure of the port windlass and the anchor cable running out to its bitter end, which held. The ship remained at anchor off Garden Island until two tugs that had been called to assist were made fast at 1605. The anchor cable was then cut, just above the hawse pipe, by the ship's crew using gas cutting equipment and left in the river together with the port anchor. The ship returned to the Bell Bay anchorage so that an assessment of the damage could be made. No oil spill or other pollution resulted from the incident.

The ship was severely damaged with its bulbous bow holed and pushed in, and ballast water tanks forward were breached. The damage could not be repaired in Bell Bay and over the next few days contingency arrangements were agreed upon by the ship's Flag State, classification society and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

On 12 May, with contingency arrangements in place, Crimson Mars sailed for Taiwan to unload its cargo and undergo permanent repairs in dry dock. The ATSB investigation also found that the attempt to retrieve the port anchor and later the cutting of the anchor cable were necessarily hazardous operations. The ship's and the ports procedures for contingency planning and emergency response were considered inadequate. The ATSB has made several safety recommendations with the aim of preventing similar incidents in the future.

Copies of the report can be downloaded from the ATSB's internet site at

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Last update 01 April 2011