This investigation is being conducted under the Transport Safety Investigation Act 2003 by Victoria’s Chief Investigator, Transport Safety under an agreement with the Chief Commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. This preliminary report details factual information established in the investigation’s early evidence collection phase and has been prepared to provide timely information to the industry and public. Preliminary reports contain no analysis or findings, which will be detailed in the investigation’s final report. The information contained in this preliminary report is released in accordance with section 25 of the Transport Safety Investigation Act 2003.
At about 1900 local time on 5 October 2023, the night shift crew (the coxswain and deckhand) of the pilot launch PV Corsair reported on duty at the launch wharf in Queenscliff harbour. They were informed by the pilot despatch office that their first job that evening was to pick up the pilot from the outbound container ship MV Rio Grande. After preparing the launch for service, they waited in the crew quarters at the launch station.
Later that evening, Rio Grande departed Melbourne with a pilot on board. It would transit Port Phillip before departing through Port Phillip Heads (the Heads). Once the ship was clear of the entrance, the pilot would disembark onto the pilot launch and be transported back to the pilot station at Queenscliff.
At about 2230, the pilot called the launch crew and advised them that Rio Grande was expected to be at the Heads at about 2300. The coxswain of Corsair reported the weather conditions to the pilot and advised that they would rendezvous with Rio Grande about 2 nautical miles (NM)  offshore and to the south-west of the entrance, in relatively calmer water away from the main ebb tide. It was agreed that Rio Grande would create a lee on its starboard side for the launch to come alongside to retrieve the pilot.
At about 2252, Corsair met Rio Grande just inside the entrance as they proceeded outbound. At that time there was a strong ebb tide of about 5.6 knots and the height of tide was about 0.6 m above the charted depth. The wind was from the south-south-west direction at an average speed of 22 knots with gusts of up to 26 knots. The recorded wave height outside the Heads was about 2.4 m.
Soon after passing Point Lonsdale, Rio Grande altered its course to starboard, to keep the wind and the sea on its port side, creating a lee on the starboard side to allow the pilot launch to come alongside.
At about 2306, the pilot disembarked into the pilot launch and soon after, from a position about 2.3 NM south-west of Point Lonsdale, Corsair commenced heading back to the entrance on a course of about 070º and at a speed of about 24 knots (Figure 1).
Figure 1: The track of PV Corsair for pilot transfer from Rio Grande
The figure also shows the tracks of PV Corsair through the Heads on its previous trip.
Source: Ports Victoria with annotations by the Office of the Chief Investigator
At about 2310, Corsair was about 1.4 NM south-west from Point Lonsdale when it commenced a slow alteration in course to port. At about 2312, when about 205º and 0.54 NM from Point Lonsdale, the launch steadied on a course of about 051º and its speed was still about 24 knots.
At about 2313 Corsair entered the shallow water surrounding the reef and ran aground. The launch came to rest in a rock pool about 500 m from Point Lonsdale.
Following the grounding
Several calls were made from Corsair seeking assistance, the first by mobile phone to the crew of the sister launch, PV Nepean. A Mayday distress broadcast was subsequently transmitted from Corsair on VHF radio. The distress call was heard by Ports Victoria Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) which contacted the Victoria Police Search and Rescue Squad. Victoria Police then activated the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard at Queenscliff, the Southern Peninsula Rescue Squad at Blairgowrie, and its own rescue response team. Several vessels responded to the emergency and the three occupants of Corsair were subsequently brought aboard the Coast Guard vessel at about 0132 on 6 October. They were uninjured.
The pilot launch was destroyed on the reef during the night and the debris recovered the following day.
Port Phillip Heads
Port Phillip Heads, also known as The Heads or The Rip, is a narrow waterway that connects Port Phillip to Bass Strait and is the only access for ships visiting the ports of Melbourne and Geelong (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Port Phillip Heads and entrance channels
Source: Crawfords Mariners Atlas. Royal Australian Navy charts © 1997 Commonwealth of Australia with annotations by the Office of the Chief Investigator
There are five designated channels for larger ships to use when transiting the Heads. From east to west, they are Outer Eastern Channel (10.1 m depth), Eastern Ship Channel (11.9 m), Great Ship Channel (17.0 m), Western Ship Channel (11.4 m), and Outer Western Channel (10.3 m). At the entrance to Port Philip, the combined width of these shipping channels is about 740 m and the western edge of the Outer Western Channel is about 1480 m from Point Lonsdale.
West of the Outer West Channel lies the Small Craft Channel, which was used by smaller boats, fishing vessels and the pilot launches. The channel ran between Yellowtail Rock and Lonsdale Rock (Figure 2). The defined western edge of the channel was about 50 m off Yellowtail rock. The width of the channel at that section was about 300 m and its depth between 5 and 10 m.
Point Lonsdale Reef is an outcrop of flat-topped rocks extending up to about 540 m south-east of Point Lonsdale (Figure 3). The extent of the reef’s exposure and its visibility varies with tide and sea conditions.
