On this day: One of Australia’s worst maritime disasters

By Aaron Smith November 7, 2013
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The loss of the SS Yongala – now a Great Barrier Reef dive site – was a puzzling mystery for almost 50 years.

ON 23 March 1911, Australia suffered one of its worst maritime disasters – the sinking of the luxury passenger ferry, the SS Yongala.

All 122 people on board were lost, including 49 passengers and 73 crew, as well as Moonshine – a racehorse destined to run in the Townsville Cup – a red Lincoln bull, and some 617 tonnes of cargo.

The Maritime Museum of Townsville today houses artefacts from the SS Yongala. Its curator Rod Burgess says:

“This tragedy took a lot of Townsville’s husbands, nurses and families, many of whom who had significant standing in the community. One of those was Matthew Rooney, the head of the port authority at the time. In fact many of the emotional scars are still felt in the community today.”

An Australian mystery

Lost during a cyclone, this 106m steel steamship sank on its 99th voyage while en route from Melbourne to Cairns. It was posted as missing three days later on 26 March. Despite the Queensland premier Digby Denham allocating all the resources at his disposal to the search, and the state government posting a £1000 reward, the vessel could not be found.

On 28 March one news agency reported that “the worst is now feared” when cargo including “bags of chaff, pollard bran and pumpkins” were washed ashore at Cape Bowling Green, east of Townsville. Oil drums, baskets and timber were then found at Cleveland Bay. The only body ever recovered was Moonshine, which washed up at the mouth of the Gordon Creek near Townsville.

As the ship was found to be in good order during an inspection not long before its final voyage, and it had an experienced and able captain at the helm its loss remained a puzzling mystery.

In subsequent years, rumours circulated of a ghost ship resembling the Yongala seen between Bowen and Townsville, but eventually the loss was all but forgotten.

In 1943, the wreck was nearly discovered when a Royal Australian Navy minesweeper clearing the shipping lanes off the Queensland coast fouled on an obstruction then believed to be a sandbank. Four years later, in 1947, another navy vessel, the HMAS Lachlan, examined the area using an echo sounder and located what it thought was the Yongala. No further action was taken at this time, and another 11 years passed until the watery grave was finally confirmed.  


SS Yongala Wreck in Townsville, Queensland. (Image: Darren Jew)

The Yongala is found

In 1958, local fisherman and shipwreck enthusiast Bill Kirkpatrick locates the Yongala, 10 km east of Cape Bowling Green and some 90 km south-east of Townsville. He dived down to the wreck several times retrieving artefacts, including a safe found in the cabin of the ship’s purser. The Townsville Daily Bulletin published a photo of the safe, which the manager of Chubb safes in Queensland just happened to see. The safe’s serial number finally confirmed it came from the Yongala on 7 October that year.

In 1980, the site was declared a historic shipwreck and today the Yongala has become one of the world’s premier dive spots in the centre of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Lying on its starboard side 30 m below the surface, it now creates an artificial reef and home to hundreds of marine species.

Special events to honour those lost on theYongala will take place this week in Townsville. For more information, contact the Townsville Maritime Museum. Another exhibition at the Museum of Tropical Queensland, also in Townsville, has artefacts from the wreck and will run from 21 March to 2 May 2011.