Beyond Human Knowledge
To inquire or not to inquire: that was the question. Colonial Secretary John Drew decided that given the appalling loss of life an inquiry should be held, but Chief Harbourmaster Charles Irvine wondered what would be learned or gained by it. In the end, he saw no alternative but to accede to the colonial secretary’s wish.
There were respectful requests for the inquiry to be held in the Nor’-West, where the loss was most keenly felt and where any number of witnesses to Koombana’s departure could be called to give evidence. To say that these requests ‘fell on deaf ears’ would be something of an understatement. The preliminary inquiry held at Fremantle on Monday, April 22nd, 1912 was no more than a private meeting between Harbourmaster Irvine, Crown Prosecutor Frank Parker, and the Adelaide Steamship Company’s barrister, Matthew Moss. Not only did the meeting determine that Nor’-West sittings would be unnecessary, it decided that a full inquiry should commence immediately. It would be over before any Nor’-Wester could board a steamer to participate in it.
Three days later, in the Fremantle Police Court, Resident Magistrate Edward Dowley declared open 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.” Dowley, broadly experienced but never a seafarer, was assisted by nautical assessors Captains Parkes and Yates. The crown prosecutor appeared on behalf of the chief harbourmaster, and Matthew Moss came to defend the reputation and interests of the Adelaide Steamship Company.
It is probably fair to say that Crown Prosecutor Parker did not quite understand his role. Indeed, it appears likely that he sought the advice of Queensland colleagues who had ‘prosecuted’ a similar mystery a year earlier. In his opening remarks, Parker told the court that the inquiry was unusual. It did not come about because there appeared at the outset to be negligence, or because the chief harbourmaster had brought any specific charge; rather, an extraordinary loss of life demanded that information p236be brought to light. In the absence of survivors, he said, the inquiry would focus primarily upon the stability and seaworthiness of Koombana, and on the actions of her master, Thomas Allen.
If the crown prosecutor was feeling his way, the company’s representative certainly was not. Matthew Moss, King’s Counsel, came with a mission: to prevent any finding of negligence that might leave the company liable to pay compensation for lives and property lost. Koombana would be presented as a ship well managed and maintained, of superior construction and intrinsic stability, incapable of capsizing. It would be demonstrated that she had left port in fine trim, and that no part of the tragedy could be blamed upon her. Further, it would be shown that Captain Allen had not put to sea under pressure of policy or schedule, but had left routinely, without any indication of an impending blow. Finally, it would be argued that Koombana had encountered a storm like no other, and by that singular misfortune had been battered and overcome.
It was a lopsided contest, if it was a contest at all. First to the witness stand was Harry Upjohn, master of the S.S. Bullarra and a long-time servant of the Adelaide Steamship Company. He was cross-examined by Frank Parker.
During the time you were in Port Hedland did you have any conversation with Captain Allen in respect of the weather?--- Yes.
On what date was that?--- On the morning of the 20th.
Will you tell the Court what the conversation was?--- It took place on my ship. We had a general conversation and Capt. Allen said “What do you think about the weather?”
What was your reply?--- “It’s overcast and a bit dirty but there is nothing in it.”
Can you fix the time that this conversation took place?--- It was just before breakfast or just after.
That would be about 8 o’clock?--- Yes.
What was the state of the weather at this time?--- Very nice fresh breeze, overcast and cloudy.
It struck you as being a bit dirty?--- Just overcast.
What did you expect from the weather?--- I expected the same right through: fine if anything.
Did you have any further conversation with Captain Allen about the weather?--- None.
Was anything said in reference to leaving Port Hedland, whether you would leave or not?--- No.
The direction of Parker’s questioning related to published reports that Koombana’s master had seemed disinclined to leave port, and that only after a conversation with Captain Upjohn on the jetty had he decided to put to sea. It had also been reported that Koombana rode so high that p237her propeller thrashed the surface of the water as she made her run to the harbour entrance. Parker asked Upjohn:
Where were you when the Koombana left Port Hedland?--- I was on the lower bridge and the Chief Officer was with me.
What were you doing?--- We were just looking at the Koombana.
Did you notice her trim?--- She was in excellent trim.
Did you notice the draft?--- No. I noticed how well she behaved and the Chief Officer said the same.
Have you any reason for that remark?--- No, but she looked so well.
Did you notice her propeller?--- It was well submerged.
