On Tuesday, March 16th, 1909 the Geraldton Guardian reported:
AGROUND AT SHARKS BAY.
Considerable surprise and regret was expressed in Geraldton to-day, when the news got about that the fine new steamer Koombana, which was so much admired on the occasion of her first visit to Geraldton on Saturday, was aground at Sharks Bay. The news was contained in an official message from Sharks Bay to the Geraldton Postmaster, received to-day, and read as follows:—
“Koombana grounded 14 miles out 7 a.m. on Monday. Mails landed at 2.30 p.m. Weather hazy. Unable to see steamer yesterday. Haze cleared this morning; vessel now in sight through glasses; still aground. Local seamen are of opinion that Koombana will probably remain aground four days at least . . . No danger need be entertained, as the bottom is soft sand and seaweed . . . There is some fine fishing in this channel, and the passengers should have no difficulty in amusing themselves for four or five days.”
* * *
Captain Rees had visited Shark Bay many times; he knew it well. After rounding Cape Levillain he steered the usual south-easterly course for the Heirisson Flat Buoy, which marked the southern edge of a narrow channel leading to Denham. Finding that sewing-needle opening would be his first navigational challenge as master of Koombana; with a generous helping of bad luck it would become his first major blunder.
In clear air the passage was perfectly manageable. A black buoy, the port mark for the channel, was usually sighted first. If proper course had been maintained, the red Heirisson Flat Buoy would appear dead ahead a few minutes later and a gentle turn to port would bring the ship into line. For Koombana’s first arrival, however, visibility was poor. Cloaking p14everything was a thick haze that limited visibility to a few hundred yards. The early morning light was strange indeed: the sun, rising through the mist over Koombana’s port bow, appeared dull and red, and the foredeck was bathed in a warm orange light that seemed at odds with the darkness of the sea.
Koombana proceeded slowly, with Rees and his chief officer Henry Clarke together on the bridge. They agreed that with the sun low over the port bow the first mark could easily be missed. When a bright buoy appeared dead ahead, their shared assessment was that the port mark had slipped by unseen. The two men looked closely at the buoy ahead. They agreed that it was the red starboard mark. Captain Rees swung the ship to port and ordered Full Speed Ahead. Moments later, Koombana ran onto an isolated mound of sand and ground to a halt. She was stuck fast with her head east-south-east and a list to starboard, with the navigation channel and the incessant south-westerly wind on her starboard side.
Sun and sea-mist had played a trick on two experienced men. Hidden in the brilliant white of sunshine are all the colours of the rainbow, but sea-mist does not treat all colours equally. Blue and violet are more easily caught and scattered away, while red and orange may pass unhindered. Stripped of its blue hues, the sun that rose over Koombana’s bow appeared as a rusty red ball. And it was the red remnant of a once-white beam that bathed the foredeck and gave a faded black buoy its rose tint.
* * *
The Shark Bay lighter Success, in anticipation of Koombana’s first arrival, had started out early and dropped anchor at the usual rendezvous point. When Koombana’s tall yellow funnel was spotted, all on board watched what appeared to be an extremely cautious approach. Some time passed before the observers realised that it was not slow progress that Koombana was making, but none at all. With more than an inkling of what had occurred, they weighed anchor and went to investigate.
When Success came alongside, good-natured banter passed between steamer and lighter. There was no indication whatever that the passengers perceived a serious problem or anticipated a long delay. And when two pearling cutters joined the lighter at Koombana’s side, the mood became positively festive.
The skipper of the lighter came aboard for a short conference with Captain Rees. The two men decided that nothing was served by delaying the discharge of Denham cargo. The work commenced immediately, with some passengers remaining on deck, chatting with the crews as slings of supplies were swung over the railings and lowered. Finally, after four or five disembarking passengers had made the crossing in a wicker basket, the job was done. Success and the two cutters departed in convoy.
An arrangement had been made with the skipper of the lighter. On arrival in Denham he would send a telegram to Fremantle on Captain p15Rees’s behalf. During the night, an attempt would be made to free the ship; if that failed, Rees himself would come to town in the morning.
Until the next high tide, there was little for Koombana’s officers to do but to help the passengers pass the time. One passenger would recall:
In the evening, in the exquisitely-fitted, tastefully-furnished music room a concert was held, and as is usual in the case of musical evenings organised in the dark, much pleasing talent was brought to light, some not quite so pleasing, but all doing their best to make the time pass merrily and pleasantly. The first officer’s sympathetic baritone voice, the second officer’s artistic handling of the mandolin, and the chief engineer’s “auld Scotch sangs in the braid tongue” were received with special appreciation. The best part of the evening was when we gathered round the piano and heartily sang the old-fashioned choruses.
