Royal Navy destroyer hits rock, nearly sinks off New Zealand

The Royal Navy Type 42 destroyer HMS Nottingham nearly sank in the Tasman Sea after hitting a well-known rock on July 7.

Nottingham arrives under tow in Newcastle, Australia, where the ship’s stores and ammunition were removed. Plans call for the destroyer to to be taken by heavy-lift ship back to Britain for repairs.

The accident occurred in rough seas and strong winds just moments after a helicopter carrying the ship’s commanding officer landed on the ship’s helipad.

The ship struck in the vicinity of Wolf Rock off Lord Howe Island, about 300 miles from Australia. The captain, fearing that Nottingham would break its back, backed the ship off the rocks.

Below, the crew started what turned out to be a days-long, desperate battle against inrushing water. According to one crewman, the multicompartmented warship was at one point within six minutes of sinking.

The ship sustained gashes, one of which was about 100 feet long. Water flooded numerous compartments, including the main engine room, the Sea Dart missiles’ magazine and the computer room, and several living spaces.

Nottingham arrived off tiny Lord Howe Island, a mountainous World Heritage Site and tourist attraction, on the afternoon of July 7, The ship stopped there to send a sick crewmember ashore by helicopter.

Part of the crew went ashore for what the captain later described as a bit of leg stretching. By the time the captain was ready to depart the island that night, a small front had hit the island, bringing intermittent rain and strong winds. As Lord Howe Island’s harbormaster Clive Wilson remembers the conditions, “It was rough winds, wild seas, breaking waves that night.”

The ship’s Lynx helicopter ferried the captain to Nottingham, which maneuvered off the eastern side of the island in the lee of Mount Lidgbird so the helicopter could land. While the chopper was being rolled into the hanger, the ship shuddered as it hit the rocks.

Requests for assistance were answered by several agencies. The Royal Australian Navy quickly assembled both heavy pumps and a team of divers and flew them on a Royal Australian Air Force Hercules C-130 transport to Lord Howe Island. The Royal New Zealand Navy sent the frigate Te Mana and the oiler Endeavour, both of which were in the general area.

Australian divers welded steel patches to Nottingham’s hull, while massive damage control and cleanup work went on inside the vessel, including a large amount of wood and steel shoring.

Weary workers were replaced by fresh help from Te Mana and Endeavour, while the Australian divers stopped work during spells of 60-knot winds and surging seas.

A reconnaissance flight revealed no signs of any oil spillage, only a light sheen of oil from the water being pumped overboard.

The BBC quoted the captain as stating “a combination of unfortunate circumstances and human error” caused the accident. A board of inquiry has finished its investigation, but its findings will not be made public.

A week after the accident, the ship’s watertight integrity was being maintained, and the vessel was being readied for towing, stern-first, to Newcastle, Australia early in August. However, authorities warned that bad weather could still jeopardize the vessel.

Three tugs were to participate in the towing. The 6,000-hp anchor-handling tug Pacific Chieftain would tow Nottingham, while the Hong Kong tug Yam O provided steering. Austral Salvor was to serve as the standby tug.

After removal of stores and ammunition in Australia, Nottingham was to be placed on a heavy-lift ship some time in October for the trip back to Britain for repairs.

Wolf Rock is the most prominent of a cluster of rocks lying about one mile off Lord Howe Island’s east shore and about 1.5 miles southwest of Mutton Bird Island, which has shoal water extending toward Wolf Rock.

The captain was reported as stating that Wolf Rock was well-charted and that his crew knew it was nearby.

Wolf Rock should be well-known to mariners because a ship was wrecked on it in 1937, but relevant charts are largely based on data from the 1837 survey by HMS Benham. Wolf Rock may not have been precisely marked.

According to harbormaster Wilson, the latest Royal Australian Navy chart of the island has the notation “inadequately surveyed.” He added, “some areas along the shore are not definitely charted.” More importantly, AUS 610 and the Admiralty version of it bear a note that Wolf Rock was “reported to lie 1.5 cables NW in 1990.” That means Wolf Rock could actually be 900 feet northwest of the position shown on the chart.

Nottingham’s bridge should have been manned with an adequate number of competent personnel. The normal bridge team for a Type 42 destroyer like Nottingham numbers four: the officer of the watch, a quartermaster, a boatswain’s mate and a communications rating.

“Special sea dutymen” are called during air operations, adverse weather conditions, sailing at night or in poor visibility, and sailing close inshore, as well as several other conditions. Then the bridge team consists of the officer of the watch, perhaps a second OOW (usually an officer under training), the navigator (a lieutenant), the helmsman, a boatswain’s mate (a general helper able to leave the bridge), a communications rating, probably two lookouts on the bridge and perhaps an engineering officer.

By Professional Mariner Staff