At the end of the first day, news travelled fast. Almost before the seats of the public gallery were cold, the residents of Port Hedland had heard—by telephone, presumably—that the company’s witnesses seemed particularly well briefed, that accounts of Koombana’s departure were at odds with local recollection, and that the company’s barrister rather than the crown prosecutor seemed to be calling the shots. To those so deliberately but unsuccessfully isolated, the message was clear. At best, the inquiry would reach a vague conclusion; at worst, it would rewrite the history of a tragic day.
On its second sitting day, the inquiry turned to the question of Koombana’s stability. The company brought two large exhibits to the court: a large, finely detailed model of the ship, and a “Ralston’s Stability and Trim Indicator.” The Ralston apparatus, always customised for a particular ship, was Koombana’s own. It was usually on board but had not been carried on the final voyage. Captain James Rankin came also, as expert witness, to demonstrate the use of the apparatus and to show that Koombana’s “G.M.” was perfectly acceptable.
“G.M.” may look like an acronym, but it is not. The letters do not stand for “General Manager” or “Greenwich Mean” or even “Good Manners,” though G.M. may well indicate acceptable behaviour. It is, rather, the distance between two points, labelled “G” and “M” respectively, on a ship stability diagram. The precise meanings of “G” and “M” are not important here. What is important is that the greater the G.M., the more stable the ship. It is a measure of how quickly and assertively a ship returns upright after wind or waves have pushed her over.
The court watched with interest as Captain Rankin placed weights and made adjustments to simulate various different loading conditions. In all cases the instrument, on Koombana’s behalf, showed stability in excess of British requirements. The indications, the court was assured, were an accurate reflection of Koombana’s ability to right herself, and much was made of the fact that Ralston, the inventor of the device, was chief draftsman at Alexander Stephen & Sons, where Koombana had been designed and built.
p238For all of Captain Rankin’s confidence, there was a gaping hole in his demonstration and testimony. Seafarers and ship designers know that a ship’s ability to right herself is only half of the stability picture; the other half is the ship’s susceptibility to being knocked over in the first place. It is a remarkable fact of the Koombana inquiry that Captain Rankin testified before two experienced seafaring men but never once was pressed to admit that a ship’s height above the waterline was even relevant.
To some, the prosecution’s lack of tenacity was a revelation. Indeed, there were a few moments when the crown prosecutor appeared to forget whose side he was on. As the discussion of load distribution continued, Frank Parker recalled Koombana’s former chief officer Henry Clarke, “for the express purpose of contradicting a rumour circulating in Fremantle.” The rumour was that the ship had at one time been ballasted with iron rails to improve her stability. Under cross-examination, Clarke declared that never during his fifteen months with Koombana had “ballast in the shape of iron rails” been carried. Company man Matthew Moss could not contain himself. “Another pavement expert’s opinion exploded!” he interjected.
Moss had good reason for wanting the matter of ballast dispensed with. Henry Clarke’s answer was truthful, but truthful by the barest of margins. From October 1909 until about May 1911, most northbound steamers calling at Port Hedland had carried rails and sleepers for the new Pilbara railway. The rails were paying cargo but their value as ballast was recognised by Koombana’s first master, John Rees, and must have been recognised by his chief officer also. On February 8th, 1910, Koombana had struck rough weather between Cossack and Port Hedland. Passenger Doug Moore, returning to Ord River Station after his summer break, would never forget it.
One time I was a passenger on her coming to Wyndham. We had about 200 tons of railway iron on board for Hedland. They were then building the line to Marble Bar. Just before reaching Hedland we struck a squall and the ship lay over at an angle of 45 degrees and was quite a long time before straightening up. Johnny Rees was the Skipper and he said to me “there is no loading going off at Port Hedland—we’ll hang on to all those rails for ballast and drop them off coming back.”
Memories are often reshaped and reimagined as years pass, but a report published a few weeks after the Koombana disaster is entirely consistent with Moore’s late-age recall.
Consider the statement of a well-known Nor’-Wester. He was living at Port Hedland the year before last when the Koombana, in common with other vessels, was carrying steel rails for the Port Hedland-Marble Bar railway during what is known locally as the willy-willy season. He p239states that the Koombana arrived at Hedland with a cargo consisting chiefly of such rails, of which she discharged all but 150 tons. These 150 tons, he declares, were left on board at the request of the captain of the ship in order to increase her stability on her trip to Wyndham and back. As a matter of fact, the rails were carried, not only to Wyndham but down to Fremantle, and were not landed at their destination until the ship returned to Port Hedland on her next trip northward.