As on most late-summer evenings in Shark Bay, the wind blew hard from the south-west. It was strangely reassuring to be aboard a ship so utterly unmoved by wind and white-capped sea. In rousing chorus around the piano, few found anything to be concerned about. The grounding was little more than a good story to tell friends and family in a few days.
While his officers attended to the serious business of keeping the passengers happy, Captain Rees retired to consider his position. The grounding had occurred at almost the worst possible time. If Koombana had struck at low tide, she would already be free, but he had run onto p16the bank at the top of the tide. Worse still, the ship had struck the bank under full power and had ridden up. Precisely how much she had ridden up was difficult to gauge. He would order a full circuit of soundings in the morning, and then have the sea’s rise and fall monitored hourly from the lee-side rail.
Shark Bay tides were unusual: not for their range, which was only about five feet, but for their unusual lag behind the phases of the moon. At most ports the highest tides occurred a day or two after the new moon, but here in a shallow, windswept gulf that tapered away to marshland beyond the southern horizon, the highest tide could lag the moon by almost a week. The new moon was six days away. Even without local advice, Captain Rees figured that if Koombana were not refloated in the next two days, she could be stuck fast for ten. It is likely that he did not sleep well.
At daylight, after an unsuccessful attempt to pull the ship clear using stream anchors, Rees declared his intention to visit the telegraph office. Three hours later the motor launch with nine men, a case of beer and a basket of sandwiches was ready to depart. To his friend Peggy back home, fourth engineer Jim Low wrote:
The Chief went to drive her and I went to do the work. The Skipper and Purser went to send the telegram, three passengers went for excitement and two quarter masters were carried to bale her out.
To passengers in need of diversion, the excursion seemed more like an expedition to a foreign land than a fourteen-mile dash to the nearest settlement. As the boat dipped into the swell, it became clear that none on board would arrive dry, if they arrived at all. For a few minutes the spectators watched as the bow of the launch cast sea-spray like fishing net. But when the propeller’s milky trail suddenly darkened to sea green, all guessed that the motor had been swamped or had stalled. Up went a sail, and back came the boat.
The second attempt was more successful, and when the source of amusement had shrunk to a speck, the crowd dispersed. One Broome-bound passenger, destined to be remembered only as “Chronicler”, began recording his thoughts.
The passengers, and even the officers, seemed in good spirits and confident of an early move, and so we set ourselves to make enjoyment. Some availed themselves of the fine library of fiction in the music-room, some of the ladies gave themselves to fancy needlework, the men were chiefly found in the smoking-room at cards or draughts. Many of the rest beguiled the hours at the exciting and noisy games of rope quoits and deck billiards, while a favoured few consoled themselves by the time-honoured and strangely fascinating pastime of flirtation.
It is said that the camera never lies, but this game of deck billiards was more challenging than the photograph suggests. This camera sat upon a tripod on Koombana’s promenade deck, but the deck was not horizontal. The ship had come to rest with a list of four degrees to starboard. Here now, at gravity’s insistence, is the photograph realigned.
As the Geraldton Guardian had predicted, passengers soon discovered that there were fine fish to be caught from the rail. And “Chronicler”, pleasantly surprised at the satisfaction to be had from this writing game, waxed lyrical.
Fishing, too, was indulged in, and one fish-fancier hauled in a six-foot shark. He was a tiger, and vigorously objected to leaving his native p18element. But when a Winchester sent five leaden ideas into his dull head, one per medium of his left eye, one through his nose, and the rest between his grinning jaws, he seemed more prepared to submit to fate. Then a noose was passed over his body, and he was hauled level with the lower deck, where a bright youth extracted half a dozen molars and another hewed off the tail for bait, after which the hook was cut free, the noose loosened, and the remains committed to the deep.
* * *
Aboard the launch, the wind had strengthened soon after the second departure. The nine ‘expeditioners’ landed on the beach at Denham, soaked to the skin. After Captain Rees and Purser Reid had departed for the telegraph office, the others willingly accepted offers of dry clothes from locals keen to learn more of Koombana and her circumstances. A pearler’s wife asked how the ship was getting on for provisions.
“Nearly run out,” replied one of the passengers. “Fact is, ma’am, we’re eating the poultry consigned to Cossack and other places.”
