The Stubborn, Silent Sea
Algy Collins was purser of the Blue Funnel steamer Gorgon. In Singapore on Thursday, March 21st, 1912 his Chinese boy—“a stripling of sixty summers, by the way”—told him that he had heard of a big blow on the Nor’-West coast, and that a steamer had gone down. When Collins told his commander of the rumour, Captain Townley would not dismiss it. “There is often truth in these Chinamen’s tales,” he said. Both men made inquiries, the captain to Blue Funnel’s local agent, and the purser through a friend at the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company. Nothing was known. Nothing was learned.
When Koombana failed to arrive in Broome on Thursday morning, little was made of it. She had certainly left as planned on Wednesday morning; a wire from the company’s agent in Port Hedland had confirmed that. But Hedland and Broome were both tidal ports; even a stiff headwind could result in a tide being missed and a full day being lost. It was not until Friday morning, when the steamer again failed to appear, that anxiety gained a foothold. And when word spread that Ted Hunter’s lugger Constance had been wrecked south of Broome on Tuesday night, a nervous waiting began. Inquiries to the telegraph office yielded little information, except that Port Hedland was unreachable. The lines were down, north and south.
For a brief time there was a sense that news of Koombana would arrive as soon as the wires were restored, but Saturday delivered deeper anxiety. A thrice-relayed message brought the news that Bullarra had limped into Cossack after a terrible ordeal at sea. The facts were incomplete, but compelling nonetheless. After following Koombana out of port on Wednesday morning, Bullarra had steamed into the worst conditions her master and crew had ever experienced. By streaming two anchors and 120 fathoms of chain they had kept Bullarra’s head to the sea, but her funnel had been torn away by the wind and her superstructure strained by a wall of water that hit the navigating bridge 25 feet above the waterline.
p188For those with wives, daughters, brothers and friends on Koombana, this was more than mere drama. On Sunday they came together to plan, and ultimately to plead.
* * *
Three vessels, each provisioned for a month, left Broome in the early hours of Tuesday, March 26th. Each would take a different, agreed track and all would converge upon Bedout Island in six or seven days.
The largest and fastest was the schooner Muriel, under the command of Broome wharfinger Oswald Dalziel. Assigned to the ‘outside track,’ Muriel set course for Rowley Shoals which, all masters agreed, presented a particular danger to any vessel that had lost power or steering. Two hundred miles west of Broome, three exquisite coral cays sat atop volcanic pillars which rose steeply from blue-black depths. If Koombana, disabled, chanced upon them, no anchor would hold her off.
Assigned the ‘middle track’ was another stalwart of Broome pearling: the lugger Mina. Captain Bennie would be in command but pearler Hugo Harper, whose brother George was aboard Koombana, would share the long hours on watch. Mina, it was agreed, would sail west-south-west across open water to a point north of Bedout. She would then tack southward in daylight to fix her position from the island.
Joining the tried and true was a vessel that had passed only a single test: its delivery voyage from Fremantle. Hastily christened “McLhennan”, the brand-new lugger was placed under the command of Robert White and assigned to the ‘inside track’: south and west along the Eighty Mile Beach, and then north-west across the Amphinome Shoals to Bedout.
The citizens of Broome had good reason for choosing Bedout Island for particular attention, and for the rendezvous of its little fleet. The low dome of sand and scrub, home to countless seabirds, seemed harmless enough, but the island’s south-western reef was more than decorative edging. Honed over time by converging ocean currents, a blade of rock and coral extended five miles into the sea, into the path of coastal steamers.
It was not known precisely when Muriel, Mina and McLhennan would re-convene, or which vessel would arrive at Bedout first. Each was instructed to circumnavigate the island, taking advantage of any abatement of the sea to run close along the edge of the known danger.
* * *
In the southern capital, Premier Scaddan may have expected that his morning meeting with Chief Harbourmaster Charles Irvine would consider the redeployment of the government steamer Penguin and perhaps the charter of another vessel to search for Koombana. However, a bundle of cables including two from Broome had arrived during the night. Broome’s first despatch was a plea for immediate action; the second, a few hours behind the first, delivered a plan as bold as it was broad. The steamer Moira, the cable declared, was loading cattle at Wyndham; she p189could search Rowley Shoals on her way south. Bullarra, after effecting repairs, should return north without delay. Minderoo was northbound from Geraldton; Captain Mills could receive instructions at Carnarvon. And Gorgon, south-bound from Singapore, could be intercepted by cable at Batavia or Surabaya.
