'Professionalism and skill' displayed by Navy crew to save stricken sailors at Christmas Island, says ATSB report

This article has photo gallery Published on LEUT Sarah West (author)

Location(s): Flying Fish Cove, Christmas Island

Topic(s): HMAS Leeuwin (A245), HMAS Maryborough (P95), Search and Rescue (SAR)

A merchant sailor jumps from the sinking merchant ship Tycoon while a Royal Australian Navy RHIB crew manoeuvres to retrieve him from the water. Image republished with permission of Australian Federal Police. (photo: Australian Federal Police)
A merchant sailor jumps from the sinking merchant ship Tycoon while a Royal Australian Navy RHIB crew manoeuvres to retrieve him from the water. Image republished with permission of Australian Federal Police.

An Australian Transport Safety Bureau report into the sinking of a merchant ship at Christmas Island in January 2012 has found that two Royal Australian Navy crews embarked in HMA Ships Leeuwin and Maryborough displayed ‘professionalism and skill’ while helping the merchant sailors abandon their stricken vessel.

The report details how the general cargo ship Tycoon made contact with the rock face at Flying Fish Cove, Christmas Island, after one of the permanent mooring lines holding the ship in position came free from its anchor in deteriorating weather conditions.

Attempts to move the Tycoon away from the rock face failed, and the ship continued to pound against it. As a result, the engine room began to flood through a tear in the hull, and the decision was made by the ship’s master for all to abandon ship.

Rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) crews from HMAS Leeuwin and HMAS Maryborough stand by to pull merchant seaman out of the water as the crew of the general cargo ship Tycoon prepare to abandon ship in Flying Fish Cove, Christmas Island.

Rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) crews from HMAS Leeuwin and HMAS Maryborough stand by to pull merchant seaman out of the water as the crew of the general cargo ship Tycoon prepare to abandon ship in Flying Fish Cove, Christmas Island.

The report provides the following timeline of events, which outlines the assistance provided by the two Navy crews:

“By this time, there were various emergency response personnel in the terminal and a number of options were put forward to facilitate getting the crew safely off the ship. Following a suggestion from the coxswain of HMAS Leeuwin’s RHIB, it was decided that the master should lower the ship’s starboard accommodation ladder so the crew could climb down it and jump into the sea. They would then be pulled into the RHIB.

At about 0935, HMAS Leeuwin’s Commanding Officer contacted HMAS Maryborough, which was also in the area at the time, and requested that its two RHIBs be launched to assist in the rescue.

At 0944, HMAS Maryborough’s RHIBs were launched and they arrived on the scene a short time later.

Typhoon’s crew lowered the starboard accommodation ladder and then gathered together in life jackets on the deck adjacent to it. At 1031, the first crew member climbed down the ladder and jumped into the sea. He was quickly pulled on board the RHIB which had come in close to the ship’s side.

At about this time, HMAS Leeuwin’s commanding officer estimated that the wind was gusting ‘up to 40 knots, average sea height was 2 metres offshore with 3 plus metre surf zones close inshore and on the exposed northwest rock faces’. 

By 1037, five of Tycoon’s crew members had been pulled from the sea by HMAS Leeuwin’s RHIB crew. As that RHIB backed away from the ship, one of HMAS Maryborough’s RHIBs came in to continue to pick up Tycoon’s crew members.

By 1052, all 15 crew had been rescued. Tycoon’s master was the last crew member to leave the stricken ship, taking with him a number of ship’s documents.

The conditions prevented the ship’s crew from being landed in Flying Fish Cove, so the RHIBs took them to the boat ramp at Ethel Beach, on the east coast of the island, where they were landed and provided medical attention.”

Later that day, Tycoon suffered the catastrophic failure of its hull and the contents of the ship’s number two cargo hold (about 260 tonnes of bagged phosphate) were exposed to the sea. The ship continued to be pounded by the sea and swell and, over the following months, it broke up under the action of the waves.

The report concluded that ‘without the presence of the Navy personnel and their skill, the rescue of the 15 crew members would have been much more problematic and dangerous.’

The full report is available for download at: http://www.atsb.gov.au/publications/investigation_reports/2012/mair/292-mo-2012-001.aspx