Friday, 28 February 2014

Anecdote Saturday - the SS Koombana

The Koombana launched in October 1908, was built by Alexander Stephens and Sons, Glasgow, and registered to the Adelaide Steamship Company. The Waratah was built at the same time across the river Clyde on the opposite bank by Barclay, Curle and Co. Two steamers destined to sail into the dark side of history.

The Koombana was 340 ft in length, had a gross tonnage of 3668 and a draft of 20 ft 8 (Waratah: 30 ft 41/2 in.). She was designed to carry passengers, cargo and mail between Fremantle and ports along the coast of Western Australia. 20 March, 1912, she sailed into a tropical cyclone carrying 76 passengers and 74 crew. Apart from a small quantity of wreckage, she disappeared without a trace off Port Hedland. A number of other vessels succumbed to the storm as well. All hands were lost making this the worst weather related maritime disaster in the 20th Century. One could argue that the loss of the Waratah according to the Board of Trade Inquiry was weather related. As a result of her loss the Adelaide Steamship Company withdrew from the northwest coastal service trade and this galvanised the formation of the State Shipping Service of Western Australia.

She was constructed according to the British Corporation shelter deck rules, carrying first and second class passengers, cattle and a significant quota of general cargo. The Koombana derived her name from Mr Robert Forrest's 'Koombana' mill, Bunbury, Western Australia - the name meaning 'bay of spouting whales'. She was luxurious, some comparing her with the quality fittings of the Titanic, and praised as  "... the acme of perfection as regards the comfort of passengers, facilities for handling cargo, and appliances for skilful navigation ..." However, she was also criticised as "... too good for the trade." Similar to the Waratah she had watertight compartments and a steel double hull.

The Koombana had a number of decks:

- orlop deck above the lower hold;
- main deck;
- spar deck (passenger accommodation and dining rooms);
- promenade deck;
- bridge deck;
- boat deck;
- navigating bridge, perched on top.

The Koombana was referred to by some as 'top heavy' and taking her draft of 20 ft into account, I would be inclined to agree with this statement. She was narrow, had a low draft (to negotiate shallow port entrances) and a number of decks creating a top heavy hamper.

"The drawing and smoke rooms were both located on the promenade deck. Each was lavishly decorated and handsomely appointed, with particular attention being paid to the colours of the upholstery. In the drawing room, there were portable lounges and Waring & Co furnishings, all upholstered in purple plush. The drawing room was also equipped with satinwood panelled walls, an elaborate bookcase with up-to-date library, and other furniture, including a Broadway piano and a pair of Chippendale-style writing desks. Its ceilings were white painted canvas with a gilt-edged floral design; its main entrance and the stairway leading to the promenade deck were both panelled in mahogany. The smoke room was upholstered in scarlet."

Modern inventions found place in the kitchen (electric egg boiler) and bakehouse (electric dough mixer). She provided accommodation for 300 first and second class passengers, cabins luxuriously appointed and with easy access to the deck and saloons - all fitted with electric fans. Triple expansion steam engines gave the Koombana an average speed of 13 knots. The bridge housed the latest electrically operated equipment for navigation and communication aboard the steamer. Electric lights were standard. A motor launch was available should the Koombana miss the tide at port. On the downside of the luxury equation, the Koombana had pens for the transport of 220 head of cattle, or 1500 sheep. Refrigeration was available for 800 tons of cargo. Hydraulic power for the quadrant davits rounded off the list of modern fitments.

Koombana was based at Fremantle replacing the SS Bullarra. On her maiden voyage to Carnarvon, the Koombana ran aground on a sand bank near Denham in Shark Bay. In the light of Captain Rees' past good record, the absence of damage (assessed at the time), mistaking a mark buoy and headland bearings in hazy weather, no further action was taken.

28 April 1909, after leaving Derby with a ministerial party aboard, the Koombana struck a submerged obstruction. Although no damage was reported, a Court of Marine Inquiry investigation was opened. Once again Captain Rees was exonerated.

May 1909, the Koombana was found to be taking on water in one of her tanks. Cement from the bottom of the tank had broken away and a rivet broken off. She was sent to Sydney for repairs 13 June 1909.  Once in dry dock it was discovered that she had no less than 13 broken hull plates from the grounding at Shark Bay.

"She was evidently kept afloat only by the top skin of her ballast tanks"

This incident raises important issues relating back to the Waratah. The Koombana was reported as having sustained no significant damage after grounding at Shark Bay. Clearly this was not the case and only when she was in dry dock did the full extent of the hull damage become apparent. The Waratah grounded at Adelaide before departing for Durban in July, 1909. At the time Captain Ilbery was angry about the incident, and for good reason. The Koombana incident reminds us that the 'brittle' steel hull plates and rivets of the time were susceptible to significant damage, compromising the seaworthiness of a vessel.

Mishap was never far off when it came to the Koombana and a fire broke out in the No 1 cargo hold, 20 October, 1910.  The hatch was sealed down and the vessel's modern Clayton Patent fire extinguisher used to douse the flames. Wet sheep wool was to blame and a considerable amount of water was pumped into the holds (No 2 included at this stage) to extinguish the fire completely.
Again, no damage to the vessel was reported. We know that the Waratah experienced an ongoing coal fire adjacent to the engine room on her maiden voyage. It took a number of days to extinguish. The Koombana illustrates that the best course of action in such instances is to make for the nearest port and assistance.

As hard as this may be to believe, the Koombana grounded again at Shark Bay, 20 December 1910.
No damage reported.

21 January 1911, another fire broke out in holds No 2 and 3.  Fodder was to blame this time (spontaneous combustion).  The holds had to be flooded to extinguish the fire. Again, the Koombana was declared free of damage.

19 April, 1911, while the Koombana was tied up at Victoria Quay, the SS Pilbarra rammed her starboard quarter.

20 March, 1912, the Koombana this time under the command of Captain Allen (who noted a falling barometer), departed Port Hedland, closely followed by the Bullarra. Both sailed directly into a tropical cyclone despite Captain Allen's reservations (subsequently denied at the Inquiry). Recorded in the Bullarra's log book:

"A Howling Hurricane"

The two vessels lost each other in the storm and the Bullarra limped into Cossack. The Koombana was never seen again. Several lighter vessels and pearling luggers were also lost in the storm. The only remnants of the Koombana discovered were: part of the motor launch, a panel from the promenade deck, planks from lifeboats, and some air tanks.

'The Court of Inquiry could not say what actually had happened to Koombana, but it seemed reasonably clear that the hurricane had been responsible for her total loss at sea. When leaving Port Hedland, she had been carrying a load of 260 tons of cargo, properly stowed, 460 tons of coal, 871 tons of water in her tanks, some 60 tons of stores, a total of 76 passengers and a crew of 74. The stability of the vessel with her known load had been tested with Ralston's stability indicator, and seven other tests had been made with the indicator under varying conditions of load. In each test, Koombana's stability had been shown to be entirely satisfactory.'

The Koombana had numerous decks, a relatively low draft of 20 ft, 73% of maximum cargo and ballast load when she sailed into the cyclone, and yet stability tests were 'entirely satisfactory'. I wonder?

SS Koombana

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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