In essence, the contention was simple: that every steamer within 500 miles should join a search for Koombana. If the premier was surprised at Broome’s effrontery, he must also have been impressed. Broome’s mayor and magistrate had pointed out that there was no time to wait for Penguin; she was too far away, and she alone could not scan the vast area in which Koombana might be found. Scaddan knew that the residents of Broome, with a dozen of their own among the missing, had incontestable reasons for urgency. He sought the harbourmaster’s advice. The Broome plan was understandable, but was it rational? Was it intelligent? In the course of a short discussion, the two men recognised that the proposal could be assessed by one simple criterion: the government’s willingness to bring coastal commerce to a standstill. If that outcome was acceptable, the Broome plan was the right one.
To his credit, Scaddan made the decision without hesitation and turned to a new challenge: to gain the support of the shipping companies whose vessels could not simply be co-opted. Scaddan recognised that while a single shipowner might baulk at the prospect of suspending normal operations and sacrificing trade, an assemblage of competitors would more easily be enjoined. Thus, the agents of the shipping lines were immediately called together. The government would leave no doubt of its commitment to the search, and let all know that the high cost of the search would be broadly shared.
From the Adelaide Steamship Company came manager William Moxon; his support at least could be counted on. James Clarke of the Singapore line came authorised to release Minderoo. Similarly, the Australasian United Steam Navigation Company spoke for Moira, and the Ocean Steam Ship Company for Gorgon. When the meeting was over, the wires were set humming again.
The citizens of Broome had been most keen to secure the services of Minderoo’s master, Andrew Mills, said to know the coast as well as any officer in the mercantile marine. Because Minderoo had already left Geraldton, and was not wireless-equipped, instructions were sent to Carnarvon for hand-delivery to the captain upon his arrival. The cable read:
Government request you to make thorough search for Koombana. I authorise you to use your discretion and do what you consider best in the interests of life and property. Captain Irvine suggests you proceed Cossack, driving ship utmost speed, examining Montebello as far as possible. Will wire you further at Cossack.
p190At Point Samson, the crew of the battered Bullarra had wasted no time in preparing for a return to sea, whether to continue south or to go in search. With no opportunity to have a new funnel delivered, the men fashioned a rectangular one of timber and corrugated iron. It was a strange sight to nautical eyes, but Captain Upjohn was pleasantly surprised by its effectiveness. “It answers very well,” he told the chucklers and the sceptics.
In Fremantle, William Moxon informed the harbourmaster and the press that although repairs had been effected, Bullarra was now critically short of water, and there was none to be had at Point Samson or Port Hedland. The nearest source was Broome, 400 miles away. “This,” he added, “is one of the disadvantages we have to contend with on the Nor’-West trade.”
A plan for Bullarra was quickly worked out. She would proceed to Port Hedland but remain outside. By launch or lighter she would deliver the mails and check for new instructions. She would then proceed to Broome for water, searching the Turtle Islands and Bedout Island en route. From Broome, she would return to sea, and remain at sea for as long as necessary.
p191At Wyndham, Moira had been delayed waiting for cattle, but she was now loading. It quickly became obvious that offloading the stock served no useful purpose. She could search the Lacepede Islands, Rowley Shoals and the Montebello Islands, all of which she would pass on her direct run to Fremantle. And if some discovery should force a change of plan, the cattle could go along for the ride.
Instructions for Gorgon, telegraphed to Surabaya, were hand-delivered to Captain Townley. He was advised not to disembark passengers or discharge cargo, but to search Rowley Shoals thoroughly on his way south and then divert to Broome for further advice. When Algy Collins came to the bridge, he found the commander holding a folded paper and staring out over the foredeck. Townley turned, passed the cablegram to his purser and said: “What do you make of this, Collins?”
* * *
Across Australia, daily newspapers faced a new challenge: their readers craved news of Koombana, but there was none to be had. For a few days, the storm that had ravaged the coast became the story: the annihilation of the fleet at Depuch Island, the battering of Bullarra, and the inundation of the land by a downpour that had treated rain gauge and riverbank with equal contempt. Remarkable accounts of survival sat beside practical reports of damage to infrastructure: telegraph lines laid flat for miles, a tramway all but destroyed, and a noble deep-water jetty left swaying between splayed piles. The stories were newsworthy in the common way, but this was no common calling. Paragraphs came in pilgrimage to fill an abhorrent vacuum.
Also proffered by the dailies was a bloom of speculation that Koombana was merely disabled. The West Australian declared:
Many well-known seafaring men at the Port, who have had considerable experience of the Nor’-West coast, are firmly convinced that the Koombana will be reported within a day or two. It is very probable, they state, that she has received such a terrible buffeting that she is lying off the coast awaiting a complete abatement of the storm before approaching the land. Others are of the opinion that she has met with a mishap to either her propeller or to the machinery. The Koombana is never very heavily laden on the trip north, and after leaving Port Hedland she would have only the Broome and Derby cargo in her holds. She would thus be in very light trim, and the theory has been advanced that during the storm an accident occurred to the shaft or propeller as the result of the vessel pitching in the tremendous seas.
