|Owner:||Adelaide Steamship Company|
|Out of service:||23 March 1911|
|Fate:||Sunk by cyclone|
|Tonnage:||3,664 tons (mass)|
|Length:||350 ft (107 m)|
The passenger ship SS Yongala sank off Cape Bowling Green, Queensland, Australia on 23 March 1911. En route from Melbourne to Cairns she steamed into a cyclone and sank south of Townsville. Traces of the ship were found days later as cargo and pieces of wreckage washed ashore at the Cape and at Cleveland Bay, and suggested that the bottom of the ship had been ripped by a hidden rock.
All one hundred and twenty-two people on board perished in what is considered one of the most tragic incidents in Australian maritime history. It was only in 1958 that the wreck of the Yongala was discovered lying in waters south of Townsville, and it has since become renowned as an internationally regarded diving and tourist destination.
History and description
SS Yongala was a steel passenger and freight steamer built in Newcastle upon Tyne, England to special survey for the Adelaide Steamship Company, at a cost of £102,000. She was launched on 29 April 1903, 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 the small town of Yongala in South Australia, a word from the Nadjuri language which meant "good water".
The vessel was propelled by a large triple expansion steam engine driving a single propeller. The engine was built by Wallsend Shipway and Engineering Co. and she could attain an official top speed of 15.8 knots (29 km/h). However, in her previous 98 trips, it was recorded that Yongala often reached 17 knots (31 km/h). Five single ended steel boilers working under natural draught supplied steam of 180 pounds-force per square inch (1.24 MPa) pressure. At 15 knots, Yongala's engines burned approximately 67 tonnes of coal per day. A powerful direct acting steam windlass and capstan was fitted on the forecastle head, and seven winches with derricks and derrick-posts, and two steam cranes were provided for efficient cargo handling. Electric lighting was fitted throughout the ship with a duplicate generating plant. She was also 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 fantail and controlled from the bridge.
In 1906, Yongala was transferred to the Brisbane–Fremantle route and during that time, Yongala was the first vessel to complete a direct trip of 5,000 kilometres (2,700 nmi) between Fremantle and Brisbane, the longest interstate trip at that time. During the winter months from 1907 to early 1911, Yongala was operated on the east coast run from Melbourne to Cairns, as the Fremantle–Brisbane route became quieter at that time of year.
On 14 March 1911, under the command of Captain William Knight, Yongala embarked on her 99th voyage in Australian waters. She 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. Captain William Knight, aged 62, was one of the company's most capable men, who had served the Adelaide Steamship Company for 14 years without mishap or incident. After loading passengers and a large general cargo, including a race horse known as 'Moonshine' destined for Townsville and a red Lincoln bull for Cairns, Yongala passed inspection, was found to be in excellent order, and finally left the wharf.
Although Yongala was delayed in her departure from Brisbane, she was in no hurry to reach Mackay. Captain Gerrit Smith of the Cooma overtook Yongala the following day and later commented that the Yongala was steaming easily as it was not necessary to arrive at Mackay until 23 March.
On the morning of 23 March, Yongala steamed into Mackay to drop off and receive passengers and discharge 50 tons[vague] of cargo, leaving 617 tons in the lower hold—properly stowed. By 1:40 pm she 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. Unfortunately, a wireless destined for installation in Yongala had only 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 known sighting.
Meanwhile, the Cooma lost time during the previous night and arrived late at Mackay. Seeing the signal 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 kilometres (16 nmi) although it left a trail of devastation at Cape Upstart.
The late arrival of Yongala in Townsville caused little immediate concern. However, when three other ships that sheltered from the storm finally arrived—among them the Cooma—the alarm was raised. Yongala was posted as missing on 26 March although she was thought to have been lost on or about 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 was abandoned by the following Wednesday after scores of vessels scoured the coast and found no trace. The only body ever found was that of the racehorse Moonshine, washed up at the mouth of Gordon Creek, not far from Ross Creek, Townsville.
Many theories were put forward regarding the ship's possible location and reason for loss. Some speculated that she 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 she 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. This was eventually withdrawn, as nothing of the vessel was ever heard. Communities throughout eastern and Southern 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 ended on 30 September 1914, with an amount of £900 which had not been disbursed and which was credited to the Queensland Shipwreck Society.
On 20 June 1911, the Marine Board of Queensland met in Brisbane to finalise the inquiry into the loss of Yongala that began 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 would 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 carried out on the vessel after she was built all complied with the standards and specifications supplied by the Adelaide Steamship Company, and the seaworthiness and stability of the vessel was 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 competency of Captain Knight was 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 unanimously described him as a careful and experienced master. The Board found the ability of the captain to be 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, 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".