An interesting element of this story is that when Koombana arrived back in Fremantle after that memorable trip, her chief officer went job-hunting. He was successful, apparently; after one more Nor’-West run, Henry Clarke left Koombana for a position at the Fremantle port. At the inquiry, no former Koombana officer was ever asked why he had left the ship.
At a glance, it is difficult to understand why Matthew Moss was so determined to steer the inquiry away from the matter of ballast. A review of recent history delivers the answer. A year before Koombana’s disappearance, the company’s steamer Yongala had been lost off the coast of Queensland, and the finding of the Yongala inquiry had included the following paragraph:
In regard to pig-iron ballast being placed in the vessel whilst in the West Australian trade and subsequently removed when the ship was transferred to the Queensland trade, it was explained by the general manager that this ballast, amounting to 164 tons, became unnecessary owing to cargo being obtainable both up and down the Queensland coast. A letter from Captain Knight to the Company at the time confirmed this view, and stated that the ship rolled less and was more comfortable in a seaway.
There, in sharp relief, was Matthew Moss’s problem. Yongala and Koombana had both been ballasted: in the same way, to the same extent, and for the same reason. The parallel was compelling and Moss did all in his power to prevent it being drawn.
Matthew Moss was also aware of a weakness in the company’s argument regarding the cyclone. If the storm was unsurvivable, how then had Bullarra, which had steamed into the very centre of it, come through? On the inquiry’s first sitting day, Moss launched a pre-emptive strike. He asked Harry Upjohn to explain how Bullarra had come within a hair’s breadth of disaster. The exchange scarcely deserves the title “cross-examination.”
Do you consider you were lucky in having escaped?--- We escaped by a miracle.
Your boat was in a battered condition?--- Yes.
What occurred to your funnel?--- It was carried away in the early part of the blow.
You went to Broome to effect temporary repairs and for water?--- Yes.
p240That was before you searched for the “Koombana”?--- Yes.
Have you been in cyclonic weather before?--- Yes, in the China Sea, when a ship went down alongside of us.
Was it very bad?--- Not so bad as this.
This was absolutely the worst thing you have experienced?--- Yes.
And it was only by a miracle you came through?--- Yes.
It is unfortunate that court transcripts record only the words of the protagonists. Neither wry smile nor raised brow finds its way to the future.
Late on the second sitting day, Crown Prosecutor Parker asked for an adjournment. He had been told that one Reverend William Patrick, who had been in Port Hedland on the morning of Koombana’s departure, was willing to attend and testify. With remarkable effrontery, Matthew Moss opposed the application. “It is probably just another of those rumours,” he told the court. He could not see why the proceedings should be postponed on slender evidence that such a person existed and, if he existed, that he was prepared to say anything. And while he did not wish to shut out anything that would throw any light upon the matter, he would remind them all that Mr Moxon was very anxious to see the inquiry through and return to his duties in Adelaide. Judge Dowley decided that there was sufficient evidence for the existence of Reverend Patrick. A two-day adjournment was granted.
* * *
After the first sitting day, prominent citizens of Port Hedland, Broome, and Derby had sent coordinated telegrams to Premier John Scaddan, requesting that the inquiry be not closed until evidence had been taken in Port Hedland. Scaddan had worked closely with the Nor’-West communities during the search for Koombana. He understood their concern but stopped short of recommending that the inquiry be relocated. Instead, he asked that arrangements be made for evidence to be gathered in each of the three towns.
Although the inquiry declared its willingness to receive submissions, and adjourned for a few days, it did little to facilitate the gathering of evidence. Matthew Moss, sensing that Nor’-West agitation would probably come to nothing, saw this latest adjournment in a more positive light. “I am glad that Mr. Dowley has issued that general invitation to the public,” he told the court. “It will give some of those people who have been spreading the rumours a chance to show in Court what they know about the subject.”
It appears that although telegrams were exchanged between the Colonial Secretary’s Office and the resident magistrate at Port Hedland, the evidence-gathering process stalled. When the inquiry reconvened on Friday, May 3rd, no evidence from the Nor’-West was presented. Matthew Moss, on behalf of the Adelaide Steamship Company, delivered a lengthy summing-up. Having done all in his power to subvert the inquiry and p241hasten its closure, he now sang its praises, but perhaps only as a platform for an extraordinary attack upon Walter Barker, editor of The Hedland Advocate. Moss’s remarks were reported at length by The West Australian.
