Friday, 22 November 2013

Anecdote Saturday - the SS Yongala ('good water')

The Yongala was a passenger and cargo steamer built 1903 and owned by the Adelaide Steamship Company. 350 ft in length, she was constructed of steel and could average 15 knots from her single steam triple expansion engine and screw (propeller). Her five steel boilers feeding the triple expansion engine burned about 67 tonnes of coal per day while cruising at 15 knots.

23 March 1911, on a voyage between Melbourne and Cairns the Yongala encountered a cyclone and foundered off Cape Bowling Green, Queensland.  All 122 souls (72 crew) on board perished but unlike the Waratah, cargo and wreckage washed up onshore at Cleveland Bay. One piece of hull wreckage suggested that she had struck an object such as rocks, possibly causing her to founder. However, such damage could also have occurred after she had foundered rather than before. If damage after a rock-strike was the cause, rather than the cyclone, it is a case in point illustrating that steamers could sink very rapidly after such an incident.

The Yongala had similar modern conveniences to the Waratah: Electric lighting; refrigeration; powerful windlass and capstan; seven winches with derricks and derrick -posts; two steam cranes aiding in efficient cargo handling; and a steam and hand steering gear fitted aft, but controlled by the bridge.

In 1906 the Yongala was credited with being the first vessel to complete a direct voyage between Fremantle and Brisbane, covering 5000 km. Captain William Knight, 62 years old, master of the Yongala and had an unblemished record with the Adelaide Steamship Company spanning a career of 14 years.

The Yongala loaded passengers, cargo and a racehorse 'Moonshine' at Brisbane, their second to last port of call.  She reportedly departed in excellent upright condition. Unhurried the Yongala headed in the direction of Mackay, steaming well. Mackay 23 March she discharged 50 tons of cargo leaving a remaining 617 tons, appropriately and securely stowed. She departed at 1.40 pm and was still in sight of land when the signal station at Mackay received the cyclone warning between Mackay and Townsville.

Tragically as in the case of the Waratah the Yongala was not fitted with a wireless set (Marconi) and very similarly to the Waratah (which was due to be fitted with one on her return to London) the Yongala was awaiting a Marconi set dispatched from London. Five hours later the lighthouse keepers at Dent Island, Whitsunday Passage observed the Yongala steaming out into the oncoming cyclone, the last reported sighting of the vessel. The cyclone would have hit the Yongala at right angles with full force. The storm left a trail of destruction at Cape Upstart.

After the Yongala was reported overdue the Premier for Queensland Digby Denham offered resources for the search, including seven search vessels. Apart from wreckage and the racehorse Moonshine washed up at Gordon Creek, no trace of survivors or bodies were discovered.

Theories as to her loss were aired including: being overwhelmed by the force of the gale; slewed broadside into the wind after anchors were dropped; hitting a submerged reef between Flinders Passage and Keeper Reef; run into Nares Rock or founded on Cape Upstart.

The Queensland Authorities offered a reward of 1000 pounds for any information regarding the whereabouts of the Yongala, but nothing came to light until many years later in 1958 when she was discovered lying in waters south of Townsville.

The Yongala Distress fund from church and village hall donations amounted to 900 pounds and because it was not issued (for reasons unknown) to families of the lost crew and passengers, was credited to the Queensland Shipwreck Society in 1914.

The Marine Board of Queensland met in June 1911 to finalise the inquiry into the loss of the Yongala.  The inquiry followed a similar approach to that of the Waratah with no survivors nor eye witnesses to verify the reasons for her loss and had to focus on the seaworthiness of the vessel and general efficiency of the Captain, William Knight, instead.

The Yongala had proven herself in the seven years of service without mishap and tests carried out by the superintendent engineer, Mr Adamson, showed a vessel which complied with all standards and regulations.

As regards Captain William Knight the board remarked:

"The ability of the captain was unimpeachable, and with no desire to indulge in idle speculation, simply find that after becoming lost to view by the light keeper at Dent Island, the fate of the Yongala passes beyond human ken into the realms of conjecture, to add one more to the mysteries of the sea".

The Board went on further to say:

 "The risk of navigating the Queensland coast is considerably enhanced during the hurricane months, from December to April, and although with plenty of sea room and a well-found ship the observant master can, by heaving to on the right tack, or keeping out of the path of the storm, invariably avert disaster. But when caught inside the Barrier Reef, with the number of islands and reefs intervening, the Board think it will be generally conceded that the only element of safety is to be found in securing the best anchorage available".[2]

Due to the mystery of her disappearance stories in subsequent years described a ghost ship sighted between Bowen and Townsville.

But it was only in 1958 when skin divers located the wreck and brought to the surface a steel safe from one of the Yongala's cabins. Instead of treasures the safe revealed only black sludge. It was later confirmed tracing the Chubb strongbox through the serial number that it was from the Yongala's purser's cabin.

The wreck of Yongala lies within the central section of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. It is approximately 48 nautical miles (89 km) south east of Townsville and 12 nautical miles (22 km) east of Cape Bowling Green. Its official location is 19°18′15.9″S 147°37′31.6″ECoordinates: 19°18′15.9″S 147°37′31.6″E.[5] and is protected by the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act of 1976.

The wreck was even associated with a murder.  Tina Watson was murdered by her husband on the 22 October 2003 near the dive site of the Yongala.

SS Yongala - similar to Waratah
My book 'Waratah Revisited' will be available by 12 December, via Amazon. I explore the human aspect of the tragedy and take a closer look at the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah. Revelations abound. Don't miss it!

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