In the years that followed the disappearance of the Yongala, stories began to surface about a ghost ship, exactly resembling the Yongala, being frequently seen moving in the distance in seas between Bowen and Townsville. By the time of World War II, the loss of Yongala was almost forgotten. In 1943, a minesweeper fouled on what was then thought to be a shoal eleven miles east of Cape Bowling Green. The Captain marked on his chart an obstruction in about thirteen fathoms (24 m), dead on the track of vessels bound for Townsville.
After the end of the war, the obstruction was investigated by the survey ship HMAS Lachlan. She arrived over the area in June 1947 and after several runs in the locality using anti-submarine instruments and echo sounder found what appeared to be a patch of shoal water at six fathoms (11 m) surrounded by soundings from twelve to fourteen fathoms (22 to 26 m). Lachlan steamed over the area several times and found that the object was about 300 feet (90 m) long and probably the wreck of a fair sized steamer, possibly lying on her side. The only ship that had been reported missing in those waters was Yongala. The Navy did nothing to follow up the find.
In 1958, two skindivers from Townsville, George Konrad and Bill Kirkpatrick, located the wreck and brought to the surface a barnacle-encrusted steel safe which they found in a cabin. When broken open with a pinch bar, hammer and chisel, the safe was found to contain nothing but black sludge. The only thing that offered a clue to identification of the ship was part of the safe's serial number—9825W. It was subsequently established that it was a Chubb strongbox and the number was sent to the manufacturers in London for tracing. In 1961, the reply came back that the safe was one supplied to the purser's cabin of the SS Yongala during her construction in 1903.
The wreck of Yongala was 109 metres (358 ft) in length. The bow points in a northerly direction (347°), and although she lies listing to starboard at an angle of between 60° and 70°, the vessel's structural integrity has been retained. The depth of water to the sea floor is approximately 30 metres (100 ft), with the upper sections of the wreck 16 metres (52 ft) below the surface.
In 1981 the wreck was sketched by marine biologist Leon Zann. Although the superstructure of the wreck remains intact and very much like this sketch, the significant buildup of sand around the starboard side of the vessel has been scoured away, and the ventilators and railings have collapsed.
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 Coordinates: .
The wreck is protected under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 and is managed through the Museum of Tropical Queensland, Townsville. Penetration diving and interference with artefacts is prohibited under the terms of the Act. As part of the management plan, a protected zone has been declared - this includes the wreck site itself, and all of the water and seabed within a 797m radius of the wreck. Access to the site is via permit only, obtainable from the Maritime Archaeology Section of the Museum of Tropical Queensland In late 2002, the site had several moorings installed to ensure that no more impact damage occurs by careless anchoring practices. A policy of 'No Anchoring' was also introduced within the protected zone following the installation of the moorings. In addition to statutory protection, the site is also listed on the non-statutory Register of the National Estate (place ID #14835) as a Heritage site.
SS Yongala is today a major tourist attraction for the scuba diving industry in Townsville. It is a popular dive spot with an extensive array of marine life. More than 10,000 divers visit the wreck every year. At 110 metres (361 ft) long, she is one of the largest, most intact historic shipwrecks.
The Maritime Museum of Townsville has an extensive display of Yongala memorabilia.
The death of Tina Watson occurred near the dive site on 22 October 2003. Watson's husband of eleven days was subsequently imprisoned for her homicide.
- "The Yongala: The Worst Feared, Cargo Washing Ashore", Ohinemuri Gazette, 29 March 1911 p2
- SS Yongala, (2002), Maritime Museum of Townsville, retrieved 9 March 2008.
- Gleeson, Max (1987). Townsville's Titanic. Sydney: Turton & Armstrong. ISBN 0-908031-31-9. OCLC 27579405.
- Holthouse, Hector (1971). "Yongala Vanishes". Cyclone. Adelaide: Rigby. pp. 59–66. ISBN 0-85179-290-1. OCLC 251985.
- 'View Shipwreck - Yongala,' https://apps5a.ris.environment.gov.au/shipwreck/public/wreck/wreck.do?key=3350, retrieved 20/08/2012
- 'View Shipwreck - Yongala,' https://apps5a.ris.environment.gov.au/shipwreck/public/wreck/wreck.do?key=3350, retrieved 20/08/2012
- 'SS Yongala Shipwreck, Cape Bowling Green via Ayr, QLD, Australia,' Register of the National Estate (Non-statutory archive), , retrieved 20/08/2012.
- Dive the SS 'Yongala (2008), retrieved 9 March 2008.
- ABC North Queensland (2005) Safeguarding the wreck the SS Yongala, retrieved 9 March 2008.
- SS Yongala Dive Site, Tourism Queensland (2008), retrieved 9 March 2008.
- SS Yongala, Maritime Museum of Townsville,, retrieved 21 August 2012.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to SS Yongala.|
- Townsville Maritime Museum
- Dive spot description plus underwater pictures and videos of the Yongala wreck
- List of crew and passengers (Grey River Argus, 29 March 1911, p6)
- Briefing map, photos, location, local dive weather
- Discovery of the ship's bell, underwater photo's of wreck