Tom Allen’s Dilemma
In a very real sense, Tom Allen’s seafaring career began on the day his father’s ended. As Tom Allen Senior watched the barque Contest go to pieces on the beach at Rockingham, Western Australia, he decided to call it quits. The year was 1874 and the 58-year-old Cork Irishman had been at sea for forty years. He had carried the last convicts to Hobart, been falsely accused of smuggling in California, and had traded coffee through South-East Asia during the Crimean War. It was time to settle, and time for his eldest boy to assume the mantle.
Tom Allen Junior, born at Port Adelaide in December 1859, first went to sea in 1861 when his father became master and part-owner of the barque Schah Jehan. A year later, he had a younger brother with even greater reason to claim the sea as his native element. Sarah Allen, who had sailed with her husband for most of their married life, was not troubled by the prospect of giving birth at sea, but the timing of the second boy’s arrival could not have been worse. On April 29th, 1862 she went into labour during a fierce electrical storm off South Australia’s Cape Northumberland. The storm was so severe that Captain Allen was unable to leave the bridge; he had no alternative but to leave his wife in the care of Schah Jehan’s steward and a thirteen-year-old girl passenger. The birth, although dramatic, was trouble-free. According to family folklore, little Seaborn Allen arrived to thunderous applause and a magnificent display of St Elmo’s Fire along the ship’s wires and masthead.
Four years later, the birth of another boy was similarly commemorated. Marmion Allen was born at the Emerald Isle Hotel in Fremantle, and proprietor William Marmion, later the Honourable William Marmion of the John Forrest Ministry, became the child’s godfather.
Thomas Maurice Allen, conservative by nature, was probably grateful that by the ordinary circumstances of his own birth he was spared a lifelong reminder of his parents’ eccentricity. Within a few months of his p166father’s retirement, he had left the Port Adelaide Grammar School and signed on as ordinary seaman aboard the City of Madras. Or was it City of Ningpo? Or City of Benares? Across the span of years, his mother could not remember exactly which of the Glasgow ‘Citys’ had taken her boy from home. More precisely recalled was his return as able seaman of Northern Monarch, which delivered 400 British immigrants to Port Adelaide on June 12th, 1876.
It was in May 1878 that Tom Junior, as a quartermaster of the Orient liner Cuzco, faced his first major challenge at sea. On a voyage from Plymouth to Melbourne, Cuzco called at Cape Town for coal before steaming further south to take full advantage of the ‘roaring forties,’ the boisterous but reliable westerly winds south of the 40th parallel. For eight days Cuzco made wonderful progress, running at full speed under both steam and p167canvas, but on the morning of May 23rd, about 600 nautical miles south-west of Cape Leeuwin, her main propeller shaft broke.
Captain Murdoch immediately ordered more sail set. Cuzco’s size, speed and disposition to the sea were all fortuitous; her conversion from sail-assisted steamer to fully fledged barque was accomplished quickly. Notices were posted at several locations, advising passengers that there was no cause for alarm. Disruption would be minimal, Murdoch insisted; the ship’s fine masts and good sailing qualities would carry them all safely to port.
The captain’s reassurance was a little premature. After further inspection, chief engineer McDougall told his commander that the break had occurred very near the sternpost; precisely how near, he could not say. There was a possibility that the propeller, with what little of the tailshaft remained attached to it, might slide aft and be lost. And if the propeller were to break free, it could take the rudder with it.
Later that evening a decision was taken. In daylight, an attempt would be made to secure the propeller by passing a heavy cable beneath it. As the fine detail of the operation was worked out, new advice was transmitted to the passengers. Their journey, Captain Murdoch now conceded, was likely to be of longer duration. Short ration allowances would apply in all classes while uncertainty remained. By all accounts, the passengers accepted the revised outlook very well, some even going so far as to send messages of support and condolence to the bridge.
If a line were to be slipped beneath the hub of Cuzco’s great propeller, it would first need to be fed through the gap between the sternpost and the rudder. On a ship with the rudder visible from the stern rail, that could be a straightforward operation, but Cuzco’s graceful rising stern extended some forty feet beyond the sternpost. Her propeller and rudder were far below and out of sight. The officers decided that two men—volunteers, if volunteers could be found—would be lowered over the sides, one from the port quarter and the other from starboard. At the rudder post, just above the waterline, one would use a pole to feed a light line through the gap; the other would endeavour to catch it with a hook. The light line could then be used to pull a heavier, weighted line into place. It was hoped that by keeping lines taut and vertical by means of carefully placed weights, a loop could be guided around the blades and hub of the propeller. Once that was done, a heavy cable could be made to follow the same path.