The woman seemed taken aback. “Surely the captain has no right to kill other people’s fowls?”
The invitation was too good to refuse. “What are we to do?” the passenger rejoined; “He can’t see us starve. Anyway, we’ve nearly run out of chooks. But there’s a donkey aboard, and there’s talk of starting on him next.”
Jim Low was pleasantly surprised by the welcome that began on the beach in the morning and continued into the night. To Peggy he wrote:
When evening came the weather was too bad to go back so we had to stop in the tin hotel that night. The inhabitants thought it was up against them to entertain us so gave a ball and party in a tin shed. All the ladies turned up, the daughters and wives of the pearlers, the wife of the policeman etc etc. There is no class distinction in Shark’s Bay except between White and Black. We had a most enjoyable evening and broke up about 3am.
As the ‘ball’ wound down, Captain Rees informed Low and the quarter-masters that their services would be required at 5 a.m. for their first assignment of the day: to retrieve the launch, which had been left on a mooring a hundred yards offshore.
At first light, the boat was fetched and the late-night revellers roused and rallied. The party set off in good style, with the motor, as Jim was wont to say, “snoring along nicely.” Unfortunately, snoring turned to apnoea as the launch ran out of fuel. To Captain Rees’s annoyance and the young engineer’s chagrin, sails were again hoisted. At midday on Wednesday, March 18th, after thirty hours away, the launch came alongside under wet canvas. It was, Jim conceded, “a most ignominious return.”
* * *
p19Back on board, Rees was keen to review the soundings and tide measurements taken in his absence. The soundings had delivered useful information: Koombana was harder aground at the stern than at the bow. The tide results, taken by plumb line from the lee-side rail, were also interesting: the officers had discovered that the water level continued to rise for half an hour after the tide turned. Clearly, the currents here were not simple ebb and flow. It was as if the ship was on the rim of a great, slow eddy.
The measurements also confirmed that the tides were lagging the phase of the moon by several days. The new moon was now only four days away, but the neap had only just been passed. Captain Rees drew some consolation from that. At the telegraph office in Denham, he had not known if Koombana was capable of freeing herself. He had erred on the side of caution and had requested that another steamer be sent to assist. Having now spoken with his officers, he was satisfied that his decision had been the right one. Early on Thursday morning, a boat from Denham brought news that another of the company’s steamers, the collier Winfield, had left Geraldton in the early hours. She would be at Koombana’s side within 24 hours.
The decision to discharge Koombana’s cargo cannot have been taken lightly. Crew morale was a prime concern. All had expected to be back in Fremantle at the beginning of April, but now the northward run might not begin until the last week of March. Certainly, the crew would be paid for the time they were away, but none would see their wives and girlfriends for another month at least. Upon the seamen in particular, the planned transshipment was a huge imposition. Work would continue around the clock, with the men working sixteen-hour days. The firemen would be affected, too: some would be seconded from the stokehold to join the men on deck. Rees realised that morale would only remain high if the men’s efforts were respected, and seen to be respected. They would be kept well informed of progress and, above all, be well fed. Fresh food posed a particular problem. Koombana had just delivered the only fresh fruit and vegetables in Denham; it would be impolitic to buy any of it back. But consignments for Broome and Derby were a different matter; indeed, most perishable consignments would not arrive fit for sale. Rees decided that, since cargo spoilage or loss would account for only a small fraction of the cost of the accident, he would place the interests of passengers and crew above those of the consignees. His men would work hard, but would receive grapes crisp and cold with their sandwiches at lunch, and be rewarded with beer and sardines at the end of each long day.
It was not only the working men who discovered a new enthusiasm for food. “Chronicler” marvelled at his own dining-hall punctuality.
As a relief in the programme of amusements, the sound of the bugle calling us to maxillary warfare was a thrice-welcome sound, for we p20developed appetites of which our mothers might be proud—but anxious.
Rees reminded his officers that to keep the passengers in good humour was an important part of their work. Here too there was evidence of creative thinking. In the evenings, the passengers had taken to gathering on the port side of the promenade deck, out of the wind. To create a bright, pleasant space in which passengers might mingle, the arc lights used for loading and unloading in port were switched on. The effect was sudden and surprising: into circles of clear, illuminated water swam sea snakes, turtles and fish in great numbers. Thereafter, evening conversations were often drawn to the rail and to the passing parade below.