Damage to Koombana’s propeller or tailshaft was indeed a possibility. When a steamship pitches so heavily that her propeller is alternately immersed and exposed, the strain upon her machinery may be extreme. p192The propeller will race when it breaks clear of the water, only to stall when the blades bite and disappear. Although mechanical failure could reasonably be considered a positive outcome, it was ironic that Koombana’s light condition should be offered as ground for optimism. It was also possible that Koombana, riding high, had been overwhelmed by the sea and had capsized, but few commentators were yet willing to place that private thought in the public domain.
Interviewed for the Broome Chronicle, former chief engineer Jock McDonald was adamant that Koombana could deal with almost any eventuality.
My opinion is that she has met with some minor disablement, such as a mishap to the rudder, in which case she would be unmanageable, and repairs would have to be effected at sea. They have all the necessary appliances and facilities on board for doing such work. I have every hope that she will turn up partially repaired. You cannot do much in a week at sea in the way of repairs. Those who are anxious should take heart, because the Koombana is a splendid sea vessel, and well equipped in every way.
There is little doubt that talk of disablement kept spirits high. On the afternoon of Thursday, March 28th, the Geraldton Guardian declared:
We understand that on news being received concerning the missing steamer, it will be posted up at the post office, and Mr. Faulkner (manager of the local branch of the A.S.S. Company) states immediately he hears the steamer has been found, the house flag of the company will be run up.
In the newspapers, as on the streets, there was much interest of Koombana’s recently installed Marconi wireless apparatus. If she were merely disabled, why had no message been received? After all, the device had been touted as essential and life-saving in circumstances just such as these. In the spirit of optimism, many fell back upon a simple explanation: that the storm which had torn away Bullarra’s funnel had also damaged Koombana’s antenna. Day after day, the Marconi men of other ships tapped out Koombana’s call sign “MZP”, hoping all the while that some crackle of reassurance might be received in reply.
Inevitably, Captain Townley and Algy Collins pondered the intuition or information of the Chinese servant. Gorgon was not wireless-equipped, but several of the ships working the Straits now were; perhaps a distress message—even a garbled distress message—had been picked up by someone. In theory, Koombana’s transmitter had a range of 1,500 miles; it was certainly powerful enough to ruffle the ether along the Indonesian archipelago. But it was one thing to send a message skipping across the sky on a night clear and calm; it was quite another to transmit from wet p193equipment in the middle of a Nor’-West willy-willy. Time would tell. Certainly, it was too early to pay homage to the wisdom of the ancients; there was every chance that this Chinese whisper owed more to Marconi than to Confucius.
* * *
Across the days of emptiness the opinions of seafaring men were keenly sought and widely published, but if the editors of the dailies thought that the opinions of master mariners would lend clarity to the discourse, they were quickly re-educated. The result was an epidemic of disagreement that left most readers none the wiser.
Interviewed by The West Australian, Captain Richardson of the Paroo insisted that there was no simple rule regarding the Nor’-West willy-willy.
Occasionally they will work in the same direction as the hands of a watch—that is to say, they will come in from the N.W. hard, and swing round to die away in the S.W. At other times they will work from the N.E. back to the S., and into the S.W. That is what the recent one did, so far as I can gather.
Richardson’s remarks left better-educated shipmasters shaking their heads. The change in the direction of the wind, they knew, was not a characteristic of the storm at all; it related only to the observer’s position in relation to it. On one side of a storm’s advance, the winds shift clockwise as the storm passes; on the other side, anticlockwise. It was perhaps fortunate that the state’s most accomplished shipmasters were out searching for Koombana, beyond the reach of The West Australian.
When asked about Koombana’s predicament and the decisions her master may have taken, Captain Richardson declared:
There are two things that Captain Allen would do—in fact, what any master would do under the circumstances. I take it that he was between Port Hedland and Bedout Island when he began to feel the cyclone . . . the wind would then be about E.N.E. That is, to all intents and purposes practically in his course for Broome. Is he going to go with the wind on his starboard bow and plug through it, or run to the N.W. with it on his quarter? The latter plan is scouted, by reason of the fact that we have not heard of him.
This speculation sent one nautical man searching for his copy of John Macnab’s Catechism of the Law of Storms. Having found it, and refreshed a memory that dated back to his Board of Trade examinations, he scurried off to The Sunday Times.
The gentleman who loaned us the “catechism” remarks:—“Richardson in the West Australian says there is no hard and fast rule. What nonsense! The Koombana as last seen by the Bullarra was in the dangerous quadrant, and the instructions are you must not let the p194centre pass over you. Therefore the Koombana should have run south-west to escape. When one sees in cold print this talk about ‘plugging through’ it makes one exasperated at such ignorance.”