One of the men lowered over Cuzco’s side, for a different experience of the southern Indian Ocean, was eighteen-year-old Tom Allen. The identity of the other man is not known. That they succeeded in passing the line is remarkable. Although it would later be shown that the propeller had remained secure after the accident, and could never have eloped with the rudder, the visible restraint delivered peace of mind to a captain whose ordeal was far from over.
p168On Tuesday, May 28th, the weather turned. For the next twelve days Cuzco met storm after southern storm, culminating in a gale on June 8th that Captain Murdoch described as the worst of his 27 years at sea. “The sails were blown clean out of the bolt-ropes,” he later told a reporter from The Sydney Morning Herald.
After sixteen difficult days, Cuzco found refuge at Portland, Victoria, where residents were surprised at the sight of an immense steamer coming into the bay under canvas. A few days later, upon a more compliant sea, the ship was towed to Williamstown for repair. She was the largest vessel ever to enter the graving dock, and Melbourne newspapers reported the progress of her repair in surprising detail.
It was discovered that the outer or propeller section of the shaft had broken only about a foot inside of the stern post. The adjoining section was disconnected . . . and the great rod of iron, about 10ft. in length and 18in. in diameter, was drawn out of the tunnel, and lifted p169into the hold. The remaining 9ft. of the broken shaft is that portion which passes out through the stern, and holds the propeller. This will be removed from the exterior. In order to effect this the vast propeller is to be taken to pieces, four fins, each weighing about two tons, being unbolted separately and taken off.
As repairs went on below, the local agents for the Orient Line opened Cuzco to the public. A correspondent for The Argus joined the throng.
Yesterday afternoon the graving dock was visited by thousands of people, the steamer Gem conveying a large number across the bay. The visitors were courteously permitted to inspect the ship, and her saloon and excellent appointments generally excited considerable admiration. The P. and O. Company’s steamer Assam was lying at the graving dock jetty, and H.M.V.S. Nelson was moored across the end of the dock. Both were open to inspection, so that visitors had an opportunity rarely offered of gratifying their curiosity in respect to naval architecture, both ancient and modern.
Tom Allen Senior must have been delighted by the progress of his son’s career. At twenty years of age Tom Junior left South Australia again, as bo’sun of the Pacific liner Sorata. While away he completed his Board of Trade examinations, and in 1883 returned home as first mate of the Meeinderry, a little 200-ton coasting steamer built for the Sydney–Shoalhaven run.
The early experience of Tom Allen Junior was broad but not unusually so. His formative years were the years of transition from sail to steam, and he learned his craft aboard vessels that sported both masts and funnel. Without doubt, there was much to be learned. No aspiring commander could ignore the new machinery of motion, but respect for sea and sky still defined the age-old vocation.
It appears that Tom Allen Senior lived just long enough to see his son rise to the rank of master. Tom Junior’s first command—the first of many—was a brief elevation. In August 1884 he took the helm of the old barque Verulam when her captain was injured in a late-night fall from the Wallaroo Jetty. Verulam had been trading on the coast since 1858. Although the old ship now earned her keep carrying coal, she had in her prime been one of the crack clippers of the home trade. It must have warmed the heart of a proud but ailing father to learn that his son would cut his teeth exactly as he had done, in a ship that conversed sweetly with the wind and paid no heed to the modern ways.
Only for one short period of his adult life was Tom Allen Junior wholly disengaged from the sea. When alluvial gold was discovered at Teetulpa in October 1886, Tom was one of about 4,000 optimistic South Australians who set up camp on the new field. But gold prospecting was mere dalliance for a young man happily married to the sea. By late February, he was back in the arms of his long-time love.
A dozen ships later, Captain Tom Allen would freely have admitted that he had benefited greatly from the discovery of gold, but not in the way he had imagined as a restless 26-year-old. When the Western p171Australian goldfields opened up, the Adelaide Steamship Company struggled to meet the demand for westward passage, especially from Melbourne. It chartered two ships: Buninyong from Melbourne and Tekapo from New Zealand. With the new vessels came opportunities for advancement; indeed, the sudden expansion of the fleet forced a wholesale reorganisation of the company’s officers and engineers. Tom Allen was perhaps the single greatest beneficiary of the reshuffle; on April 15th, 1894, he took command of Tekapo. The 2,400-ton steamer was no glamour ship but she answered the needs of both her young master and her impatient gold-seeking clientele.
