5["The Koombana", The West Australian, Friday 26 April 1912, page 8]

[see Western Mail below for fuller version]





At the Fremantle Police Court yesterday morning, a Court of Marine Inquiry into the "total loss at sea of the s.s. Koombana on or about March 20, 1912, between Port Hedland and Broome," was opened. Mr. E. P. Dowley, R.M., was President of the Court, and assisting him were Captains F. L. Parkes and J.W.W. Yates, assessors. The Crown Prosecutor (Mr. Frank Parker) appeared on behalf of the Chief Harbourmaster to conduct the inquiry, and Mr. M. L. Moss, K.C., watched the proceedings on behalf of the Adelaide Steamship Company, the owners of the vessel.

Mr. Parker, in opening, said that the usual Court of Marine Inquiry was called upon to decide on some specific charge made by the Chief Harbourmaster against the captain of a vessel or some officer. At the preliminary inquiry held on the 22nd inst. no such charges had been made, but in view of the serious loss of life involved the Court had been called upon to investigate publicly into the loss of the ship, and to decide if any blame could be attributed to the company or to any officer on shore.

S.R.P. Stevens, who was acting divisional officer of the Commonwealth Weather Bureau from March 15 to 25, examined by Mr. Parker, said that each morning he received reports from Wyndham, Hall's Creek, Broome, Derby, Cossack, Onslow, and other places in the North-West. Duplicate reports were sent to the Melbourne Bureau, and from that office the forecast, based on barometer and thermometer readings, were issued at noon; Eastern time. These forecasts were received in Perth between 11.30 and 12 noon (Western time). If they were not received by noon each day the forecast was issued by the local bureau. If storms were approaching warnings were issued to all stations in the vicinity of the storm centre. Later on in the afternoon forecasts based upon more recent data were issued by the local, bureau. No special forecast I was issued from, the Melbourne office of any storm from March 16 to 21, inclusive. On March 15 there was a monsoonal depression I which had worked S.S.W. to Port Darwin. By the 18th the storm had reached the neighbourhood of Derby, but in no cases were high winds recorded, and the lowest point the barometer recorded was 29.70. A report from Port Hedland on the 20th stated that the wind force was four miles an hour, with threatening weather and smooth seas, and Cossack reported a barometer of 29.69, with wind east blowing at the rate of 19 miles an hour. On the 20th at 1 p.m. Cossack advised that a fresh gale was blowing, with high seas and weather threatening. On the 21st, next morning, the barometer recorded 29.56, wind 37 miles an hour, and there were very heavy seas. The storm, from 15th to 21st March, went in a south-west direction, and evidently struck the coast at Cossack and curved. The centre of the storm passed north of Cossack. There was nothing to indicate that a cyclone was approaching.

Cross-examined by Mr. Moss: The cyclone indicated a sudden development and unexpected energy. The forecasts were thoroughly satisfactory, and the only delay in getting them from Melbourne was the time it took to transmit the telegrams, which had precedence over all other matter. Pressed by counsel, witness admitted that there would be a saving of time to that extent if the reports were made by the local bureau. Continuing, witness stated that apparently the depression struck the coast somewhere near Cossack, and, being interrupted by the coastline and the width of the depression being narrowed, it resulted in a sudden storm. It would help if the various officers on the coast exchanged information direct, provided, they understood what it conveyed. Postmasters, speaking generally, were very reliable in the matter of weather reports. There had been cases of delay in issuing forecasts from Melbourne. He could not form any ideas as to the velocity of the cyclone which wrecked the Koombana. The diameter, he thought, would extend from Port Hedland on the north and Cossack on the south. About 90 miles north-east by south-west.

To Mr. Parker: It would be of assistance to masters if the postmaster at Broome advised postmasters north and south of the weather conditions.


