In 1911, the luxury passenger vessel SS Yongala disappeared in a cyclone south of Townsville. One hundred and twenty two people had been on board, and none of them survived. It was not until 1958 that divers discovered the wreck site.
History of SS Yongala
Yongala was built in England for the Adelaide Steamship Company and launched in Southampton on the 29 April 1903. It was registered in Adelaide and took up the busy passenger route linking the gold fields of western Australia with the eastern ports of Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.
Following company tradition, the vessel was named after a word in the local Aboriginal language. 'Yongala' (originally pronounced Yonggluh) meant 'broad water', or 'broad wide watering place' and it was also the name of a small town in South Australia.
In 1906, Yongala was transferred to the Brisbane Fremantle, and during this time, Yongala was the first vessel to complete a direct trip of 5000km between Fremantle and Brisbane, the longest interstate trip at that time.
During the winter months from 1907 to early 1911, Yongala serviced the east coast run from Melbourne to Cairns, as the Fremantle - Brisbane route became quieter at this time of year.
Yongala's final voyage
On the 14 March 1911, Yongala embarked on its 99th voyage in Australian waters. It left Melbourne with 72 passengers, including the only two passengers who were to remain on board after reaching Brisbane, intending to travel to Cairns.
The vessel arrived at the Municipal Wharf in Brisbane on the morning of 20 March. The master was Captain William Knight aged 62, one of the company's 'most capable men', who had been in the service of the ASSCo for 14 years 'without mishap'.
Having completed the loading of passengers and a large general cargo, including a horse known as 'Moonshine' destined for Townsville, and a red Lincoln bull for Cairns, Yongala finally left the wharf, having been inspected and found to be 'in excellent trim'.
Although Yongala had been delayed in its departure from Brisbane, it was in no hurry to reach Mackay. Captain Gerrit Smith of the Cooma overtook Yongala the following day, and later commented that the Yongala had been steaming easily as it was not necessary to arrive at Mackay until the following day.
On the morning of 23 March, Yongala steamed into Mackay to drop off and receive passengers and discharge 50 tons of cargo, leaving 617 tons in the lower hold - 'properly stowed'. By 1.40 in the afternoon it had departed, carrying 49 passengers and 73 crew, making a total of 122 people.
Yongala was still in sight of land when the signal station at Flat Top (Mackay) received a telegram warning of a cyclone in the area between Townsville and Mackay. Although the first Australian shore-based wireless station capable of maintaining communication with ships had been established in Sydney in 1910, few ships carried wireless in 1911. Ironically, a wireless destined for installation in Yongala had recently been dispatched from the Marconi company in England.
Five hours later, the lighthouse keeper on Dent Island in the Whitsunday Passage watched Yongala steam past into the worsening weather. It was the last sighting.
Meanwhile, the Cooma had lost time during the previous night and arrived late at Mackay. Having been signalled from Flat Top about the approaching cyclone, the vessel was able to find shelter until the following day.
Further north the wind was swinging from the south east to the north west, and was coming from the north east when it would have hit Yongala, travelling at right angles to the full force. It is possible that the diameter of the storm did not exceed 30 miles (50km) although it left a trail of devastation at Cape Upstart.
The late arrival of Yongala in Townsville caused little immediate concern, although when three other ships that had been sheltering from the storm finally arrived - among them the Cooma - the alarm was raised.
Yongala was posted as missing on 26 March. It was thought to have been lost on or about the 23 March. The Premier for Queensland, the Hon. Digby Denham turned all the resources of the state over to the search, including the public service, the police force and shipping - which included seven search vessels.
News of wreckage found washed up on beaches gradually trickled in - from Hinchinbrook Island to Bowen, but there was no sign of the vessel or of those on board. Hope had been abandoned by the following Wednesday after scores of vessels had scoured the coast and found no trace. The only body ever found was that of the racehorse Moonshine, washed up at the mouth of the Gordon Creek, not far from Ross Creek, Townsville.
Lost without trace
Many theories were put forward regarding its possible location and reason for loss: some speculated that it had been rendered helpless due to some unknown mishap between Whitsunday Passage and Cape Bowling Green or been overpowered by the extreme force of the wind; perhaps the anchors had been dropped causing the boat to slew broadside into the wind; others thought it had hit a submerged reef between Flinders Passage and Keeper Reef or run into Nares Rock, or even struck Cape Upstart.
The Queensland government offered a £1,000 reward for information leading to the discovery of the ship, but as nothing of the vessel was ever heard this was eventually withdrawn.