The suggestion was also made—by whom is not known—that passengers might be taken on a fishing trip in one of the ship’s boats, with a member of the crew in command. It seems that Rees’s reaction to the plan was a simple “Why not?” He could certainly spare a junior officer for a few hours. The first such diversion was a great success. With official sanction and company chaperone, the passengers sailed ten miles to a little island, returning at day end with sixty schnapper for the galley.
* * *
Entries in Koombana’s log for Friday, March 19th, reflected new purpose and optimism.
Fresh to strong SSW breeze.
6 a.m. Sounded West of ship and found 3½ to 5 fathoms.
Hands employed lowering and hoisting boats, preparing gear and stripping hatches for the discharge of cargo.
2.15 p.m. S.S. “Winfield” arrived alongside and made fast.
3 p.m. Started to discharge cargo from No. 2 into “Winfield”.
Hands working cargo right through, one hour for tea, half hour for supper. Tanks sounded at frequent intervals.
In principle, the plan was simple: sling by sling, hold by hold, Koombana’s cargo would be transferred to Winfield. At each high tide, a halt would be called. With the ships side by side, using both ships’ engines, a new attempt would be made to break free. There was, however, one difficulty that no creative thinking could overcome. The ship had come to rest on a bank sloping down to starboard. Only on that side, to windward, was there water deep enough for Winfield to come alongside. For the duration of the transfer, at all hours, the two ships would bump and grind, scour each other’s sides, and destroy every cork or wicker fender placed between them.
Despite that ceaseless metal-on-metal antagonism, spirits remained high. With Koombana becoming lighter with each passing day, and the tidal range now increasing, the plan must ultimately succeed.
* * *
p21In a few days, Koombana’s unreliable motor launch had become a favourite among passengers craving entertainment. More than once it had departed under power only to return under sail. When the boat was lowered again on Saturday morning, passengers lined the rail in anticipation. Jim Low had been ordered to lead another excursion to Denham, to collect ten sheep tied up near the office of the shipping agent. This time, however, the engine gave no trouble and the launch disappeared from sight. The amusement of the gallery would come later—much later.
* * *
There is something about a Sunday, even upon a mound of sand in the middle of a windswept gulf. “Chronicler” wrote:
On Sunday our rescuer stood off from our stern, almost at right angles, and, getting her anchors out, pulled on them, while the screws of both steamers spun round but, again, not an inch. That day we had church services conducted by a Congregational minister. We passed the day more quietly than other days, and some showed signs of being depressed. We commenced to lose faith in the ability of the “Winfield” to get us off unaided. And when the rumour went round that our rescuer was herself on a bank, our spirits went down below zero.
The fear was well founded. Winfield had arrived with her cargo holds empty, but carrying enough coal and fresh water for two ships. Now she was heavy with Koombana’s cargo. The tides were now increasing, but with higher highs come lower lows. Twice each day now, Winfield was scuffing the seabed. The consequences were not dire, but the nerves of passengers were beginning to fray.
Distraction, sorely needed, was delivered to Koombana’s side in the middle of Sunday afternoon. Word spread that the motor launch was returning. Four bedraggled boys were soon on board, looking and smelling a little sheepish. In his letter to Peggy, Jim Low repeated the confession that had amused his shipmates:
I made an even worse fiasco with her. I was told off one morning at 7 o’clock to go in to Denham for ten sheep as we were running short of provisions. I had the 5th Engineer with me and two quarter masters. We got ashore, got the sheep and lugged them out on our shoulders through water up to the waist and dumped them into the launch. When we got out a couple of miles the weather got so bad we had to turn and run for it back to anchorage. We slept out on hard gratings with bits of canvas over us to keep the dew off, a most uncomfortable night, fine and clear but a heavy swell running kept us bobbing like a cork till we were bruised and bumped all over. The poor sheep were worse than we were as we had to hobble them to keep them aboard.
p22Next morning the weather was better but the boat had taken in water during the night and spoiled our starting battery and there we were 14 miles from the Koombana and not a move out of our engine. So we sailed back and got towed a bit by a lighter that was going out to the ship and when about a mile off, the battery recovered sufficiently to give us a start, then we were all right. We snored up alongside at full speed and the passengers lined up the rails and considered us as returned from the dead. We were nearly dead anyway, nothing to eat for about 30 hours. By good luck we had a little tank of water with us so we weren’t thirsty anyway.