Capt. Harry Upjohn master of the s.s. Bullarra, examined by Cr. Parker, said the Bullarra arrived at Port Hedland on the 18th March, and the Koombana on the 19th. Both steamers left on the 20th. About 8 a.m. Capt. Allen went on board the Bullarra, and in the course of a general conversation said, "What do you think of the weather?" He (witness) replied that it would be dirty (by which he referred to the over cast sky), but he didn't know'if there would be anything in it. He expected similar weather, or even finer, on the voyage. He had no conversation with Capt. Allen as to the advisability or otherwise of leaving port. The Koombana left between 10 and 11 a.m., 20 minutes before the Bullarra. He followed in the wake of the Koombana for half on hour, and had her in sight for about two hours. He noticed how well the Koombana behaved as she went out, and either he or the chief officer, who was on the bridge with him remarked that she appeared in good trim. The propeller was not submerged, and she did not roll at all in crossing the bar. When they parted Koombana was proceeding on her ordinary course to Broome. Between 2 and 4 p.m., the wind changed from north-east to east-north-east. At 4.20 the engines were slowed, and at 5 p.m. he altered the Bullarra's course and put to sea. At 6 p.m. the barometer had been 29.50 and at 4 p.m. it began to fall gradually, though it did not flicker. Between 8 and 10 p.m. a heavy gale was blowing, and the sea running high. The ship began to labour heavily, and things were getting serious. He did not take any particular notice of the barometer until about 10 p.m. He had been chief officer of the Koombana for about 12 months, and during that time had experienced some very heavy weather when she was lightly laden. She was a magnificent ship, and a splendid sea boat. He had searched for the Koombana and had found portion of a motor launch, etc., which he was certain belonged to her. All his own boats had been damaged. With regard to the loss of the vessel, the only explanation he could offer, judging from his experence with her, was that she was smashed up by the force of the cyclone. It was impossible for her to have "turned turtle."

To Mr. Moss: It was a miracle that the Bullarra escaped. It was the worst cyclone he had ever experienced. At this stage Mr. Moss handed in a telegram dated from Port Hedland on the 20th March, signed by "Upjohn and Allen," and relating to the painting of the buoys there. It was on this matter witness and Captain Allen had conferred, and there was not a shadow of truth in the statement which appeared in the press that they had had a conference about the weather before leaving Port Hedland. He was certain that Captaih Allen had made no such remark as was attributed to him that he (Capt. Allen). "would be lucky to get to Broome.

Referring again to the search for the lost steamer, witness said that in lat. 19.11 longitude 119.25, about 27 to 37 miles from Bedout Island, one evening they saw what looked like a portion of the deck of a vessel, but it proved to be the shape of a ship outlined by an oily substance such as would rise from a sunken vessel, floating on the sea. They had taken the specimens produced in Court at this spot. An awning spar and one of the planks exhibited in court had also been discovered in close proximity. The other articles were picked up about 20 miles from there.

James Crossley, chief officer of the Bullarra corroborated the evidence of Captain Upjohn, and in reply to Captain Parkes said that when the Koombana went on her course he didn't see her propeller rising out of the water. Replying to Mr. Moss, witness stated that the light on Bedout Island was out when he went there. It was the worst storm he had experienced in 15 years at sea, and he should have thought it impossible for any ship to live in such weather.

J.F. Morrison, Chief Pilot, said that in January last the boats and appliances in the lost ship were in splendid order, and sufficient to carry all the passengers and crew. He bad known Captain Allen for 25 years, and thought him a good and careful navigator and a man who took no risks.


Witness continuing, said that the Koombana had come into port from her first trip from the North-West with a list. On speaking to Captain Rees he found the cattle deck was filled with cattle, and one of the tanks was empty, the latter being due to the fact that the engineers had not the proper "hang" of the tanks. She was a well-built ship and such weather might never be experienced again in a lifetime.

Matthew John Williams, Marine Superintendent in Western Australia of the Adelaide S.S. Co., in his evidence stated that he had superintended the loading of the ship before she left Fremantle. He gave particulars of cargo shipped, and he was of the opinion that it would not shift. The vessel took sufficient water at Fremantle to last her for the round trip. The tanks were subdivided longitudinally.

Henry John Clark. assistant wharf manager, Port of Fremantle, to Mr. Parker said he was for 15 months chief officer of the Koombana, and came out on her from Glasgow. He had gone in her from Fremantle to Geraldton in the teeth of a howling gale and she behaved very well indeed. He had also been in her on the coast of New South Wales when the wind was right on her beam and only her ballast tanks were full. They drove right through it, but it was blowing so hard that they could not go up to the wharf and had to lay in Watson's Bay with two anchors down. As to her loss, he thought she had been battered to pieces. He believed that she went through the storm but was so knocked about that she foundered. He didn't think it was possible for the vessel to be blown absolutely over.

To Mr. Moss: Mr. Ralston, inventor of the Stability and Trim Indicator in Court, was head draftsman where the Koombana was built and had one of the best reputations in the United Kingdom.