Mr. M. L. Moss, K.C., in the course of his address said that there had been a preliminary inquiry held before Captain Irvine, and he thought that as a result of that inquiry the Captain would have been justified in preventing any further inquiry, but he was to be commended on his action in bringing about a public investigation. There had been a tremendous loss of life and valuable property, and it was in the interests of the whole community that the greatest possible light should be shed on the inquiry. The Adelaide Steamship Company, he might mention, was just as anxious as anyone that the strongest searchlight should be thrown on loss of the Koombana, in view of the scandalous remarks that had been made concerning the stability of the vessel by irresponsible persons.
Moss had been particularly upset by the Advocate’s claim that on the morning of Koombana’s departure, there were clear indications of an impending blow.
There was nothing unusual to give the slightest occasion for alarm. On that point they had the emphatic statement of Captain Upjohn. Those busybodies who said things to the contrary had been given an ample opportunity to appear before the Court and give evidence, but not one of their number had come forward. He did not want to mention names, but would say that there was at Port Hedland one particular busybody who sought to stir up strife on every conceivable occasion.
Moss’s summing-up must have left some in the gallery wondering if they had heard correctly. Busybody! His chosen word was not “troublemaker” or “nuisance”; it was “busybody”. Did the company mean to imply that the Nor’-West, with seventy of its own among the missing, was guilty of meddling in this inquiry? Or that The Hedland Advocate should mind its own business? Needless to say, the newspapers of the Nor’-West ran the story. None offered any opinion as to whether Moss’s outburst was ridiculous or revealing or both; they simply printed it. Indeed, The Northern Times ran with the headline:
Somehow it seems appropriate that Matthew Moss’s week of ministration and protestation should end with a cry from the tortured soul of petulance, and with an utterance both so wrong and so right.
* * *
p242One week later, on Friday, May 10th, 1912, the Court of Marine Inquiry made its finding public. Precisely, point by point, it delivered the exoneration that the Adelaide Steamship Company had sought. No fault was found with ship or crew, and no opinion ventured as to what had befallen Koombana.
In conclusion, the Court simply finds, without indulging in useless speculation, that the stability and seaworthiness of the S.S. “Koombana” were unassailable, and the competency and carefulness of master, Captain Allen, beyond question, and after being lost sight of at sea on the 20th March 1912, her fate passes beyond human knowledge and remains a mystery of the sea.
The inquiry and its finding were widely criticised. The Sunday Times declared:
It cannot be said that the inquiry into the loss of the steamer Koombana was satisfactory to the public. It was certainly satisfactory to the Adelaide Steamship Company, which, by the finding, escapes any compensatory liability to the widows and orphans and other dependents of the 150 victims who went down in the vessel; but that isn’t what we mean. In the first place, the evidence was all one-sided. No attempt whatever was made to produce independent expert evidence as to the stability of the steamer, and by that we mean her ability to live in a cyclone, and not her constructional strength. Mr. McDonald, who supervised her building at Glasgow, was asked with regard to her stability, and he replied—“She was a magnificent vessel, strongly built.” But that was not the import of the question, which should have been as to her resistance to a great storm. A steamer may be a “magnificent vessel” in ordinary ocean conditions, but what we want to know is, was she fit to face extraordinary conditions?
If The Sunday Times surprised some by its directness, The Hedland Advocate took forthrightness to a new level. Walter Barker’s long repudiation began:
The unwarranted attack on the editor of this paper, by Mr. M. L. Moss (solicitor for the Adelaide S.S. Coy. at the inquiry into the loss of the Koombana), calls for a parting shot. We would be the last in the world to wish to say anything which would leave the slightest smudge on the reputations of the capable officers who went down in the ill-fated Koombana, but no mercenary motive would induce us to deviate from the course of justice in the public interests, and we have heaps of company (in the Nor’-West, at any rate) when we assert that the finding of the Marine Board of Inquiry suggests capable handling of the whitewash brush and a prodigal use of lime.
In the course of his refutation, Barker declared: “The whole of the statements find flat denial on every hand locally.”
* * *
p243Perhaps it is time for a new arbitration, a careful review of the three points of greatest contention: the weather in Port Hedland on the morning of departure, Koombana’s draft and trim, and the alleged conversation between Captains Allen and Upjohn.