Communities throughout eastern and South Australia commemorated the tragedy in churches and village halls. Donations were offered to the 'Yongala distress' fund, begun in March 1911 for the relief of families in distress. It was wound up on 30 September 1914, with an amount of £900 which had not been disbursed and which was credited to the Queensland Shipwreck Society.
Marine Board of Inquiry
On 20 June, 1911, the Marine Board of Queensland met in Brisbane to finalise the inquiry into the loss of Yongala that had begun on 8 June 1911.
It was agreed that the task of determining the cause of the tragedy through eyewitness evidence was not possible, and so 'the Inquiry will chiefly lie in the direction of the ship's stability, equipment, and seaworthiness, together with the question of Captain Knight's carefulness and general efficiency as a ship's master'.
According to evidence given by Mr Adamson, the superintendent engineer, the tests that had been carried out on the vessel after it had been built all complied with the standards and specifications supplied by the ASSCo, and that the seaworthiness and stability of the vessel had been proven during seven years continuous running on the coast without accident.
'The Board were satisfied that the vessel in construction, stability, seaworthiness was equal to any in her class.'
The competencies of Captain Knight were scrutinised, as were the sailing decisions he may have taken on that night. Witnesses called to give testimony as to the ability and character of the captain were in unison when he was described as '..a careful and experienced master...'
The Board found the ability of the captain to be beyond doubt and 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 were confirmed in their opinion that the risk of navigating the Queensland coast is considerably enhanced during the hurricane months, or 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...'
Yongala was built to special survey by Armstrong, Whitworth and Co. in Newcastle-on-Tyne from specifications supplied by the ASSCo at a cost of £102,000. E. B. Adamson , the ASSCo's superintendent engineer, supervised the building , and stated that the machinery - especially the crank shaft and shafting, was 20% - 25% stronger than Lloyd's requirements.
The vessel was propelled by a large triple expansion engine, driving a single propeller. The engine was built by the Wallsend Shipway and Engineering Co. and could attain an official speed of 15.8 knots, although in the 99 trips it undertook often reached 17 knots. Five single ended steel boilers working under natural draught supplied steam of 180 pounds pressure. At 15 knots, the engines burned 67 tonnes of coal a day. A powerful direct acting steam windlass and capstan were fitted on the forecastle head and seven winches with suitable derricks and derrick-posts and two steam cranes were provided for efficient cargo handling. Electric lighting was fitted throughout with a duplicate generating plant. It had also been provided with refrigeration facilities for the carriage of frozen cargo. A specially arranged steam and hand steering gear was fitted in a house at the after end of the poop, and controlled from the bridge.
Located amidships was a long citadel house and an island deck at the foremast. First class passenger accommodation for 110 people was located in the citadel house, and up to 126 second class passengers could be accommodated in the poop.
Around the citadel house was a promenade deck extending out to the sides of the vessel, and above this, a boat deck. The chart room, captain's cabin and wheelhouse were on the boat deck; the drawing room was in front of the boiler casing and a smoking room and state rooms behind it on the promenade deck.
The drawing room opened into a lobby that formed the companionway to the saloon and the first class staterooms. The main stairway to the upper deck also gave access to the saloon entrance. All of the fittings were the most up to date of the Edwardian era.
In 1943, a Royal Australian Navy minesweeper corvette, on a passage from Townsville to Brisbane clearing the shipping lanes off the Queensland coast mined at the beginning of the Second World War, fouled on an obstruction believed to be a shoal, but which was not investigated at this time.
In 1947, the Royal Australian Navy hydrographic vessel HMAS Lachlan, while heading north to king Sound via Darwin with the tender Brolga. Lachlan stopped to examine the obstruction using anti-submarine equipment and an echo sounder. The obstruction was thought to be a sunken ship, and presumed to be that of SS Yongala. Lachlan then continued northwards. No further action was taken, leaving Yongala in peace for another eleven years.
In 1958, the obstacle was found once more by local trochus fisherman Bill Kirkpatrick. Fascinated by the story and mystery surrounding the loss of Yongala, and hoping to make a salvage claim, Kirkpatrick spent several weeks dragging the flat sandy seafloor with a grapnel.
Eventually catching on an obstruction, and using glass bottomed viewing boxes used in the trochus industry, Kirkpatrick was able to see the top of the wreck, just 16m below the surface. He engaged the services of hard-hat diver George Konrat to investigate the wreck and begin salvage operations. Unfortunately this was an unsuccessful engagement and Konrat was returned to Townsville.