To Captain Parkes: He had been asked sometimes to empty one of the tanks in order to produce a list so that the coaling of the vessel at the wharf might be facilitated. Mr. Craig, chief engineer of the Bullarra, cross-examined by Mr. Moss, said the propeller of the Koombana at Port Hedland was submerged six or eight inches. He had heard nothing either on the boat or on shore about it "flogging the air."

Captain Upjohn and his chief officer (Mr. Crossley) were both recalled to explain a discrepancy regarding a statement of the former relative to the barometer reading at 12 noon on March 21, which he had said was 29.50. The entry in the log was 28.83, but it was explained that the latter reading was from the chart-room glass, which was a low-set instrument, with a "fine weather" reading of 28.90, and the captain's reading was taken from the commander's glass, which was hung in his own cabin.

Captain Upjohn, in reply to a question by Mr. Dowley, said he did not know if the light on Bedout Island had failed before the cyclone.

At this stage Captain Clarke, also recalled by Mr. Parker for the purpose of contradicting a "rumour prevalent in Fremantle," said that during his (the witness's) connection with the Koombana no ballast in the shape of iron rails had been put into her.

Mr. Moss: "Another pavement expert's opinion exploded!"


The evidence given before the Chief Harbour Master at the preliminary inquiry by Richard Ernest Arundel, surveyor to Lloyd's Register and to the Marine Underwriters, was then read. Witness had come to the conclusion that after leaving Port Hedland making for Bedout, the captain of the Koombana met the wind northerly so strong that it prevented him from getting to the north to go round about; then finding it impossible, to heave-to on his port tack, which was the. proper tack, he must have adsppted one of two courses: either to heave to on the starboard tack or attempt to run across to the open water to the westward in the face of the disturbance. Witness was of opinion that the disturbance came over from a S.S.E. direction, and that the Koombana, before she reached Bedout, experiencing a wind direction N. and E., was obliged to heave-to on the starboard tack on the westward, and in running west would get into the centre of the cyclone. The finding of wreckage to the westward confirmed his opinion that she ran out to westward.


The Chief Harbour Master: Would you say, from what you saw of the Koombana that she was top-heavy, or over-burdened with top weight, or just an ordinary safe ship?

Witness: I have formed the opinion that she was a "tender" vessel when light, but perfectly seaworthy. There is a popular fallacy that a ship having top-hamper is unsafe. If you have great weight in the bottom of a ship, that gives stiffness; and if you have not that great weight there is what you call tenderness. You do not think that top hamper, properly stowed, would interfere with her stability at all?--No; the question in every case is a proper distribution of weight.


Captain James Alexander Rankin, acting Marine Superintendent of the Adelaide S.S Company, stationed at Port Adelaide, referring to the Ralston stability and trim indicator in Court, said it was used for, among other things, determining the "G.M." the generally accepted term for denoting the stability of a vessel. The instrument could only be used for the vessel it was designed for, and he had, when he received it, tested the "Koombana on information supplied by Captain Rees, when the vessel was in the lightest possible condition. The test gave a result of plus 1ft. 6in., which was exceptionally.good. If the vessel were fully loaded with cargo and coal and all tanks were full, she could heel over to an angle of 90 per cent. and even then have a margin for recovery. Before Captain Allen's departure from Fremantle on his last trip he had sent him (witness) a report showing the distribution of a load of 712 tons, and showing also particulars of draught and trim. He asked the Court to make the test from these particulars on the stability and trim indicator in Court. The Court and counsel then watched Captain Rankin distribute the weights orer the plan in the indicator. The "G.M." was plus 2ft. 1iin., and the result of the second process almost exactly agreed with the late captain's figures for the draught and trim arrived at by ordinary means.

To Mr. Moss: the ship was in many respects in excess of British requirements. He placed every reliance on the Ralston indicator. Captain Yates: In a hurricane, would not a vessel with less top hamper be more safe?

Witness: That would depend on the distribution of the weight.

Mr. A.C. Butcher, resident engineer for harbour and lights, said that in conjunction with Captain Rankin he had carried out tests and the curves of stability were particlarly. good. The stability curves supplied by the builders did not show such severe tests as those carried out by witness.


The President of the Court (Mr. E. P. Dowley, R.M.), before the Court adjourned till 11 o'clock to-day, said that as rumours had been circulated with regard to the alleged instability of the Koombana, he wished to state publicly that the Court would be pleased to listen to any evidence that anybody might wish to bring forward. Mr. Moss said, on behalf of the Adelaide Company, that he was glad Mr. Dowley had issued that general invitation to the public. It would give those people who had been spreading the rumours a chance to show in Court what they knew about the subject.