On Saturday, March 23rd, 1912, before any search for Koombana had begun, The Hedland Advocate published a detailed report of the storm that had struck the town.
As if to palliate the tedium of the scorching, enervating heat, Hedland was visited this week by a cross-bred willy-willy, which, coming with the equinoctal tides, did a fair amount of damage. It is pretty certain that had it been a full-blooded willy it would have spelt disaster to the lowlands of Hedland. It started on Tuesday night, with a strong easterly wind whistling and roaring, and the sea thundering and crumbling on the beach, indicative of heavier and deadlier surges out at sea.
Wednesday morning saw about 40 luggers running to the shelter of Port Hedland, where they were soon safely anchored, with bowsprits swinging up and down in salutation to the dip and rise of each other. These luggers had a rough time on Tuesday night, near Turtle Island, the cutting away of masts on some being seriously contemplated.
The arrival of so many pearling boats in Port Hedland harbour on the morning of Koombana’s departure created a problem for the Adelaide Steamship Company, which came to the inquiry determined to prove that there was no indication of bad weather. The company men did not dispute that the pearling boats had arrived; instead, it offered a different explanation. A letter from Joseph Gardiner, the company’s agent in Port Hedland, was tendered in evidence. Gardiner had written:
A large number of luggers came into the creek on Wednesday morning and I spoke to a number of them and they explained that they came in on account of dirty water caused by the strong easterly wind and there was no talk in any way of a blow. In fact many of them have said to me since that the pearling fleets narrowly escaped a disaster which would have been the greatest in their history as they never thought of a blow when they came: it was solely on account of dirty water.
The agent’s explanation does not bear close scrutiny. Although poor visibility often interrupted pearling operations and occasionally brought boats home early, it could not explain the arrival of so many boats at Port Hedland in the space of a few hours. The reason was simple: the boats did not belong to a single fleet. Whilst they shared good ground and often worked within sight of one another, they worked independently and took their own decisions. Only in danger did they move as one.
The ‘dirty water’ argument was not only flawed; it was disingenuous. When Joe Gardiner wrote that careful letter, it was already known that p244the storm had wreaked havoc north of Port Hedland on the night before Koombana’s departure. As early as March 30th, the Broome Chronicle had published “Luggers in the Gale,” including a dramatic account from Alfred Saunders, master of the lugger Dona Matilda.
Tuesday, March 19th.—Half way between First Wash and Solitary Island got three grs. of shell until midday, when the water got dirty. At 1 p.m. hove up; strong east wind; put like h--- for Banningarra; let go about 5 p.m., about 3 miles north of Creek; strong N.E. wind blowing, with a big sea—50f. high; spent a rotten night—had everything cleared off deck, main sail and gaffs taken down and hatches battened down; sewed pearl in handkerchief and tied it round my neck; I saw several boats drifting, and at about 8.30 p.m., the cutter “Kooki”, belonging to Pardoo Station, which was anchored close to me—too close to my liking—broke her chain and started to drift towards Mount Blaze. I stood by with diver, tender and crew all night; two big waves got the lugger broadside on, and made things very uncomfortable for a few seconds; about 1 a.m. one of Tommy Clarke’s luggers was drifting towards us, we all shouted out and they managed to get their jib up just in the nick of time.
Wednesday, March 20th.—Big sea with N.E. wind, strong; 11 a.m., hove up and made for the Creek under double-reefed mainsail and jib; just before heaving up big sea caught Voladora taking away dinghy, dress, starboard rail and bulwarks; heard afterwards from “Bob” that he lost a basket containing 1½ cwt. of shell, together with his cabin awning; the Voladora and Aurora both lost their anchors heaving up. I got well up the Creek and made fast to the mangroves; put out three mooring lines for’d and 3 aft., also put two anchors with two fathoms of chain aft and for’d. About 26 boats here; lugger Elsie got foul of the mangroves about quarter of mile from entrance to Creek and bumped two small holes in her bills; glass not too low but not working; went out to Mt. Blaze at low water . . . found Pardoo Station’s cutter up on the reef, broken in half; there were two gins dead in the mangroves; there were two white men and about seven binghis about before the boat struck the reef; one of the binghis that was saved said that the skipper had the jib and mainsail, as well as the engines, going, but the sea was too big for them to go about, and consequently they were washed about 50ft. up on the rocks; we had a look around the wreck and found three life buoys in the cabin, so we came to the conclusion that they did not have time to put them on.