By the judgment of their peers, two classes of mariner are considered most accomplished: the masters of large cargo vessels, and the pilots who guide large and often unfamiliar vessels in and out of a major port. But these acknowledged experts enjoy very little public recognition compared to the ever-popular masters of passenger liners. And strangely, although frequent travellers may treat the captain as a personal friend, it is those who travel rarely who may feel the stronger bond. Like doctors, priests and midwives, ships’ masters rise to prominence at significant moments in their passengers’ lives. In October 1895, Tom Allen assumed the command that would guarantee such recognition. For several years the graceful, reliable S.S. Marloo had been a passenger favourite in all the ports of southern Australia, and some of that popularity was immediately accorded to her new master.
p172Tom Allen probably looked forward to a long association with the ship, but a terrible shipboard accident was to end his captaincy after only fifteen months.
It scarcely needs to be stated that if a ship has two decks above a cargo hold, hatchways one-above-the-other must pass through them. Marloo was such a vessel. Whenever she arrived in port, it was the responsibility of the chief officer to supervise the opening of the hatchways, and to ensure that stanchions were placed to prevent any passenger or crew member from falling into an open hold. The hatchways were a well-recognised danger, and cabins or bunks near them were often assigned to crew rather than passengers. On Marloo’s ’tween deck, however, no such reservation was feasible. A ring of double bunks surrounded the forward hatchway, and strict protocols were needed to keep passengers away until loading was completed and the dangerous openings were ‘trunked over.’
When passenger Francis Blackwell boarded the ship at Fremantle on the morning of Saturday, December 12th, 1896, things went terribly wrong. The 48-year-old had just arrived from the goldfields, to sail east and spend Christmas with his wife and five children in Ballarat. Although the ship was not due to sail until mid-afternoon, he came aboard at 8 a.m. and asked fore-cabin steward Tom Connor if he might have a particular bunk on the ’tween deck. Connor escorted him there.
Neither man knew that the stanchions directly opposite Blackwell’s chosen bunk had been removed and not replaced, and that only a heavy canvas curtain divided the narrow corridor from the open cargo hold. As Connor and Blackwell conversed, two men entered the corridor through an open door. As the steward turned to speak to them, Blackwell out of courtesy stepped backward to let them pass. The canvas curtain gave way as he lent on it; he fell backwards and head-first into the cargo hold, fracturing the base of his skull as his head struck the wheel of a traction engine. He never regained consciousness.
The inquest held in the Fremantle Courthouse on January 7th, 1897 was a strange affair. Although Coroner Thomas Lovegrove presided, a jury of three non-nautical men would deliver the verdict. Across two sittings, Lovegrove conducted the investigation in a purely interrogative way, as if he alone would determine its outcome. Very quickly, three members of Marloo’s crew were shortlisted for blame.
Captain Tom Allen was not on duty at the time of the accident; he had handed command of Marloo to his chief officer upon their arrival in port. But that fact, he knew, was insufficient to absolve him. Under cross-examination he testified that no person was allowed to take down the stanchions without the permission of the chief officer, although it was frequently necessary and frequently done. The stewards, he insisted, were under strict orders not to permit passengers to enter the dangerous areas while loading continued.
p173Chief officer Tom Truscott testified that when heavy cargo was being lifted, it was often necessary for crewmen to remove some of the stanchions so that the cargo suspended by derrick could be guided in or out of the hold. On the night before the accident, he had issued orders to the stewards to close off the dangerous areas, and to admit no passengers.
Fore-cabin steward Tom Connor testified that, under orders from the chief officer, he had secured the access doors the evening before the accident. The following morning, however, he had found the doors open; observing some passengers already in the area with their swags, he had escorted Francis Blackwell to the bunk he had asked for.
Whether Tom Allen expected any censure or suspension is difficult to judge, but when Coroner Lovegrove delivered his final summing-up, he focussed almost entirely on the actions of Tom Connor. To the jury he said: “The question you have to consider is, whether it was on account of neglect or laxity on the part of the fore-cabin steward that the deceased met his death.” Having framed the question so prescriptively, Lovegrove then proceeded to tell the jurors how it should be answered. In his opinion, the conduct of Connor had resulted in Blackwell’s death. In the eyes of the law, therefore, Connor was guilty of a very serious offence. “It is hardly necessary,” he declared, “for me to tell you what that offence is. I will leave the matter in your hands.”
In criminal proceedings, there is no question whatever about who is on trial. Here, there was no such simple premise. The jury understood its broad prerogative and chose to exercise it. After retiring for only 35 minutes, the three men concluded that a serious criminal offence had indeed been committed, but not by Connor. They returned a verdict of culpable negligence—tantamount to manslaughter—against both Captain Allen and his chief officer.
