33["The Koombana", The Western Mail (Perth, WA), Saturday 04 May 1912, page 37]



At the Fremantle Police Court on the 25th inst. 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 should 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 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 bureaus. No special forecast was issued from the Melbourne office of any storm from March 16 to 21, inclusive. On March 15 there was a monsoonal depression 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 thc 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 tbat 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 io 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 Mr. Parker, said the Bullarra arrived at Port Hedland on the 18th March, and the Koombaua 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 overcast 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 ll a.m., 20 minutes before the Bullarra. He followed in the wake of the Koombana for half an 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 the Koombana was proceeding on her ordinary course to Broome. Between 2 p.m. 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 a.m. the barometer had been at 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 seaboat. He had searched for the Koombana and 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 experience 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 a conference about the weather before leaving Port Hedland. He was certain that Captain 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 in 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 Captaii 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 had known Captain Allen for 21 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 iudeed. 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 lsland 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 adopted 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 he 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 particular on the stability and trim indicator in Court.

The Court and counsel then watched Captain Rankin distribute the weights over the plan in the indicator. The "G.M." was plus 2ft. 7 1/2in., 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 particularly good. The stability curves supplied by the builders did not show such severe tests as those carried out by witness.


Thc 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.


At the Fremantle Police Court on the [?29th] inst, the 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 resumed. Mr. E. P. Rowley, R.M., was President of the Court, and assisting him were Captains F. J. 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. Moss stated that Captain Upjohn, in his evidence, had said that the Koombana propeller when leaving Port Hedland ws "well" submerged, instead of "not" submerged as reported.


William Ernest Moxon, attorney and manager in Western Australia for the Adelaide S.S. Co., examined by Mr. Moss, said the Koombana came under his supervision, and no special instructions were given to the late Captain Allen to push on, as the vessel ran on a time-table. She carried a particularly small cargo up to Port Hedland and the captain had plenty of time to discharge cargo and do any other work necessary. In the North-West trade the captains were "peculiarly responsible," as the company left matters very largely in their hands. His company's rule No. 4 stated that "No order will be held to excuse the endangering of the ship." Everything humanly possible had been done by the company to find trace of the vessel and for succouring of any possible survivors. With reference to the report published in the "West Australian" from its Port Hedland correspondent on April 4, he had received a letter from the company's manager denying that the ship rolled as she crossed the bar, that the propeller was out of the water, and that Captain Allen had said he would be "lucky if he got to Broome." He (the local manager) was on board the Koombana in the last hour before she left Port Hedland, and he was not aware that Captains Upjohn and Allen had any conversation with reference to the weather. The glass was not more than 10 points below normal. A fortnight before there had been a fall of 60 points and nothing followed. They had discussed the question of the vessel leaving port on the top of the equinoctial spring tides, but the question of "willy willies" did not arise during the conversation. Captain Allen had remarked that with the stiff head wind blowing he would have no hope of reaching Broome in time to catch the following day's tide, and he would not be surprised if he were a day late, as he was not particularly keen on going into Broome at night time. The pearling luggers had come into port, but only on account of the dirty water caused by the north-easterlv blowing. The pearlers said that by doing so they had escaped the greatest disaster in their history, as they did not expect any hurricane. Captain Challenor, a pearler in the North-West, had reported that on March 19 he was six miles from Bedout in a dead calm sea and glorious sunshine. From midnight the wind increased, and at 5 a.m. there was a big sea. From 2.30 to 6 p.m. on the 2lst there was a fierce hurricane, which was worse than the "willy willies" of 1908 and 1910. From other reports received from the North-West witness continued, it appeared that the hurricane was one of the worst that had ever been experienced. Captain Dingle made a special trip in the Koombana in connection with his duties as marine superintendent, and said to witness on his return that he never wished to step on a better seaboat in his life, and he (Captain Dingle) considered on that trip she had been tested up to an extreme limit. The company had received a report from a magistrate at Broome that a statement had been made by a drover named Olive, that on the night of March 20, when he was at Boyer's Camp, 30 miles north of Condon, at about 8 or 9 p.m. he saw two rockets' go up in the direction N.W. There was a hurricane blowing at the time. A report had also been received from a cattle station near Condon that copper air chambers had been picked up on the beach at Solitary Island.

