Sleepy skipper rams the rocks

Narrative

About 1am on a still and clear summer night, a licensed line fishing boat was steaming steadily from its home berth in Port Jackson to its intended destination off Jibbon Point, at the entrance to Port Hacking. The vessel was steel-constructed and 24 metres long, with reasonably modern electronic navigation aids available to the master.

The master and his crew of engineers and two deckhands had left Sydney about two hours previously, and all were reasonable rested, having slept well the night before. The master was in the wheelhouse alone, with one deckhand asleep in the forecastle accommodation and the other two crew were watching a movie in the galley, directly below the wheelhouse.

The master was using his autopilot to maintain his course. He set a waypoint for just off Cronulla Point, where he intended to make his final course change for Jibbon Beach. Unfortunately, whilst seated in the master’s chair in the wheelhouse, he fell asleep. He was abruptly awoken by the 85 tonne vessel grounding itself onto the rock shelf directly below Cronulla Point, adjacent to the popular Cronulla Beach and famous Cronulla Point surf break.

The master and crew attempted to reverse the vessel off the rocks, but to no avail. The falling tide ensured that the vessel was there to stay, at least for the short term. The crew took to their dinghy and were soon picked up by water police who had been alerted to the grounding. The vessel was refloated two days later after a complex salvage operation. The vessel was later found to have sustained about one million dollars’ worth of damage.

Lessons learned

  1. Falling asleep at the helm is a common problem with commercial fishermen, but is easily avoidable with the use of common sense and technology.
  2. Use the alarms available including radar unit, GPS plotters and depth sounders all of which have alarms that can be set to sound when set distances, positions or depths are reached. Any one of these would have alerted and woken the master in time to take avoiding action.
  3. All autopilot systems also have alarms. Many are set automatically to sound at regular intervals (5 minutes being a common setting), with the helmsman required to physically push a reset button to silence the alarm. Unfortunately, many masters either permanently disable the alarms or fail to set those that have manual alarms.
  4. While in this case, the master was not particularly fatigued, the human body is programmed to relax and sleep in the early hours of the morning. If sitting in a comfortable chair, the urge to sleep is difficult to resist. Many commercial vessel owners insist that their watch-keepers stand in the wheelhouse whilst on watch, therefore staying alert.
  5. This master had three other crew members he could have used to either keep him company and alert, or to give him a break whilst he had a ‘power nap’. Use them.
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