Police Sergeant Houlahan, it appears, had been brushing up on his procedures in expectation of a finding against Connor. As soon as the jury foreman resumed his seat, the sergeant sprang to life. “In view of the verdict of the jury,” he declared to the bench, “it is my duty to apply for a warrant for the arrest of the captain and chief officer.”
Coroner Lovegrove was taken aback. “In view of my directions to the jury,” he replied, “I am surprised that you ask for it.”
Barrister Matthew Moss, who was present as legal observer for the Adelaide Steamship Company, could not contain himself. Suddenly aware that two long-time servants of the company might be shackled and led away, he burst forth: “Do I understand that the sergeant is making an application for a warrant? The idea of the police attempting to take any further action after the strong expression of opinion which fell from you, Mr. Coroner, is inexplicable. . . . As a matter of fact, you would be stultifying yourself if you did issue a warrant.” Moss’s point was clearly made, although his choice of words was odd. p174The sergeant’s application was unforeseen, certainly, but “inexplicable” it was not. History records that Coroner Lovegrove stood his soft ground. No warrant for the arrest of Allen or Truscott was ever issued.
* * *
In quick succession, Tom Allen Junior left the witness stand, the courtroom, the Marloo, and the Adelaide Steamship Company. The adverse finding, it appears, damaged neither his reputation nor his prospects; within a year he had accepted a position of unquestioned responsibility as a Port Adelaide pilot.
There is here a remarkable parallel between the careers of Tom Allen Junior and his father. Both men joined the Port Adelaide Pilot Service in the immediate aftermath of a questionable finding of negligence. In May 1862, in heavy weather, Tom Allen Senior had scuttled Schah Jehan beside the Wallaroo Jetty. Although the action was taken to save the vessel and to limit damage to the jetty, the Court of Marine Inquiry saw things very differently. The court’s criticism of the master was severe indeed, but one aspect of its finding was silly enough to cast doubt upon the rest. Tom Allen Senior had a 25 per cent stake in the vessel and was bankrupted by its loss, and yet the court condemned his “gross inattention to the interests of the owners.”
Although father and son came to the Port Adelaide Pilot Service in similar circumstances, their respective engagements would end very differently. In September 1866 the steamer Coorong, with Tom Allen Senior in command as pilot, ran down the mailboat Mercury, slicing it in two. Two men including a fellow pilot were killed. Although the subsequent inquiry found that the skipper of the mailboat had erred in attempting to run across Coorong’s bows, there was broad agreement that the steamer had been travelling too fast. All censure was reserved for Tom Allen Senior; he was dismissed from the Pilot Service and forever banned from holding a similar position at any South Australian port.
The cautious, teetotalling Tom Allen Junior determined never to make his father’s mistake. For ten years he safely guided vessels large and small into and out of Port Adelaide. It was a decade of service that established his reputation and delivered what he would remember as a highlight of his career.
On July 4th, 1901, Adelaide newspaper The Advertiser reported that Tom Allen, the youngest member of the Port Adelaide Pilot Service, had been chosen to pilot the royal yacht Ophir into Port Adelaide. The royal visit had been a long time coming. More than two months earlier Ophir had slipped quietly by, carrying the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York to Melbourne for the opening of Australia’s first federal parliament. Since that great ceremonial day, the future King and Queen had toured Brisbane, Sydney, Auckland, Wellington, and Hobart. Only now, near the end of their six-month southern sojourn, would the couple step ashore in South Australia.
Tom Allen’s honour was greatly extended by Ophir’s early arrival at the anchorage. He had expected to board the vessel early on Tuesday morning, but the call to service came on Monday evening. When the launch left the dock, conditions were far from ideal, but wind and rain played a part in making the night memorable. Against a sky coal-black and starless, white Ophir was dazzling: “one blaze of light from stem to stern,” the scribe from The Register would later declare.
Once aboard, Allen learned that arrangements had been made for his overnight stay. After being escorted to a fine cabin, he was told that the ship would receive other visitors during the evening, and that at 9 p.m. there would be a concert attended by the duke and duchess. The young pilot probably thought that a brief introduction at the evening’s soirée would be his only direct contact with the royal couple. It was not so; his dealings with the duke would continue, on ground more natural and familiar. George had been a naval officer and remained a keen sailor. When the time came for Ophir to be guided into port, the future King George V joined Captains Winsloe and Allen on the bridge for the run up the river. And when Ophir was secure at the overcrowded dock, he complimented the pilot on his handling of the vessel and presented him with a scarf pin bearing the emblem of the White Rose of York. For Tom Allen, that accolade was next-best to a knighthood. Friends said that he treasured that pin and wore it often.