Some time later, the President of the Queensland Underwater Research Group of Townsville and professional diver Don McMillan, approached Kirkpatrick asking for transport to the wreck site for QURG members to determine whether or not the wreck was Yongala, to which Kirkpatrick agreed. Although positive identification remained elusive, the group retrieved many artefacts including a safe found in the purser's cabin. It was anticipated that any papers remaining inside would prove the wreck's identity.
The following day and in the presence of customs officers, the safe was ‘smashed open' but contained nothing but sludge.
The photograph of the safe published on 7 October 1958 in the Townsville Daily Bulletin was seen by the manager of Chubb's safes in Queensland. He believed it to be a Chubb's safe by the way the door was 'hung on the left', and sent the details of a partial serial number found on the door tongue to England for identification. The makers' serial number eventually confirmed it as the Chubb safe that had been supplied to Armstrong, Whitworth and Company for Yongala, and which had been installed in the purser's cabin.
Discovery has lain to rest some of the theories about why the vessel sank. Both anchors remain housed, which means that the vessel was not slewed into the face of the wind; the hull is intact and so there was no explosion or collision. The cyclonic weather was reported as coming from the north west, and taking into account the wreck location off Cape Bowling Green, the reach was unhindered across 25 nautical miles of open water. The depth in this area is relatively shallow at 20 to 30m and combined with tidal run would heighten the wave peaks and troughs in gale force conditions.
By continuing towards Townsville and safety, but heading into monumental seas, Yongala would have taken in solid water over the bows and onto the foredecks. In such conditions, Yongala had little chance of survival.
From this point on it is purely supposition as to what exactly happened on that fateful night.
The wreck lies within the Central Section of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. It is approximately 48 nautical miles south east of Townsville and 12 nautical miles east of Cape Bowling Green. The site is protected under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 and managed through the Museum of Tropical Queensland, Townsville. Access is through permit only, obtained on application through the Museum of Tropical Queensland. Access conditions apply. This is strictly a look but don't touch or enter site.
Lying on a flat and open sandy seafloor as if still steaming northwards, Yongala has become a magnificent artificial reef, providing a haven for a colourful and diverse range of marine life.
The length of the wreck is 109 metres. The depth of water to the sea floor is approximately 30 metres with the upper sections of the wreck 16 metres below the surface. Although the superstructure remains intact, the poop, promenade and winch decks have slipped off the main deck and have been scattered on the seafloor, disbursed by currents. The ventilators and railings have also collapsed. There is no sign of the funnel.
Yongala and the Maritime Museum
The Yongala display is the highlight of the museum, and focuses on the stories of the some of the passengers. The hand of fate seemed to play an interesting role for many:
- David Coyne of Mackay was trying to find a taxi to take his family's luggage to the port. However, the taxi driver was an old friend and by the time they left the pub and arrived at the wharf, Yongala had already sailed.
- Miss Annie Darling Murray had booked and cancelled at the last minute, deciding to stay longer in Brisbane with her family.
- Mr J Campbell, the owner of a newly acquired racehorse called Moonshine arrived very late at the wharf and was advised to travel on the Cooma, departing Brisbane later in the afternoon. However, he insisted on travelling on Yongala having heard it was more luxurious. Special arrangements were made, and Moonshine was loaded, with Campbell boarding just prior to departure.
- Clifford O'Brien joined at Mackay. He had taken out a 300 pounds insurance policy while at Bundaberg, on his way north.
There are many other stories...
All of the artefacts on display have kindly been donated to the museum. including the bell, and we thank many for their donations, including Mike Ball, Wally Gibbins, Ben Cropp, William Brookes, Norma Smith and the-then Department of Harbours and Marine. These artefacts include the ship's bell, glass decklight, ship's lantern, light fixtures, crockery, bottles and brass items, a letter found in a mail bag on Cassady's Beach and four farthings retrieved from the only passenger luggage ever found. An autograph book, containing a poem written a month after the loss by W McCarthy of the Nth Qld Herald, was donated by Maria Daley of Halifax.
The museum also has the only known full model of the vessel, made by well known model-maker Michael Evans.
A video of Yongala can be viewed and purchased through the museum. The filming was undertaken by Ron and Valerie Taylor in the early 1980s, and portrays some impressive wildlife and the first archaeological investigation undertaken by the Queensland Museum.