May 05, 2011


David Ellis

IT'S one-hundred years since the luxury coastal passenger-cargo ship Yongala sank in a cyclone off the Queensland coast between Mackay and Townsville, claiming 122 lives in one of Australia's worst civil shipping disasters.

And despite an Australian Navy hydrographic survey ship locating the wreck 36 years later, it was simply "presumed to be the SS Yongala," with nothing being done to confirm the finding nor recover her dead.

And it was another eleven years before the wreck was finally confirmed as that of Yongala – forty-seven years after she'd gone down in that cyclone.

The Adelaide Steamship Company's Yongala was based in Melbourne and had steamed out on March 14 1911, reaching Mackay in the early hours of March 23. After a brief stop to load and unload cargo and take-on several new passengers, she sailed early the same afternoon for Townsville.

Unbeknown to Yongala's Master, the highly-experienced Captain William Knight a tropical cyclone was forming just north of Mackay, and warning of this reached the Mackay Flat Top signal station just as Yongala was disappearing north into the distance.

In those days few ships had new-fangled radios, and the signal station was thus unable to warn Captain Knight of the danger he was running into, although it was able to warn three other ships that left later that day, about the developing storm.

When those ships arrived in Townsville a couple of days late after sheltering from the cyclone, the alarm was sounded: Where was Yongala?

A search by seven ships failed to find any clues at sea, but a shore search recovered obvious ship's cargo, a mail bag washed up on a beach – and the body of a thoroughbred racehorse known to have been on Yongala.

A Maritime Board of Queensland inquiry could find only that the fate of Yongala, and where she may lay, "passes beyond human ken into the realms of conjecture, to add one more to the mysteries of the sea…" The inquiry also absolved Captain Knight of any possible blame.

Years later, in 1947 the Australian Navy hydrographic vessel HMAS Lachlan swept the area off Cape Bowling Green in the Whitsunday Passage for "an obstruction" that had been mentioned in 1943 by another Australian Navy ship. HMAS Lachlan reported it had found the obstruction, and presumed it to be SS Yongala, but nothing was done to confirm that it was the wreck of the luxury steamer, or to recover the remains of her 122 unfortunate passengers and crew.

In 1958 trochus fisherman Bill Kirkpatrick, who'd long been fascinated by the Yongala mystery, was scouring the area in which she'd disappeared with a grapnel hook, and caught onto something just 16m below the surface. Using a glass-bottomed viewing box he made out the top of a sunken ship.

When professional diver Don McMillan heard of this he asked Kirkpatrick if he could take him to the site to confirm if it was the wreck of the Yongala… to which Kirkpatrick readily agreed. The two men, with some others, dived down to the wreck and retrieved numerous items, including a heavy safe.

This was forced opened, and while found to contain only sludge, a number stamped into its lock revealed it had been built by the Chubb Company – specifically for the SS Yongala's Purser's office.

Further dives found the Yongala to be laying on her starboard side and facing north, her hull fully intact in 20- to 30-metres of water. This suggested she'd been swamped in the darkness by mountainous seas that had sent her quickly to the bottom.

Forty-nine passengers, 73-crew, the thoroughbred racehorse and a prize bull had all perished – Yongala was dubbed "Townsville's Titanic."

Today with her size (109m) and the mystery surrounding her sinking, Yongala is one of the world's top ten wreck dive sites, her hull and superstructure still intact, and machinery and other parts littering the seabed around her.

She's also home to an amazing array of marine life from giant gropers to schools of giant Trevally and cobia, harmless sea snakes, rays, turtles and hundreds of other species that feed off the coral-encrusted hulk.

Yongala Dive at Alva Beach near Ayr has look-but-don't-touch dives from their base 12-nautical miles from the wreck; for dive-only and dive-and-accommodation packages see

Photo captions:

[] YONGALA in her heyday on the Australian east coast run in the early 1900s.

[] DIVING down to the wreck today – its one of the world's top ten dive sites.

[] THE wreck of Yongala as she lays fully intact on her starboard side in 20-30 metres of water.

[] MYRIAD marine life around the wreck.

[] YONGALA Dive's dive shop and accommodation block.

(Images: Yongala Dive

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