p176Among the most sought-after assignments for an Australian shipmaster was to be sent to the old country to bring out a new vessel. It was just such work that drew Tom Allen back to the Adelaide Steamship Company in 1906. In late October he boarded the Royal Mail Steamer Oruba as a passenger, bound for London and Glasgow to collect the new cattle steamer Junee. Six months later, after trouble-free trials and an easy delivery voyage, he handed the ship over to another master. Just ten weeks later he was England-bound again, for a delivery assignment of even greater interest and prestige. His second trust was the innovative cargo carrier S.S. Echunga, nearing completion in the Middlesbrough shipyard of Sir Raylton Dixon & Company. Such was the early interest in Echunga’s design and capability that the ship was fully booked in advance. There would be no delivery voyage as such; she would proceed direct to New York to load general merchandise and only then make her Australian debut. Echunga’s ability to manage more than 3,000 tons of water ballast gave her officers extraordinary control over draft and trim, and cantilevered framing created a huge, unobstructed cargo space. Indeed, on the eve of her first arrival in Sydney, The Sydney Morning Herald hailed Echunga as “the largest cantilever steamer in the world.”
Tom Allen probably expected to retain command of Echunga, but not long after her commissioning, international demand fell so sharply that p177the company saw no alternative but to lay the vessel up. The commercial uncertainty lasted only a few months, but by the time Echunga returned to service, her first commander was otherwise engaged. Tom Allen had settled back into the steady, reliable work of carting coal from New South Wales to South Australia. As master of Winfield, he plied between Newcastle and Port Pirie for most of the next three years. Although there were brief secondments to other ships, it seemed that the 45-year-old, now as accomplished as any man in the mercantile marine, was biding his time.
It is not known when John Rees, master of Koombana, and Tom Allen, master of Winfield, first discussed the possibility of swapping ships. Perhaps Captain Rees made a formal request to be transferred from the Nor’-West run, or perhaps the two men reached private agreement and only then approached the company. At a glance, it seemed odd that Rees was willing to trade fast, elegant Koombana for coal-smudged Winfield. After all, he had been present at Koombana’s launch, had taken part in her sea trials and had brought her out to Australia. He was to Koombana what Tom Allen was to Echunga.
For Tom Allen, the swap was an opportunity. Koombana was considered by many to be the finest ship in Australian service, and the Nor’-West run was broadly acknowledged as the most demanding. Whatever the private thoughts of the protagonists, the company did not object to the exchange. In Sydney, during the last week of August 1911, the two experienced masters traded places.
To her new master, Koombana delivered a difficult initiation, just as she had to his predecessor. On his first run into Port Hedland, Tom Allen grounded the ship on the western bank of the channel. He was not greatly troubled; the seabed was soft and there seemed very little likelihood of damage to the hull. He ordered one starboard-side ballast tank pumped out, and within an hour was afloat and on his way to the jetty. He noted the occurrence in the ship’s log, recorded Koombana’s draft fore and aft, and determined not to make the mistake again.
Four weeks later he approached Hedland from the south for a second time. Using his first approach as a guide he raised the ship higher by emptying tanks both port and starboard. But once again he found the bottom. This time the contact was a mere scrape;
What Tom Allen quickly learned was that Koombana’s schedule was not moulded to client demand or company convenience; it was tightly bound to the cycle of the tides at two particular ports. For about three days in every fourteen, at Port Hedland and Broome, there was insufficient water for Koombana to reach the jetty, even at the top of the day’s highest tide.
A round trip from Port Hedland to Derby took seven days, and therein lay an intractable problem. Seven days is one quarter of the lunar cycle; p178it is the gap between the spring and neap tides. If Koombana were to leave Port Hedland on high spring tide, with water to spare beneath her keel, she would almost certainly be locked out of the port on her return. This quirk of geography was the bane of Koombana’s working life. Tom Allen could not choose a different track to Derby any more than he could sway the cold mistress of the night sky. Like his predecessor, he recognised that the only viable option was to negotiate Port Hedland on the shoulders of the spring tides, when the depth of water over the bar was marginal at best. If the port could be reached three or four days before ‘springs’, he would have just enough to get in on his way north, plenty of water at Broome in both directions, and just enough to re-enter Port Hedland on the way back. It was a delicate arrangement, and any delay could break it.