But as one gentleman professed exasperation, his words spawned new exasperation in others. It was already known that the storm had crossed the coast west of Depuch Island, and had swept in not from the north-east but from the north-west. Had Koombana “run south-west to escape” she would have followed Bullarra directly into the path of the storm. Indeed, Captain Allen would have accomplished by strategy what his colleague had suffered merely by chance.
Perhaps the most constructive contribution came from a man with powerful reasons to deal only in fact. Facing the possible loss of his wife and two stepdaughters aboard Koombana, master pearler Sydney Pigott recognised that one ship, and one ship only, had encountered the storm from the opposite side. On her northward run from Fremantle to Wyndham direct, Moira had taken a wide track outside the Montebello Islands and the Lacepedes. Because the storm had passed between his ship and the coast, Captain Ward’s observations would be critical to understanding the progress of the storm over the sea, and critical to understanding Koombana’s plight, then and now. Pigott spared no effort to place this new information in the hands he considered most capable. From Broome he had telegraphed to Wyndham, where Moira was delayed awaiting cattle. As soon as the reply came, it was relayed to Perth, and from there to Carnarvon, for Captain Mills of the Minderoo.
The cable, dense with detail, contained Moira’s hour-by-hour observations—the direction of the wind, the condition of the sea, and the state of the glass—for twelve hours from the time of Koombana’s departure. By careful analysis it could be concluded that although Moira had endured a rough trip, she had never been close to the eye of the storm. Indeed, when the conditions she encountered were at their worst, the storm was closer to the land than to the ship. That, of itself, was useful information.
* * *
By the morning of Friday, March 29th, all optimism had begun to yield. While daily newspapers across the nation struggled for a new angle, The West Australian found resonance in the void. Under a simple, powerful headline, it spoke directly to universal anguish.
ANOTHER SILENT DAY.
With an immense coastline to patrol and an area of sea that must take days to cover, news from the search fleet is necessarily slow in coming to hand, and the passage of each hour without a single word has begun to dispel the belief that no news is a bulwark to which those in suspense can cling. Optimistic endurance of the silence from the p195seas has almost reached its breaking point in the public mind. It is probable that the first tidings will come through from Broome to-day, where the Bullarra, herself scarred by the hurricane, is expected to arrive at daylight.
For the first time, the likelihood of grim news was stated barely. The West Australian told its readers that the little coasting steamer Una had been chartered by the government “for a cruise in what may be termed the catastrophe zone.”
* * *
As the new pessimism went to press, the lugger Mina reached her first waypoint. Hugo Harper estimated their position as sixty miles due north of Bedout Island. That was ideal; he could now tack southward, scanning a large area in favourable conditions before fixing his position at day end.
Late in the afternoon Bedout was sighted, but as Mina ran toward the land she was caught by what Nor’-Westers call a “cock-eyed bob”: a pint-sized but nonetheless dangerous open-water whirlwind. As the lugger skirted the island to the east, fading light confirmed the crew’s suspicion that the island’s unattended beacon was not burning. All wondered how long it had been out, but that was not the pressing concern. With no beacon, Bennie and Harper were unwilling to risk a close approach. They turned the lugger around and returned to deep water, choosing the fickle wind in preference to a reef as unyielding as it was invisible. Within an hour the cock-eye had blown itself out; Mina rode comfortably through the night under minimal sail.
At daylight on Saturday, March 30th, the search was resumed. After scanning the sea for four days without the slightest reward, Mina’s crew had sunk into a shared belief that nothing would be found. However, at 9 a.m., ten miles to the west of Bedout Island, a small piece of painted wood panelling was plucked from the water. On close inspection, it seemed to have come from the inside of a cabin, but little was made of it. Alone and uncorroborated, against the sea’s blank denial, the first artefact of disaster struggled for significance. It was stowed below and did not rate mention in Mina’s log.
* * *
With her new corrugated-iron funnel, Bullarra looked more shack-shape than ship-shape, but her arrival at Broome on Friday afternoon was cause for relief and excitement. Buoyed by the prompt acceptance of their earlier proposals, the citizens convened again in the evening, to finalise and despatch a detailed plan for the steamer’s redeployment.
In Perth, Premier Scaddan was becoming accustomed to receiving the thoughts of Broome with his breakfast. The latest cable read:
After consultation with master mariners and the master of the Bullarra we consider it advisable that the Government should endeavour to p196induce the Adelaide Steamship Company to issue instructions to the Bullarra to discharge her cattle here, arrange if necessary to obtain coal supplies from the Gorgon, and proceed to a position off Turtle Island, bearing east six miles, from which point she might commence a systematic search across the track of the storm as follows:—From the point of departure proceed due west 75 miles, then due north 15 miles, then due east 75 miles, then due north 15 miles, and so on for six consecutive days, the search only to be conducted during daylight and with an officer at the masthead.
