Grounding on a submerged rock, MV Cape Pillar,

during bathymetric operations



Bathymetic surveys


Natmap undertook bathymetric (bathymetry: the measurement of the depth of large bodies of water) surveys of the Australian continental shelf to a depth of 300 metres. Some two hundred and eighty (280) 1:250,000 scale maps of the continental shelf were produced.


The picture below shows how the surveys were undertaken.





MV Cape Pillar


The MV Cape Pillar, an ex navigation aids, support vessel, was chartered on a year to year basis from the then Department of Transport (DOT). For in-shore work the smaller TSMV Febrina amongst others, was privately chartered.





MV Cape Pillar in November 1965 (top) and its LARC – Lighter, Amphibious Resupply, Cargo (bottom)



In 1984, while on survey to the east of the Archipelago of the Recherche, southern Western Australia, the vessel struck an uncharted rock pinnacle. The official report, newspaper article, pictures and map are attached.


In regards to this incident Brian Murphy emailed  “The seriousness of the incident is under-stated in the report as the ship came within an ace of sinking - only quick action by the crew in beaching the vessel prevented it from sinking”.


Charlie Watson elaborated a bit more:


the Natmap crew were put ashore with the cooks and stewards on a nearby island as a precautionary measure. Our divers ably assisted in the rescue and were commended by DOT. Mick Spellacy was one, I can’t remember the others.


Although no one was injured I had the job of notifying NOK before the story hit the news. However, we were usurped by the RAN who chose this day of all days to slice off a considerable portion of the dock in Hobart with one of their destroyers.


The damage to the MV Cape Pillar was serious and cost about $500,000. DOT paid but increased the hire rate thereafter.


A forward-looking sonar was purchased and fitted at NATMAP insistence, however, no training was given to the ships’ officers. It was therefore of little use. We had a couple of further groundings, Truant Island (near Gove) and Elphingstone Rock (Melville Island - I found it the hard/easy way). As for aerial recce; a bit over the top, unless you are in Defence. In any case HMAS Moresby (the naval hydrographer’s vessel) has had more crashes than groundings”!


CV’s insight was “it has been said ???? that only survey vessels are allowed to run aground but don’t quote me on this”.



Photos courtesy Charlie Watson



MV Cape Pillar down at bow after grounding




Damaged bow areas including timber inserted by the RAN and ship’s divers as part of the damage control measures.



Maritime Safety Investigation Report – Final

Grounding on a submerged rock MV Cape Pillar


Occurrence Details

Occurrence Number:



SW Australia

Occurrence Date:

21 January 1984



Occurrence Time:


Highest Injury Level:


Occurrence Category:


Investigation Type:

Occurrence Investigation

Occurrence Class:


Investigation Status:


Occurrence Type:


Release Date:

01 July 1984

Vessel Details


Cape Pillar





Type of Operation:

Special-purpose vessel

Damage to Vessel:


Departure Point:

Esparance, WA

Departure Time:



Salisbury Island, WA







On 21 January 1984, Cape Pillar, an Australian Government navigation aids support vessel, was engaged in bathymetric survey work at the eastern extremity of the Recherche Archipelago, southern Western Australia. The survey required the vessel to run parallel courses on headings of 150º and 330º, 3000m apart, between the 300m depth contour and the shoreline. A survey boat was utilised for the inshore portion of the survey, where it was too shallow for Cape Pillar to proceed with safety.


At 1158, Cape Pillar commenced a survey run on the 150º heading, but as this survey line passed through Cooper Island, when the vessel was 1.1 miles from the island, course was altered to 060º, to take the vessel to the previous survey line. Shortly after the helm was put to starboard, to bring the vessel back to the 150º heading on the previous survey line, the echo sounder showed rapid shoaling of the seabed. The helm was put hard to port, but shortly afterwards Cape Pillar struck a submerged object. A few minutes later, three rock pinnacles were seen close by, about two metres below the surface.


The hull plating was ruptured in way of the cargo hold and adjacent double bottom tank, both of which flooded. The Master took the vessel to anchorage in Goose Island Bay, where portable salvage pumps were delivered to the vessel and a Navy damage control team boarded to provide assistance. The vessel was eventually able to proceed to Esperance and then onto Fremantle.




Cape Pillar struck an uncharted rock pinnacle.


The incident could have been avoided had an aerial reconnaissance been conducted beforehand and had the vessel been equipped with a forward scanning sonar.




WA Newspaper Report


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Locations mentioned in newspaper article


Red pin on Cooper Island – Pillar grounded on rocks to north

Blue pin on Goose Island and Green pin on Middle Island


Cape Pillar in Sydney

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Photos courtesy :