Not all of Koombana’s Nor’-West voyages terminated at Derby. It was also her mission to serve the tiny settlement of Wyndham, five hundred miles further north and east. On the longer run, the problem at Port Hedland disappeared because the time between northbound and southbound arrivals increased to fourteen days. That was half of the lunar cycle, and perfect for managing the tide: Koombana could leave Hedland on the full moon and return for the new moon, or vice versa, gliding into port with ease on both occasions. But as one problem faded away, another rose to prominence. From Fremantle, the 4,000-mile round trip to Wyndham could not be completed in the 28 days of the lunar cycle. If Koombana were to visit the last outpost on every trip, she would soon be hopelessly out of phase. The company’s schedulers arrived at a simple solution. The Derby trips would average 23 days, they calculated, and the Wyndham trips 30. If Koombana were to visit Wyndham on alternate months, time lost on the longer run could be made up on the next. From a purely logistical standpoint this solved the problem, but the regime placed absurd demands on the crew. After four weeks at sea in tropical heat, members of the crew were often permitted only two or three days of shore leave before Koombana was northbound again.
* * *
After hitting the Hedland bar on his first two Nor’-West runs, Tom Allen was determined that the third would be different. And different it was. Of the protracted firemen’s strike which tied Koombana up at Fremantle for three weeks, much is elsewhere written. What is important here is that the delay was not 14 days or 28 days, which would have left Koombana in harmony with the tides, but 20 days. In a single stroke, all synchronicity was lost.
Koombana’s Trip No. 34 of December 1911 was her worst ever. On her way into Shark Bay on December 4th, she scraped a sandy ridge at Heirisson Flat, less than a mile from where Captain Rees had run her hard aground three years earlier. Just twelve hours after that scrape, Koombana was aground again, near the Carnarvon jetty. She floated off on the high p179tide. Port Hedland was reached on December 9th, three days after the full moon. There was barely enough water for the ship to gain admission, and because the tides were becoming less generous with each passing day there was a distinct possibility that she would be trapped inside for several days. By pumping out most ballast tanks, Captain Allen made his exit the following day, but his difficulties continued. The extension of the run to Wyndham meant that Koombana would face similar conditions when she returned to Port Hedland on the run south. At any other time, he might have cut Wyndham from the itinerary, but the strike had left all Nor’-West ports short of food. Although Wyndham had received some supplies from Singapore, the town was desparate for fresh produce from the south. To call there was imperative.
Koombana scraped back into Port Hedland at ‘dead neaps’ on Christmas Day 1911. The following day, all ballast tanks were emptied to give her the best chance of escape. She left the port riding so high that the top of her propeller was fully eighteen inches clear of the water.
Tom Allen had been at sea for almost forty years but had never experienced such enslavement to the rise and fall of the sea. Koombana and the Nor’-West, it seemed, were partners in adversity. It is likely that he now saw his exchange with John Rees in a different light. He had come to Koombana wondering why a senior colleague had been so willing to give her up. Now he was aggravated by the Nor’-West: its heat, its dangers, and the extraordinary demands its so-called ports placed upon Koombana in particular.
After six months of pumping out ballast tanks and pressing them up again he also knew that Koombana, so well-behaved when deeply laden, was far from reassuring when riding high. He must have wondered how she would fare in a storm like that which had swallowed Yongala and her complement a year earlier. In a letter dated March 8th, 1912, he told an east-coast colleague that the worst of the Nor’-West cyclone season was over. “I just kept clear of a blow last trip,” he wrote, “but as soon as I got round the North-West Cape it started, so my luck was in that time.”
* * *
After several days of oppressive heat, Wednesday, March 20th, 1912 dawned grey and windy. Port Hedland was unusually busy. For the first time ever, Koombana shared the jetty with Bullarra, the vessel she had replaced in 1909. The Adelaide Steamship Company had decided to introduce a fortnightly service and ‘the old Bull’ was back in town. She had been scheduled to leave for Fremantle on Tuesday, but her shipment of cattle had arrived late and she had missed the tide. Bullarra would now follow Koombana out of port.
No one was quite sure what to make of the weather. For three days the barometer had been falling, but not sharply. The wind had come in hard for a couple of hours overnight, but by daylight had eased to a moderate p180nor’-easter. Some of the locals were preparing their houses for a possible blow, but that was something they did more than once in an average summer, to be safe rather than sorry. At the harbour entrance the sea seemed a little flustered, with white-caps riding along the crests of a low swell from the north-west.
As the passengers of the two ships mingled with townsfolk on the jetty, a few noticed that Captain Allen seemed ill-at-ease; indeed, he gave some inquirers the impression that he did not want to leave port. “Twenty-four hours here will not hurt,” he told local newspaper man Walter Barker, “I might bump the outer bar going out on a sea like this.”
