September29th 2012, marks 55 years since New Australia, was involved in a collision with the tanker France Stove, in the Torres Strait. This incident had the potential to turn into a disaster of very tragic consequences, considering the circumstances and the number of people onboard – but fortunately it wasn’t to be.

Both vessels were under the guidance of Pilots at the time. New Australia was then nearing the northern limits of the Great Barrier Reef Pilotage off Thursday Island.

In command was Captain John Hart and the deck department consisted of the following; Chief Officer, Dave Mouldey, First Officer, Phil Murchison, 2nd Officer, Alec Harrison, 3rd Officer, Phil Griffin (resident West Australia), 4th Officer, John Thompson (resident Tasmania), Cadet, Charles Wynne-Eyton and Cadet George Holmes (resident Queensland).

New Australia was transporting members and families of the RAAF and 3rd Battalion RAR from Sydney to Singapore and Penang. The vessel was chartered by the UK Ministry of Transport, and was under the management of Shaw Savill & Albion at the time. Prior to then the vessel had been used for migrants in the UK/Australia service since 1950.

One of the few quadruple screws, turbo-electric vessels in the world, New Australia’s career until then had been a very chequered one, since being launched at Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd, Newcastle in 1931.

Starting her life as Monarch of Bermuda, she and her sister ship the Queen of Bermuda, were crack liners when introduced on the New York/Bermuda service. War service and a disastrous fire May 24th, 1949, ear marked the vessel for scrap, however she was saved and refitted by the UK government to provide a one class service to Australia.

In this new role she could accommodate 1600 passengers with approx 500 crew; with a gross tonnage of 20,256, length 553.2ft and beam of 76.7ft. The service speed was 19 knots.

A brief account of how the collision occurred is worth recalling, to really appreciate how conditions have improved for present day pilots.

A simple analogy could be compared to two people meeting on a pavement and not talking. Simultaneously both go one way, then both go the other way and inevitably they collide! Severity of the collision is dependant on how fast they were walking towards each other.

At 1930 on a clear starry night, we were proceeding westward through Torres Strait, with no premonition of the events to follow.

The Pilot, Captain, Chief Officer, First & 4th Officers (4-8 watch-keepers), 3rd Officer (relieving watch-keeper) and a deck cadet – yours truly, were all on the bridge. As we approached Hammond Rock a vessel was sighted approaching from the south, some 2-3 miles distant on our port side showing green. The two vessels closed and it appeared the other vessel would cross ahead before we reached Hammond Rock.

Our vessel gave two short blasts, indicating we would alter to port, presumably to give the other vessel room and more time to round Hammond Rock, but also inferring a green to green passing situation.

However immediately after we had indicated our action, the other vessel gave one short blast indicating she was continuing to turn to starboard.

As the two ships were closing at probably a combined speed of over 20 knots, decision making process was obviously speeded up. Our ship gave one short blast and altered to starboard, followed almost immediately by the other vessel giving two short blasts and altering to port.

By then collision was inevitable. Before the impact our engines were going astern, watertight doors were closed and the emergency signal sounded.

New Australia struck the France Stove on her starboard bow, sliding down the full length of the tanker before breaking free. Fuel tanks of the tanker were ruptured: fire and flames broke out between the two vessels.

As we were the larger of the ships and had the higher freeboard, we inflicted more damage than we received. The starboard bridge wing of France Stove was bent backwards through 90 degrees; however our fore peak was holed above the waterline and our starboard anchor ended up in their starboard lifeboat.

The two vessels then separated, leaving the burning fuel behind, as they proceeded to anchor to assess the damage. We searched the crew accommodation for survivors, before completing a muster of passengers and crew. Fortunately, it turned out that that no-one was injured.

It has to be noted here that all service personnel, including their families, remained mustered in orderly fashion and were not influenced by the unauthorized and premature embarkation of some stewards who were found sitting in lifeboats with bags packed, ready to go ashore!

We were at Thursday Island until October 3rd, effecting repairs to the forepeak and then continued on to Singapore with much less fresh water than desired, as a result of the collision!


This account was constructed from 50 plus year old memory banks, but it is interesting to note how present communications could have helped avoid this particular collision, such as the following:

  1. VHF (very high frequency radiotelephone)
  2. AIS (Automatic Identification System)
  3. Real Time Current Meters
  4. Improved ARPA (Automated Radar Plotting Aid)

However, it is my opinion after having been a Torres Strait Pilot since 1980, that safety would be further enhanced, if traffic separation zones were introduced into the area, as all of the above systems have their short comings.

So the story goes, when details were exchanged between the ships and upon receipt of those from the tanker her Pilot’s name was identified as ‘Nelson’. New Australia’s Captain is reputed to have commented waspishly to the bridge at large – “I might have known it was some one –eyed bastard!!”- An unofficial collection of stories from those “good old days” in Shaw Savill; by Warwick Thomson:

Author: Captain George Holmes is still a practicing Torres Strait Pilot, after 32 years in the service. Whilst employed with the Shaw Savill Line, he was for many years an active member of the Royal Naval Reserve and was awarded the RD medal for his long and meritorious service.