Figure 3: Point Lonsdale Reef
Point Lonsdale Reef photographed from Point Lonsdale the day after the grounding.
Source: Elstone Diving Services Pty Ltd
Locations for pilot transfer
The designated pilot boarding ground was 5 NM south-west of the entrance however pilots could disembark outbound ships between 2 and 5 NM to seaward of the entrance. Pilots usually boarded inbound ships between 5 and 8 NM from the entrance.
Port Phillip Sea Pilots
Corsair was owned and operated by Port Phillip Sea Pilots (PPSP). The company was established in Victoria in June 1839 and was licensed to provide pilotage services in the Victorian ports of Melbourne, Geelong, Hastings and Corner Inlet and it also provided relief pilots to the Port of Portland pilotage service. PPSP had 24 active pilots.
The pilot despatch office (pilot station) was located in Queenscliff. The organisation had two dedicated pilot launches (PV Corsair and PV Nepean) stationed at Queenscliff for the transfer of pilots to/from the pilot boarding grounds outside the entrance.
The pilot launch Corsair was a dedicated pilot transfer vessel of monohull design constructed in 2014 by Hart Marine in Mornington, Victoria (Figure 4). It had an overall length of 18.55 m, breadth of 5.5 m, depth of 2.3 m and a loaded draught of about 1.55 m. Propulsion was by two Cummins QSK 19-M marine diesel engines of 597 kW at 2100 rpm, each driving a fixed pitch propellor. The launch had a maximum speed of about 30 knots.
Figure 4: PV Nepean, the sister vessel of PV Corsair
The launch was used primarily for pilot transfers, transporting pilots to/from the PPSP pilot despatch station at Queenscliff. It was occasionally engaged in relief work at the other pilotage areas within Port Phillip and Westernport.
PV Corsair was registered with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) as a domestic commercial vessel (DCV). At the time of the incident, it had a Certificate of Survey issued on 6 October 2020 valid until 28 May 2025 and a Certificate of Operations valid until 2 September 2024. The certificates permitted Corsair to operate as a pilot vessel, with a total crew of two and carrying up to 6 special personnel. The crew on board at the time of the incident were appropriately qualified to operate Corsair.
The launch was fitted with a central navigational console with two navigation screens, one on each side of the conning position (Figure 5). The screen to the right of the conning position was set to display the electronic charting system and the screen to the left had the radar display. The depth sounder was connected to the charting display. All navigational equipment was reported to be operational at the time of the incident.
Figure 5: PV Corsair navigation equipment demonstrated on PV Nepean
Source: Office of the Chief Investigator
To date, the ATSB has:
- interviewed relevant personnel including the crew of the pilot launch
- conducted relevant vessel inspections
- examined recordings of the pilot launch track on this and previous transits of the Heads
- reviewed recordings of relevant communications
The investigation is continuing and will include further examination of:
- the operation of the pilot launch including bridge resource management
- relevant safety management systems
- vessel data recordings
Should a critical safety issue be identified during the course of the investigation, the ATSB will immediately notify relevant parties so appropriate and timely safety action can be taken.
A final report will be released at the conclusion of the investigation.
Purpose of safety investigations
The objective of a safety investigation is to enhance transport safety. This is done through:
It is not a function of the ATSB to apportion blame or provide a means for determining liability. At the same time, an investigation report must include factual material of sufficient weight to support the analysis and findings. At all times the ATSB endeavours to balance the use of material that could imply adverse comment with the need to properly explain what happened, and why, in a fair and unbiased manner. The ATSB does not investigate for the purpose of taking administrative, regulatory or criminal action.
An explanation of terminology used in ATSB investigation reports is available here. This includes terms such as occurrence, contributing factor, other factor that increased risk, and safety issue.
Released in accordance with section 25 of the Transport Safety Investigation Act 2003
Published by: Australian Transport Safety Bureau
© Commonwealth of Australia 2023
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 Consistent with the operator’s terminology, the master of Corsair is referred to in this report as its coxswain.
 Port Phillip Heads is defined as the waters between an imaginary line drawn between Shortland Bluff and Point Nepean, and the seaward limits of an imaginary line consisting the arc of a circle with a radius of 3 nautical miles centred on Point Lonsdale.
 The ‘entrance’ to Port Phillip is demarcated by an imaginary line drawn between Point Lonsdale and Point Nepean.
 1 nautical mile (nm) is 1,852 km or 1852 m.
 1 knot is 1.852 km/h.
 Recorded at Point Lonsdale Light House.
 Significant wave height recorded by a wave buoy located about 3.5 NM south-east of the entrance.
 All bearings and course headings are measured clockwise from the True north (000º).
 The passage of PV Corsair was recorded by Melbourne Vessel Traffic Services (VTS).
 These rocks were not exposed features and were well below the low water mark. The charted depth at Lonsdale Rock was 6.1 m and the depth at Yellowtail Rock 1.7 m.
 “Special personnel” means all persons who are not passengers or members of the crew or children of under one year of age and who are carried on board in connection with the special purpose of that ship or because of special work being carried out aboard that ship.