Allen’s concern about the sea at the entrance was well founded. After a few scrapes and bumps it had become his practice to study the tide charts, predict the depth of water for departure, and adjust the ship’s draft as soon as the discharge of cargo was complete. It is likely that he had trimmed Koombana on Tuesday, anticipating the tide but making no allowance for a rough sea at the entrance. This was a difficult situation: Koombana would certainly pitch and roll when she felt the wind and the sea on her starboard side, but if time were taken to reduce her draft, the peak of the tide would be missed. By delay, the problem could easily be made worse.p181
There was a second strong argument for remaining in port. With a top speed of fifteen knots, Koombana was a fast ship; in fair weather she could make Broome easily between tides. But on this day the wind was east-north-east; after rounding Bedout Island, Koombana would be punching into a short, sharp sea. For the comfort of passengers, speed would have to be reduced, and the noon high tide in Broome would almost certainly be missed. There was another high tide around midnight, but he had never brought the ship to the Broome jetty in darkness, and was not keen to attempt it in rough weather. By his reckoning, a full day would be lost regardless of whether he left port, and regardless of any further deterioration of the weather.
To Tom Allen’s consternation, there were also good reasons for leaving. Koombana was running late. She had entered Port Hedland two days after the new moon; she now had to reach Derby and be southbound before the neap tides made the Broome jetty unapproachable. If Koombana were forced to remain outside at Broome, southbound consignments would be delayed by a full month.
It is difficult to know if the possibility of a cyclone influenced Tom Allen’s thinking. Every shipmaster would prefer to face a storm on the open sea rather than among reefs and islands, but a choice between Port Hedland and the open sea was not nearly so clear-cut. The harbour was little more than a mangrove-fringed tidal estuary with a jetty projecting into a deep pool. If Koombana were caught there in a cyclone, she would almost certainly end up in the mangroves, perhaps permanently. In this scenario, the interests of passengers were clearly at odds with the interests of the shipping company. The passengers would be safer upon dry land—or wet land, flooded land, any land—than at sea in a tropical storm.
According to Walter Barker, Captain Allen appeared to change his mind after a conversation with Captain Upjohn of the Bullarra. “I am going out,” he then told the newsman. “The Broome passengers, who think they will get to Broome to-morrow, will be lucky if they get there on Saturday—I’m going straight out to sea, and will fill my tanks when I get outside.”
Tom Allen remained uneasy. During the morning about forty luggers had come in from the pearling grounds. When some of the boats blocked the channel, he asked the Harbourmaster to have them cleared away, and when one remained, he declared bluntly that he would not leave unless it was removed.
Port Hedland’s method of indicating the depth of water over the bar was simple but effective. Large wicker spheres were lowered one by one from a yardarm at the top of a steel tower on the foreshore near the Port Hotel. On March 20th, 1912, it was nineteen-year-old Bert Clarke who climbed the tower to deliver the signals. At about 10.20 a.m., when the tower indicated 19 feet, Koombana began her run to the entrance. Twenty p182minutes later, Bullarra followed her out. It is difficult to judge whether it was Bert Clarke or Bullarra’s officers who kept Koombana in sight for the longest, but Bert certainly had the better view. “Normally,” he recalled, “ships going northbound were out of sight within 30 or 45 minutes, but this day as the storm was getting stronger I stayed up there in the tower watching the Koombana pitching and rolling for nearly two hours.”
After crossing the bar without contact, Tom Allen may have permitted himself a sigh of relief. But that indulgence can only have been momentary. There were important decisions to be made, and made quickly. The master of another steamer may have considered leaving the ballast tanks empty, but if this thought entered Tom Allens’s head, it can only have flickered. Koombana partly ballasted was difficult to control, even in port. p183Without question, the tanks had to be filled. And once the pressing-up was commenced, it had to be completed, because a sloshing, half-full tank could be more detrimental to the ship’s handling than an empty one.
The next question was how to accomplish the refilling. In calm conditions it was a simple if time-consuming operation, but this day seemed determined to be different. Because the usual course to round Bedout Island was due north at first, the wind would be ‘on the beam’ while the tanks were being filled. That would certainly be uncomfortable; if conditions worsened, it could be dangerous. The captain’s preference would have been to put Koombana’s head to the wind and steam slowly until the re-ballasting was complete. But all eastward progress was blocked by reef and shoal water. He may even have considered dropping anchor, but to take that option was to lose at least three hours without making any progress at all. If the weather were to deteriorate, that decision would be difficult to defend.