Once again the premier and the harbourmaster conferred, and once again Broome had its way.
* * *
At 2 p.m. on Saturday, Minderoo arrived at Cossack. From the telegraph office a brief progress report was despatched to Fremantle by passenger and parliamentarian Joseph Gardiner:
Arrived Cossack in Minderoo today. Captain Mills made thorough search through Mary Ann Passage, along the east side of Barrow Shoal, round Barrow Island, and round Montebello Island and Ritchie Reef. Then steered east 25 miles, then south again to Sholl Islands. Searched the islands and then along the coast to Cossack, through the whole of the Dampier Archipelago. No trace of the Koombana.
Captain Mills had dropped anchor in the roads, but on receipt of new instructions from the chief harbourmaster he brought Minderoo to the Point Samson jetty, to expedite preparations for the next phase of the search. His urgency was due in large measure to his belief that the real work, with genuine prospects of success, had yet to begin. Precious time had been lost to what he considered a fruitless exercise. He and his crew had scanned a vast expanse of ocean in which Koombana, he felt sure, would not be found. Like Dalziel and Bennie, Mills had reached the conclusion that Bedout Island was pivotal for the search, as it must have been for Captain Allen ten days earlier. Whether Koombana ran north-west or north-east was difficult to judge; it all depended on the conditions her master had faced as he approached that difficult and dangerous turn.
The second set of instructions for Captain Mills was, like the first, finalised without the benefit of his experience. This time, however, the thoughts of shipmaster and searchmaster were fully aligned. From a point north-east of the Montebello Islands, Minderoo would begin a systematic sweep of the ocean, steaming north and south on lines thirty miles apart, working steadily eastward towards Bedout.
* * *
In October 1906, Bedout Island rose briefly to prominence, not through any maritime disaster upon reef or shore but by a remarkable consensus of shipmasters that the island carried such potential. The state government p197had announced that four new lighthouses would be built along the Nor’-West coast, at locations yet to be decided. The plan included a novel element: senior shipmasters of the Nor’-West would not merely be consulted; they would be invited to cast votes on where the new lights should be placed.
The opportunity was broadly embraced. To the government’s table came Andrew Mills, then master of the Paroo, also Townley of the Sultan, Richardson of Minilya, Hurrell of Moonta, and nine others. The particular form of lighthouse democracy was simple: each master would cast four votes, and the results would be tallied: 13 masters, 52 votes in total. The “shipmasters’ consensus” left little doubt that a coralline islet north-east of Port Hedland was held in dark regard. Let the votes tell the story:
Bedout Island 12
Cape Leveque 8
Point Cloates 7
Cape Inscription 7
Cape Ronsard (Bernier Island) 5
Cape Vlaming (North West Cape) 4
Shoal Point 3
Cape Londonderry 2
Low Point 2
Montebello Islands 1
Bassett Smith Shoal 1
Each captain was asked to provide concise remarks in support of his choices. Captain Mills wrote: “Bedout Island, on account of island being low-lying with extensive reefs and strong currents running athwart the usual course of vessels.” Captain Townley echoed Captain Mills, and Captain Airey did not waste words. “Of undoubted necessity,” he wrote.
Interestingly, several shipmasters explained that the danger of Bedout was not primarily the work of nature; it was, rather, an accident of human history. In round steamship terms, the settlements of Port Hedland and Broome were 24 hours apart, and both ports were tidal, meaning that they could only be entered or left on a high spring tide. The problem arose because the travel time and the cycle of the tides were closely matched. For all but the fastest steamers, catching the tide at the destination port was a close-run thing. There was no time to dilly-dally or to take a wider, safer line around an inconvenient island.
Several of the captains also explained that because Bedout Island was closer to Hedland than to Broome, it was the southbound steamer that faced the greater risk. Typically, the northbound boat would slip out of Hedland on a morning tide and be clear of the danger by nightfall. The southbound boat, leaving Broome on the same tide, had no alternative but to make the dangerous turn in the middle of the night.
p198The decision to place a light on Bedout created a new problem. Of the sites chosen, the island was least suited to conventional lighthouse construction and to human occupancy. The island’s highest point was less than twenty feet above the high-water mark, and there was evidence that it had, on occasion, been swept from end to end by the sea. An automated light seemed the only practical possibility.