Continuing, witness said that when a ship went to the North-West, she generally took a very large supply of fresh water in her tanks, as well as salt water, as the former was very expensive at ports. The Koombana was last spoken to by wireless on the night of March 19.

To Captain Parkes: So far as he knew none of the internal fittings had been found. All the wreckage found so far had been from the upper deck, and debris of boats.

To Mr. Dowley: The ship would be reported "missing" by Lloyd's. He would not like to express any opinion as to whether there was any material difference in the construction of the Bullarra and Koombana.

Proceeding, Mr. Moxon said it was highly important that they should have a proper system of signalling on the North-West coast. Postmasters should exchange information, which should be posted up every morning and made available for shipmasters.


This company had been informed, witness stated, that the Bedout light was extinguished on March 13, and was observed to be still extinguished on the 14th and 15th. It was hard to say what bearing the absence of this light would have on the disaster. Their experience was that self-attended lights were not to be depended on.

The Chief Harbourmaster (Captain Irvine) said inquiries had been made in England and America as to the best unattended light available, and eventually a Birmingham firm supplied the Bedout light, which was arranged to burn for 12 months without attention, compressed acetylene being used.

lt started on December 10, 1909, and up to the time of the recent failure had given entire satisfaction.

It had never been left for 12 months without attention, and when visited was always found to be burning satisfactorily. The first intimation he had of its failure was on March 26, and telegrams were sent to all ports advising them that the light was out. The notices to shipmasters stated that the light was unwatched, and they were warned not to place too much reliance upon it.

Continuing, witness said that in his opinion, the vessel did not strike Bedout, as if she did wreckage would he found. It waa possible that she struck it and foundered elsewhere.


At this stage Mr. Parker asked for an adjournment. He had been approached that morning, and he understood that there was a clergyman residing at Guildford who had been at Port Hedland when the Koombana left the port, and who would be willing to offer evidence.

Mr. Moss thought there should be a limit placed on adjournments. It was probably another of "those rumours." He did not think it a fair thing to postpone the inquiry on the very slender evidence before them as to whether such a person existed, and, if he existed, whether he was prepared to say anything. While they did not wish to shut out anything that would throw any light upon the matter, he would remind them that Mr. Moxon was very anxious to see the inquiry through and return to his duties in Adelaide.

Mr. Dowley: If the inquiry is to do anything at all it cannot be done in a hurry.

After consulting with his colleagues on the Court the President adjourned the inquiry till 2.15 p.m. on Monday.



At the Fremantle Police Court on Monday afternoon the 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 resumed. 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.

William Ernest Moxon, attorney and manager in Western Australia for the Adelaide S.S. Company, recalled by Mr. Moss, read extracts from interviews published in the "West Australian" with Messrs. McDonald and Fisher. Mr. McDonald was for a time the chief engineer of the Koombana, and was sent to England to superintend the erection of her engines, after which he came to Australia in her. Mr. Fisher was for a time her third officer. Both gentlemen referred to her stability in laudatory Terms. Mr. Moxon handed in to the Court a chart showing the location of the wreckage from the Koombana picked up by steamers and luggers.

William Patrick, clerk in holy orders, and a member of the Church of England, was called by Mr. Parker. Witness stated that he was at Port Hedland from March 18 to March 25. He saw the Koombana arrive in Port Hedland on March 19, which was a very clear day and exceptionally hot. He saw the vessel leave Port Hedland on the 20th, but did not take particular notice of her propeller. The sky was very cloudy, the clouds were low, and there was a fairly strong breeze blowing. It was an easterly wind blowing, just a little stronger than usual. At the post office he heard people remark that the glass was steady and not too low. He had a conversation with Captain Pearson, who was a passenger for Derby, and who did not expect anything in the shape of abnormal weather. He (witness) did not think there was the slightest truth in the statement that Captain Allen had discussed the weather. Captain Allen appeared to be a little anxious, and seemed unwell, as he was suffering from the heat.

To Mr. Moss: He regarded Mr. Gardener, manager of the A.S.S. Company at Port Hedland, as a very honourable man, whose reports could be thoroughly relied upon.

Mr. Parker asked for an adjournment to allow of evidence being received from the road boards of Port Hedland and West Kimberley and the Mayor of Broome, at the request of the Premier. After consultation with his colleagues, Mr. Dowley adjourned the Court until 2.30 p.m. on Friday.