Trawler skipper Ronald David.
Trawler skipper Ronald David.

The workplace feud that may have killed a Townsville skipper

A simmering workplace feud may have cost beloved Townsville skipper Ronald 'Ron' David his life.

The 55-year-old Bushland Beach boatie with more than 40 years' experience as a seaman was killed when 14m prawn trawler Sassenach and 225m bulk nickel ore carrier Asian Nova collided on May 29, 2003.

Mr David and his deckhand, Ted Armfield, 61 at the time, had been trawling for prawns between Palm Island and John Brewer Reef when tragedy struck.

As the pair prepared to haul in their nets after their second trawl of the night they noticed the massive carrier looming large, very close by.

The trawling boat 'Sassenach' that was hit by a freight ship. Picture: Stewart Mclean
The trawling boat 'Sassenach' that was hit by a freight ship. Picture: Stewart Mclean

Mr David saw the white foremast light and the green starboard sidelight of the carrier and told Mr Armfield he expected the ship to pass closely ahead of them on their port side.

The Asian Nova had to give a wide berth to fishing boats in the area, but a shambolic series of decisions had placed them on a collision course with disaster.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau found there was less than five metres between the Asian Nova and the Sassenach when they passed.

14 JUN 2003 Chinese national Ding Hui Quian, 30 outside Townsville watch-house where he was bailed on a charge of manslaughter. Pic Cameron Laird
14 JUN 2003 Chinese national Ding Hui Quian, 30 outside Townsville watch-house where he was bailed on a charge of manslaughter. Pic Cameron Laird

The bow of the ship caught the nets of the Sassenach, dragging the timber boat built in 1980 into its bow wave and then crashing into the ship's hull, sinking the fishing vessel.

Mr Armfield was able to jump clear of the trawler, yelling to his skipper as the boat rolled under his feet and sank in 40m of water.

He held onto debris and later tied himself to a floating sorting tray.

It would be five hours bobbing in the ocean before Mr Armfield was found by a nearby fishing boat and rescued.

14 JUN 2003 Chinese national Gu Jian Kang, 32 outside Townsville watch-house where he was bailed on a charge of manslaughter. Pic Cameron Laird
14 JUN 2003 Chinese national Gu Jian Kang, 32 outside Townsville watch-house where he was bailed on a charge of manslaughter. Pic Cameron Laird

Mr David's body was found by divers in early-June in the forward cabin of the trawler, which was eventually recovered on August 23.

Townsville police Rapid Action and Patrols Group Inspector Joe Kitching was the officer in charge of Townsville's Criminal Investigation Branch in 2003.

He said Mr Armfield had been lucky to escape and the accident had sparked a complex investigation run by the CIB, Water Police and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

On June 13, 2003, two Chinese nationals, Ding Hui Quian, 30, and Gu Jian Kang, 32, were arrested and charged by detectives with one count each of manslaughter.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau found the initial course correction undertaken by the Asian Nova's third mate, who identified a possible collision more than an hour before it occurred, could have been more drastic to ensure a clear passage.

Bulk ore carrier the Asian Nova at anchor in the shipping channel off Townsville after running down trawler Sassenach off Palm Island. Pic: Michael Chambers.
Bulk ore carrier the Asian Nova at anchor in the shipping channel off Townsville after running down trawler Sassenach off Palm Island. Pic: Michael Chambers.

Instead, during the changeover, the Bureau found the second mate took charge and shifted the Asian Nova back to its original course, which sealed the fate of the Sassenach.

The Bureau found a frosty relationship between the second and third mate, one who had come through direct officer training and the other promoted after serving as a seaman, had played a role in a "totally inadequate" handover of watch which was "directly causal" in the collision.

"At interview, it was evident that there was tension between the two men," the Bureau's report read.

"It is impossible to say whether their 'cool' relationship was a result of the collision, but the impression is that a degree of friction was present between the two men before the accident.

"It is a strong possibility that their relationship had affected both men's approach to the handover of the watch."

A desire to stay "on track" was suggested as one possibility for the second mate's course adjustment not being great enough and the third mate's willingness to adjust back to the original course without properly assessing the dangers.

30 May 2003 Sassenach deckhand Ted Armfield, 61, (seated R) with his wife Adelyn and (children of missing boat skipper Ronald (Ron Ronny) David, 55, Peter David (top L) and his sister Shannan Castillo (top R) comfort each other after the sinking of the trawler. Pic Michael Chambers
30 May 2003 Sassenach deckhand Ted Armfield, 61, (seated R) with his wife Adelyn and (children of missing boat skipper Ronald (Ron Ronny) David, 55, Peter David (top L) and his sister Shannan Castillo (top R) comfort each other after the sinking of the trawler. Pic Michael Chambers

Whatever drove the decision, the result was devastating.

The Sassenach never had a chance.

"Given the actions of Asian Nova there would probably have been insufficient time for the crew on Sassenach to have taken any effective action to avoid the collision on their own account," the Bureau's report read.

Quian and Kang reappeared in Townsville Magistrates Court on June 16, 2003, as the Asian Nova remained in the Port of Townsville.

A $10,000 bail undertaken was given and both men were released, due to reappear on April 6, 2004, but they both failed to show up on that day.

Inspector Joe Kitching was in charge of Townsville CIB in 2003 when the collision happened.
Inspector Joe Kitching was in charge of Townsville CIB in 2003 when the collision happened.

A warrant was issued for their arrest and remains on-file, but all investigations since then have failed to find the two Chinese nationals.

Investigators suspect they returned to the bulk carrier and fled to their home towns in China.

There is currently no extradition treaty between Australia and China, meaning no one has ever faced court over Mr David's death.

"It was an outstanding investigation by Water Police and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau," Insp Kitching said.

Anyone with information on the location of the two Chinese nationals should contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.