The state’s first unattended lighthouse, an acetylene-burning, occulting beacon of Norwegian design, entered service on Bedout Island in December 1908. Pleasantly surprised by its rapid completion and low cost, the government declared the innovation a great success. The shipmasters, however, reserved judgment. They welcomed the new beacon, looked out for it, and bent their courses by it, but none was quite ready to place his trust in a new-fangled contraption—and a new-fangled Norwegian contraption to boot.
* * *
On the morning of Monday, April 1st, as Bullarra made final preparations for her departure from Broome, a crew member dashed off a postcard to a friend:
Had an awful time in the Cyclone passed thro the centre never expected to see anybody again. Just about fed up of the sea now—wouldn’t take much to make me chuck it up. The old ship is a marvel she is badly knocked about. Just off again for an 8 days search for the Koombana—hope we will meet with success. This is a photo of the jury funnel nearing completion in haste. Yours, E.T.B.
The card sent ashore for posting did not travel far. Someone, probably the Adelaide Steamship Company’s agent in Broome, took exception to the line “Just about fed up of the sea now—wouldn’t take much to make me chuck it up.” After running a blue crayon through the offensive content, the self-appointed message-manager apparently thought better of sending the card at all. It was filed away not with material relating to Bullarra, but with passenger lists and correspondence relating to the missing Koombana. And there it would remain.
* * *
When Gorgon arrived off Broome and signalled “No News,” her tour of duty was officially over. She would remain at anchor overnight and then resume her regular running, albeit with officers maintaining a lookout across all daylight hours. It was under these instructions that Gorgon, steaming south for Cossack, made the discovery that would change everything.
At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, April 2nd, twenty miles north of Bedout Island, the lookout saw something floating. In a sense it was a chance sighting; the wind had fallen away to nothing and the sea was like glass. After p200Gorgon’s engines were reversed and then stopped, purser Algy Collins watched from the rail as a boat was lowered. What appeared at first to be wooden panelling turned out to be a cabin door, still hinged to its broken stile. The scene was something he would remember for a very long time, and two things in particular remained vivid in that memory: the silence broken by the screeching of seabirds, and the colour and opaqueness of the sea.
A great Nor’-West storm leaves its mark. The rains thatescort the whirlwind to shore may be torrential and transformative. As if startled by the splash of water, dry land seizes brief opportunity; it sucks up what it can and sends the surplus red and iron-rich to the sea. Delivered into the custody of the tide, the desert’s complexion may be carried far offshore, to blend with plumes of pale, coralline silt that wind and waves have drawn up from the seabed. Here, eighty miles from land, ten days beyond calamity, the fate of Koombana was pulled not from clear water (which a few calm days might otherwise produce) but from a strange, mushroom-coloured milk. Captain Townley recorded the discovery in Gorgon’s log:
April 2, 10.15 a.m., Lat. 19.10 S Long. 119.6 E. Ship steering S 6 W. true. Sighted white painted piece of wood. Stopped and picked up same. Description: Painted door painted white one side, polished on other. Silver fittings marked cross-flags Walker and Hall (W. & H.). Fingerplate both sides ornamented with Grecian urn, with hanging wreaths each side. Door apparently had been forced by pressure. Handle on white side, and on reverse side drawn in. Builder’s joiner written with hard pencil, ‘Stat---- First-class entrance 429 J.D.’ The lock is marked ‘N. F. Ramsay and Co., Newcastle-on-Tyne. Several small leatherheads attached, about half-inch long.
10.40 a.m., Proceeded.
10.45 a.m., Stopped. Passed through several very small pieces, one a painting stage, and others apparently small pieces of board. Unusual number of birds about.
Among Gorgon’s crew were several who had travelled by Koombana, and who knew the ship well. None doubted the door’s provenance. Captain Townley looked closely at the word scribbled in pencil on the back of the stile. He was almost certain that it was “State”. As Koombana was the only vessel on the coast which offered staterooms, her loss now seemed beyond doubt.
* * *
Gorgon’s unscheduled late-afternoon arrival sent Port Hedland into a spin. The unusual import of her visit was sensed; even before Captain Townley reached the telegraph office, word spread that she carried evidence that Koombana had foundered.
At 7.45 p.m., the Port Hedland postmaster sent a telegram to his counterpart in Perth.
p201Portion of Koombana found 50 miles from here by the s.s. Gorgon. Lots of small wreckage about Bedout Island.
Perhaps the message was meant to be confidential, but it could not possibly have remained so. The Sunday Times reported:
The news of the arrival of this message spread like wildfire through the city, and people attending the theatres and other places of amusement that evening lost all interest in the various entertainments through the sudden gloomy pall which enveloped everybody and everything.