It appears that Captain Allen and his officers reached an intelligent compromise. Firstly, by steering a little east of north, the ship’s roll was limited by keeping the wind as much on the bow as the beam. Secondly, by reducing speed and allowing the ship to ‘sag away’ on the wind, an approximate northerly course was maintained. To Bert Clarke, atop the Hedland tower, Koombana appeared to be struggling. She was not. Her slow progress and rolling motion were merely symptoms of the necessary work in which she was engaged.
p184Tom Allen may have permitted himself a second sigh of relief when the reballasting was completed. But this relief must also have been short-lived. For Bullarra, conditions changed alarmingly in the middle of the afternoon. Koombana would have encountered something similar. By 4 p.m. Captain Allen must have suspected that he was feeling the influence of a cyclone to the north-west. An hour later, with a rising north-easterly sea crossing a long north-westerly swell, he must have known it. Although he may have regretted the time lost in pressing up the tanks, he cannot have regretted his determination to accomplish it.
* * *
On Monday evening and through the early hours of Tuesday the storm had tracked southward over Rowley Shoals. Had it continued on this course it might have crossed the coast near Cape Keraudren at the western end of the Eighty Mile Beach, but under some unknown atmospheric influence its southward progress was thwarted. Across the daylight hours of Tuesday it made a broad right-hand turn, to sweep westward past Bedout Island in the late evening. In the early hours of Wednesday morning the wind blew hard in Port Hedland, but by the time Koombana and Bullarra left the port it had eased to what Captain Upjohn of the Bullarra would later describe as a “very nice fresh breeze.”
If the storm had continue to track westward across open water, the winds at Port Hedland would have gradually shifted anticlockwise, from east-north-east to north-east to north. They did not; over 24 hours the wind strengthened steadily but shifted little. And the same was true at Wallal and Whim Creek and Cossack, although the direction of the wind was different at each place. The explanation was unusual but simple: by 10 a.m. on Wednesday, the westward advance had ended. At about S 18º 20' E 117º 40', the storm eased back a little to the east and then simply hovered.
It is dangerous to think that a storm which fails to advance also fails to thrive. Often, the atmospheric influences that steer a cyclone are antagonistic to its development. By contrast, a storm unguided may intensify rapidly, at least for a few hours until the upwelling of cool seawater begins to suck the life force from it. So it was for this monster-in-the-making: throughout Wednesday, it drifted a little this way and that, gathering its resources, as if pausing to decide where the greatest damage might be done.
Mariners may prefer a storm that moves slowly enough to be outrun, but the cyclone that hovers and intensifies creates two distinct problems. Firstly, it cannot be told apart from the storm that approaches the vessel directly. In each case, the shipboard observations are the same: a falling barometer, a rising wind, and a wind that shows little sign of swinging. Secondly, the wind by its stubborn consistency may produce a truly phenomenal sea.
* * *
The eye of the storm was to the north-west; that he knew. How far to the north-west, he could not say. With most points of the compass foreclosed by islands and shoal water, Tom Allen was left to decide between three courses of action, all difficult and all dangerous.
He could turn Koombana to port and steam due west, with the wind on his starboard quarter. He would enjoy deep water and navigational freedom but would steam directly into disaster if the storm should recurve toward the land.
Alternatively, he could gain sea room very quickly by steaming nor’-nor’-west. But by so doing, he would move closer to the storm’s centre and, moreover, place the ship in ‘the dangerous quadrant’: that area to the front and left of an advancing storm, where wind speeds are greatest and where the wind tends to sweep a vessel directly into the storm’s path. Worse still, progress in that direction could only be made with the wind and the sea fully on Koombana’s beam.
Finally, he could continue on his track to Broome, taking the shortest safe path around Bedout Island before steaming east-nor’-east out of harm’s way. Here too, the complications were daunting. Two hours at least had been lost in pressing up the tanks; Koombana would be abeam of Bedout at low tide and in failing light. Sighting the island’s unattended beacon would be more important than usual because the ship’s slow, crabbing track had made it difficult for his officers to establish the ship’s p186position by what is called “dead reckoning.” Tide would be critical too, especially if Koombana had strayed a little to the east. Along the intended deep-water track, the state of the tide was of little consequence, but closer to the reef the rising seabed could mould and magnify the deep-ocean swell. On this day, no master could predict what sea and land might together contrive.
What anguish must there have been for the conservative commander whose every contemplation sought the safe way. Suddenly that principle—nay, that vocation—found no outlet. There was no safe way. All the ships of a long career had carried him to this place, but nothing in his résumé could contain the present danger or light the way. And therein lay the essence of Tom Allen’s dilemma: the sum of all decisions had led him here, yet none nor all could guide him hence.
It is not difficult to imagine that the dominant emotion was not fear but profound exasperation. Locked in a game of chess he had never sought to play, he was pinned, in check, on a board left sparse by the sacrifices of the day, and with an invisible opponent awaiting his next move.