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March 29, 2011

122 Passengers and Crew Vanish Without Trace

SS Yongala, luxurious and modern, yet doomed to a watery grave.

by Roderick Eime in Townsville

Ceremonial flowers were cast onto the water while dignitaries and relatives made speeches last week during the centenary service for one of Australia's most famous maritime tragedies, the SS Yongala

On the evening of 23 March 1911, one of the most capable and experienced captains to work the busy Australian coastal route aboard a stout and well-maintained vessel sailed past the lighthouse on Dent Island in the Whitsunday Passage and was never seen again.

On board the SS Yongala as she steamed leisurely out of Mackay were 49 passengers, 73 crew, a racehorse named “Moonshine” and a prize bull. What 14-year veteran Captain William Knight didn't know was that a cyclone warning had just been received and with her brand new Marconi radio still on its way from England, the frustrated keeper could only watch her sail away. He was the last person to ever see the Yongala.

Three days later, concern escalated and Yongala was posted as missing. Every possible vessel was thrown into the search but apart from some debris washed up on the beaches, no trace was ever found and the subsequent inquiry was inconclusive. It stated in conclusion:

"with no desire to indulge in idle speculation, (we) 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 only body ever to be recovered was Moonshine's that washed up in a creek near Townsville. Sightings of a ghost ship kept public interest going for a few years, but the outbreak of WWI all but erased her from memory.

During WWII, a minesweeper fouled on something eleven miles east of Cape Bowling Green and a subsequent search by an RAN survey vessel all but confirmed the Yongala's location in around 25m of water. But the Navy did nothing.

It wasn't until 1958 when local skin-divers, Don Macmillan and Noel Cook, brought back a steel safe from a wreck that the world was forced to remember the Yongala. The anticlimactic opening revealed only mud, but the safe's serial number was traced back to Chubb in the UK who confirmed it was installed in the pursers cabin aboard SS Yongala in 1903.

The wreck is now a world famous wreck dive attracting some 10,000 divers annually. It is protected by legislation, so divers can only visit the wreck with a licensed operator. It is at a perfect depth for OW Advanced divers, but OW divers can still enjoy the experience at their 18m limit as no penetration of the wreck is permitted.

Ironically, Cyclone Yasi blasted off much of the century's marine growth, revealing detail and artefacts never seen before. SS Yongala, and her ghostly complement, now await thousands more submarine visitors.
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