April 29, 2011


David Ellis

WHEN he went in search of a cab in the days before radio taxis, David Coyne went to the rank near his local pub at Mackay in Queensland, and to his delight found not only a cab – but one that was being driven by a seldom-seen old mate.

The two men had a drink in the pub to celebrate the encounter, then headed back to the Coyne home to pick up the family and their luggage and take them to a steamer they were to join that afternoon for a voyage up the coast to Townsville.

And if David Coyne had thought his brush with the pub had brought down the wrath of Mrs Coyne, it was nothing compared with what awaited him upon their arrival at the wharf – their ship, the SS Yongala was fast disappearing into the distance.

But while that drink may have cost them their trip aboard the luxury steamer, it had saved the family their lives: the Yongala that was now sailing over the horizon was unknowingly heading into a cyclone that would send her to the bottom of the sea within hours, with the loss of all 122 passengers and crew.

Less fortunate than David Coyne and his family was John Campbell, a Brisbane businessman who several days before had arrived just as Yongala was about to leave Brisbane for Mackay. After at first being denied boarding with his newly-bought thoroughbred racehorse named Moonshine, Mr Campbell used his business influence to not only get aboard, but to be allocated a First Class Saloon Cabin. It would be his last exertion of business power.

And for years a Miss Annie Murray would tell how she'd been visiting Brisbane from her home in Townsville, and at the last minute had cancelled her return voyage home on Yongala because she was having such a great time in the Big City... a great time that saved her her life.

Yongala was considered the epitome of then-luxury on the Australian coastal service from 1907 to that last fateful trip in March 1911, sailing between Melbourne and Cairns and Melbourne and Fremantle at different times of the year.

Ironically that last trip was her 99th  in Australia, and her Master, Captain William Knight and owners, the Adelaide Steamship Company, were planning suitable Champagne celebrations for their passengers when she sailed her 100th voyage from Cairns back to Melbourne the following week.

As the Coyne family returned home in no-doubt silence, Yongala was heading north past Mackay's Flat Top signal station. The station had just received a wireless message about a cyclone to the north, but was unable to pass the message on to Captain Knight: few ships then had new-fangled radios, and one ordered for Yongala was still somewhere on the high seas between England and Australia.

And when three other ships arrived late into Townsville a few days later after taking shelter from the cyclone they'd been warned about before leaving Mackay (and after Yongala had sailed,) the luxury steamer and all aboard were officially listed as missing.

Seven ships together with police and co-opted public servants searched sea and shore for Yongala, and when wreckage and the body of Mr Campbell's racehorse Moonshine were found washed ashore, the ship was declared to have foundered somewhere unknown on the night of March 23.

A Marine Board of Queensland absolved Captain Knight of any responsibility and the disappearance remained a mystery… and even though Australia's greatest coastal shipping disaster, it could have been much worse: while she foundered with the loss of 49 passengers and 73 crew, at full capacity Yongala had berths for as many as five times that number of passengers.

Thirty-six years later in 1947, an Australian Navy hydrographic survey ship, HMAS Lachlan investigated "an obstruction" reported by a Navy minesweeper on the seabed between Mackay and Townsville. The Lachlan used anti-submarine equipment and echo sounders, noted that the obstruction "was presumed to be the SS Yongala," then proceeded on its way with the Navy –  inexplicably – doing nothing to confirm the finding was Yongala and so solve the mystery of the missing steamer and her 122 lost souls.

NEXT WEEK: Finding Yongala – now one of the world's great wreck dive sites.

Photo Captions:

[] LUXURY Australian coastal passenger/cargo ship Yongala in her heyday before that ill-fated night on March 23 1911.

[] MACKAY's Flat Top Signal Station: received warning of the cyclone – but Yongala had no radio, and could not be warned of the massive storm.

[] POSTCARDS such as these were popular amongst travellers on Australia's early coastal passenger services.

(PHOTOS COURTESY OF YONGALA DIVE www.yongaladive.com.au)

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