In Port Hedland, locals and visitors asked to see the evidence of disaster for themselves. Some were ushered aboard, for what they would remember as something akin to an autopsy. While Gorgon was steaming for Hedland, the stateroom door had been examined minutely by her officers; they had tipped it, turned it, studied its handle and its lock. Now, with some authority and with a sense of ownership, they led inquirers below to where the door lay on a bench under canvas, and where by the light of a bull’s-eye lantern, its ‘injuries’ could be revealed and interpreted. A reporter for The Northern Times later wrote:
It clearly told its own tale. It had given before the force of an even pressure from outside, and in falling in had smashed the inside handle against a bunk or some hard object. When the pressure came, the catch began to give (the door was closed but not locked) and the lock was being forced through the woodwork when the hanging stile—the upright post to which a door is hinged—came away, and with the door fell into the cabin. On the inside, and therefore unpainted, part of the stile, was the joiner’s note in pencil, the number “429” doubtless being his registered number on the job, followed by his initial. Captain Townley says it is the door of a port cabin and judges that it belonged to the cabin 1-2-3 opposite the music room.
The reporter remarked that all stood quiet and attentive as the explanation was offered. “We could not but be solemnly impressed,” he wrote, “by the sight of this silent but eloquent witness of the ocean tragedy.”
* * *
The next morning, Minderoo also reached Port Hedland; Captain Mills took advantage of the high tide and brought the ship in. Townsfolk came in congregation to the jetty, to ask and to tell in equal measure. When Mills stepped ashore and left for the telegraph office, locals were struck by his jaded appearance. Minderoo’s passengers confirmed that for four days he had rarely left the bridge.
A precise account of Minderoo’s discoveries was telegraphed to the ship’s owners:
p202Searched within the following positions by running parallel lines 30 miles apart:—Latitude 20.15, longitude 116; latitude 18.40, longitude 116; latitude 18.40, longitude 117.40; latitude 20, longitude 118; from the last position steering east ten miles, then north thirty miles, then east fifteen miles. Stopped to pick up smoking-room settee cushion and part of cabin drawer in latitude 19.36, longitude 117.53; and in latitude 19.32, longitude 118.10, picked up bottom board of boat and small teak panel. Abandoned further search at sunset on Tuesday, and consider the ship is lost in the vicinity of Bedout Island.
Although the fact was not noted in the despatch, the board from the bottom of a lifeboat also carried the number “429”. It was soon realised that 429 was not the number of a shipyard worker, but of the ship itself. “Koombana” was ship-building project No. 429 for Alexander Stephen & Sons, at Linthouse on the south bank of the Clyde.
If there be one coincidence worth recording, it is that the first two significant discoveries of Koombana wreckage were, after so many empty days, pulled from the water within minutes of each other. While the crew of Minderoo retrieved a waterlogged cushion, the crew of Gorgon lifted the stateroom door. The two ships were at that time 70 miles apart, each below the other’s horizon.
It is not surprising that the two captains dealt differently with their respective finds. Although the discovery of a red morocco-leather cushion from Koombana’s First Class smoke room was ominous, it did not prove disaster. The stateroom door, by contrast, spoke clearly of violent separation from the ship.
For Hugo Harper, the discoveries of Gorgon and Minderoo settled the issue: Koombana and her entire complement, including his brother George, were lost. He telegraphed his brother Gilbert in Broome:
Found some wreckage myself
but did not place much importance in it.
Gorgon in Hedland with cabin door.
Minderoo has bottom of lifeboat,
cabin fixings, and smoke room Morocco settee.
Personally now fear disaster.
Returning to-night by Minderoo.
* * *
On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 3rd, the schooner Muriel, which had searched for eight days but found nothing, was drawn toward a ragged tail of smoke on the horizon. The wind had fallen away and progress was slow; more than an hour passed before Captain Dalziel recognised Bullarra. At six in the evening, he boarded the steamer to speak with Captain Upjohn.
p203Bullarra, he learned, had made three discoveries which pointed to disaster. Part of a smashed boat, bearing the badge of the Adelaide Steamship Company, had been recovered north of Bedout Island. A distinctive piece of ceiling panelling had also been retrieved, and Captain Upjohn had seen what had appeared as the outline of a submerged ship, but which turned out to be a slick of oily, greasy water. Samples had been taken for analysis.
After a brief discussion, it was decided that Bullarra would remain at sea and continue the search, leaving Muriel to convey the grim news. In isolation from the conversation of the port, neither captain knew that Koombana’s fate was already sealed.
* * *
In Geraldton on the morning of Thursday, April 4th, 1912, the flag of the Adelaide Steamship Company rose slowly at the local shipping office, and stopped at half mast. A message posted in the window read:
With profound regret the company have to announce that they consider the discovery of wreckage by the s.s. Gorgon and s.s. Minderoo (which has been identified as belonging to the s.s. Koombana) is evidence that the Koombana was lost with all hands, in the vicinity of Bedout Island, during the cyclone which raged on the 20th and 21st March. The vessel evidently being caught in the vortex and overwhelmed by the sea, which no human agency could prevent. The loss of the passengers, Captain T. Allen and his fine crew is deeply deplored.