Tuesday, March 23rd—Day 9—brought the first hint of success. To passengers emerging on deck in the early morning, the view seemed a little altered. Officers confirmed that they were not imagining things; during the night, Koombana’s bow had swung eighteen degrees to port. At breakfast, there was talk of imminent freedom, and at 9 a.m. a new attempt—the ninth—was made to free the ship. To dismay and disappointment it failed, as all previous attempts had failed.
Over the next few hours, it became increasingly difficult for the passengers to forget their circumstances. After being rock-solid for nine days Koombana had begun to move, fitfully but perceptibly, in response to bumps from Winfield lying to windward. Spirits rose again, but what was heartening to the passengers was felt very differently by the officers. They recognised a new problem: Koombana was no longer firmly attached to the seabed, and with each sideways bump was being pushed a little higher on the bank. Unless the wind eased, there would be no alternative to anchor Winfield a little way off, and to call Success to lighter what remained of the cargo.
The wind did not ease. In utter exasperation, John Rees accepted this most tedious of alternatives. For almost nine days the work had been difficult and dangerous. Now, at the very last, it became mind-numbingly slow. It took five hours to transfer fifty tons of Broome cargo to the lighter, with several slings smashed or damaged in the process. Another ten hours passed before Success returned for a second load.
Late adversity notwithstanding, Rees now knew that this was a battle he would win. On Wednesday morning he ordered the motor launch, handed control to Henry Clarke, and set out for the telegraph station.
After the launch had disappeared from sight, Clarke and the other officers determined to give their captain something to smile about on his return. On the afternoon high tide, they tried a new approach. To lift the stern a little, the forepeak ballast tanks were filled. Winfield was then positioned at right angles off Koombana’s starboard bow. They sought to free the ship by pulling her bow into the deeper water of the channel. To universal disappointment, the power of two ships was not enough; p23Koombana hung on the bank with her fore end afloat. “Chronicler” honoured the effort but lamented the outcome.
We had come round four points of the compass. But the stern had turned a little on a pivot of sand, and next tide must be waited for to complete the work. Meanwhile, the lighter took our anchor from the nose, and dropped it to starboard a few hundred yards from us to prevent any slipping back there. Then we waited the return of the captain. We were all sorry the attempt had not been fully successful, chiefly because we had been planning to greet the captain with three-times-three. For to a man the passengers are with Captain Rees, and freely express sympathy with him in this mishap.
Koombana had been nine days stuck on a sandbank and yet no one turned against the man who had put her there. Captain Rees had willingly admitted fault and had done all in his power to make the ordeal bearable. Good-natured humility, it seems, spared him all recrimination.
At daylight on Thursday, March 25th, Koombana was teetering on the edge of freedom. Surely, this would be the day. The preparations which had begun at midnight continued until midday. Anchors were repositioned, lines were run, and a heavy steel hawser was played out from Koombana’s stern. Winfield moved into position, took up the hawser, and waited. Urgency and excitement gripped all but the slowly rising tide.
A few minutes after two o’clock, everything happened at once. Two ships shuddered as their great iron screws brought the sea to a rolling boil of silt and weed, and winches and chains joined the metal chorus as the p24steel hawser leapt from the sea and took the strain. In less than a minute, after ten days and seven hours, the gargantuan labour came to an end. Koombana slid free and straightened up.
On the promenade deck there were whistles, cheers, and a spate of back-slapping. A few passengers, forgetting entirely the ship’s rules, stormed the bridge to congratulate Captain Rees, who graciously permitted his hand to be wrung. “This has taken twenty years off my life,” he told his smiling assailants. “If those buoys had not been altered, this would never have happened.”
Even in jubilation, all were aware that 500 tons of cargo would have to be reloaded. Few were keen to ask how long that might take. The answer was three days: three hard, unpleasant days with the two ships rolling and ranging on a rough sea. For the moment, however, nothing could spoil the day and its achievement.
* * *
At 6 p.m. on Monday, March 29th, after thirty hours spent bunkering coal, Koombana cast off and resumed the voyage north. She was two weeks late, encrusted with salt and coal dust, and streaked with rust where Winfield and Success had scraped the paint from her sides.
This was not the debut the Adelaide Steamship Company had imagined, but the directors looked beyond their losses and remained philosophical. Yes, it was regrettable that Nor’-Westers would never see their new ship in new condition, but Koombana was neither designed nor destined to remain pristine. Hers was a different calling, of grace and grime in equal measure. She would enter her life of service not as an immaculate princess but as a duchess in overalls, willing and able to work.
And the Nor’-West stood ready to receive her.