In Carnarvon, The Northern Times extended sympathy to the relatives and friends of her passengers and crew.
The presence on the boat of well-known North-Westers returning from their summer holidays caused a wave of general apprehension and deep regret in Carnarvon, and all news to hand from day to day was eagerly inquired for. We trust that even if the disaster is complete, some indication will be found to mark the resting place of the victims of the hurricane and the last anchorage of the palatial steamer whose presence was a compliment to our coast and a source of much comfort and satisfaction to passengers.
Although The Northern Times was gracious in its commiseration, there was a late change in the texture of its reporting. It appears that when all hope was extinguished, all restraint was extinguished with it.
With a little imagination we can picture the disaster: the rapidly incoming tide at Hedland Jetty, the crowding indications of an unusual weather disturbance, the anxious consultation of the captain and officers of the two Adelaide Company’s steamers, the decision p204to face the storm in the open sea, the breezy assurances to troubled passengers, the good-byes to friends and earth; forging into the rising sea, hatches battened down, and passengers cooped up amid protest and alarm, the burst and roar of the hurricane, the vessel dropping in troughs fearsomely deep, shaking herself free from the deluge upon her, and lifting and heaving upon hill-tops; the bridge carried away, the steamer at the mercy of the storm, a list, the roar of waters, and then the great darkness.
* * *
As it happened, the only vessel specifically chartered to search for Koombana arrived too late to play her intended part. The little coaster Una, having steamed from Geraldton to Cossack direct, received new instructions by wire:
Captain Rantzau “Una”
Wreckage found 25 miles north by west Bedout Island.
Proceed at once to that island.
See if any wreckage about reef
then proceed to spot where wreckage discovered
and after searching in the vicinity for one day
put into Hedland and report for further instructions.
The Bullarra is searching east of Turtle Island
Should you sight her,
signal master return Cossack at once for orders.
3rd April 1912
Captain Rantzau was thus given the thankless task of determining, as nearly as possible, the location of the disaster. On the morning of Friday, April 5th, he steered Una slowly north-north-west from Bedout. Late in the morning, after the island had disappeared astern, a few pieces of wreckage were seen floating. The engines were stopped. In the course of an hour, while Una drifted on the tidal current, Captain Rantzau decided that the search for Koombana was over. His final report to Chief Harbourmaster Irvine records his arrival at that place—and at that conclusion.
At dinner time stopped in position 19.7 S. and longitude 118.53 E. Wreckage at this place seemed to come from the bottom as within the course of 15 minutes no wreckage would be visible and then it would be seen floating, indicating to me that the ship was lost at about this point. I would also like to state at this place there were a large number of sharks to be seen. Being satisfied that nothing further could be done I proceeded to Port Hedland arriving there at 1.30 am on 6th April.
* * *
April 6th. Easter Saturday. It was now seventeen days since Koombana had left Port Hedland, and eleven since Muriel had left Broome. Anchored p205overnight in the lee of Bedout, one task remained for Broome wharfinger Oswald Dalziel and his crew. They would endeavour to fix the light.
Ashore on the island, crossing sand ridges littered with dead and maimed birds, Dalziel became irritated. What was Upjohn thinking? Bullarra’s master—or at least his chief officer, who had led a party sent ashore—had concluded that because the glass of the light was not encrusted with salt, the island had not experienced the full force of the blow. What nonsense, he thought. Lashing rain could clear the glass as surely as the sea-spray would encrust it, and a couple of dewy nights would erase all evidence of either.
After climbing to the platform at the top of the tower, he stared at the sea for a few moments and then set to work. After removing one of the panes shielding the lamp, he thought he could hear and feel the flow of acetylene. That was quickly confirmed; when a match was brought close to the jets, the lamp flared immediately and stayed alight. There seemed nothing wrong with it. After checking the machinery and the rotating screens, he replaced the glass pane, carefully pressed the putty p206around it, and tightened the screws holding the brass battens in place. He descended the tower none the wiser, but with a keen sense of having locked the gate after the horse had bolted.
The crew stood by until early evening, to be sure that the job was done. Although the light worked perfectly, there was little satisfaction drawn from this final service rendered. There was, rather, the simple wish to be gone, born of sadness, fatigue and vague discomfiture that a beacon so oblivious and unrepentant should now cast its beam, its blessing—its weightless, worthless blessing—upon a softly breathing sea.
With dull desire to be cloaked in darkness, to answer only to the wind, the tired men of Muriel set sail for Broome.