On the second day of the inquiry William Moxon, the company’s manager for Western Australia, entered the witness box. Under oath he declared that the storm had struck without warning on Wednesday, March 20th, after Koombana had left port. He told the court that the well-respected p245Nor’-West pearler Captain Challenor, near Bedout Island on Tuesday evening, had dropped anchor in “a dead calm sea and glorious sunshine.” This assertion rewards investigation. On the day the Broome Chronicle published “Luggers in the Gale,” The Hedland Advocate offered sage advice to mariners.
THE COSSACK WILLY-WILLY.
(By Capt. Challenor.)
There is an old copy book maxim that “Fortune favors the brave,” but in this Nor’-West of Australia it should be altered to “Fortune favors the pearler who keeps a watchful eye on the barometer.”
Working about 12 miles north of Bezout Island we had during the week experienced almost unnatural heat, and for four days a falling barometer, nothing much to worry about but the fall was very evident and not to be disregarded. Having to meet the Paroo on the 18th I went into Cossack, and was there for two days with the same conditions—very great heat and the steady decline, most noticeable. On the 19th I anchored about 6 miles to the east of Bezout with 10 other luggers in sight, a dead calm and a glorious sunset. About midnight a sudden gust of wind woke me up and heavy clouds were rolling up from the east. From then the wind began to increase, and by 5 a.m. there was a very big sea running . . .
The Advocate article quickly identifies itself as the source of William Moxon’s evidence, but two inconsistencies leap from the page and beg for attention. Firstly, it was not Bedout Island that had enjoyed the glorious sunshine, but Bezout Island, more than a hundred miles to the west. It was a mistake easily made and easily forgiven; indeed, a cynic might see that as its greatest attraction. Secondly, Moxon drew from the article to assert that the storm had struck without warning, but that was not John Challenor’s message to his readers. The storm had arrived without the usual indications, but by attention to the barometer and its “steady decline, most noticeable,” danger had been recognised and avoided.
Paradoxically, although Captain Challenor’s article shows the extent of William Moxon’s misrepresentation, it also suggests that to casual observers at Port Hedland on the day of Koombana’s departure, there was no clear indication of a blow.
On Monday, April 29th, the Reverend William Patrick placed his existence beyond doubt by appearing at the inquiry and giving evidence. He testified that on the Port Hedland jetty before Koombana and Bullarra departed, he had spoken with Koombana passenger and Derby wharfinger, Captain William Pearson. The wharfinger had expressed no concern about the weather; indeed, the possibility of a storm did not arise in their conversation. This also favours the view that only the barometer told the story.
p246In this context, we should return briefly to the confusion between two islands of similar name. Bezout Island is only five miles from Point Samson, where Koombana spent most of Monday, March 18th. If Captain Challenor at Bezout Island saw the glass steadily falling, Koombana’s cautious master must have seen it also. This delivers the most plausible explanation for Tom Allen’s reported disinclination to leave port: having noted the fall in the glass, he read the weather differently to those who had not.
On the question of Koombana’s draft and trim, the court accepted the Adelaide Steamship Company’s testimony. Its finding declared:
She sailed from Port Hedland on March 20, 1912, at about 10.20 o’clock a.m., drawing 19 ft. aft and about 12 ft. forward in excellent trim.
The Hedland Advocate disputed these numbers.
Several can be found to prove the ship drew no more than 16ft 6in aft and 11ft for’ard as she lay at anchor at the Hedland jetty.
By a small piece of good fortune, this contest may be confidently adjudicated. When Koombana disappeared, her log book disappeared with her. But that log was a new one, commenced a few weeks before the disaster. The old log, in accord with usual practice, had been forwarded to the office of the chief harbourmaster. The surviving log contains the record of Tom Allen’s first visits to Port Hedland; it records Koombana’s draft, for’ard and aft, for each departure. Here, in support of an abstract concept called truth, are those entries:
22/09/11 09.30: 14'8" frd 18'6" aft
05/10/11 08.40: 13'0" frd 17'8" aft
25/10/11 11.25: 14'3" frd 18'0" aft
01/11/11 14.10: 12'2" frd 18'8" aft
10/12/11 12.50: 15'3" frd 17'9" aft
25/12/11 00.50: 13'6" frd 16'9" aft
Examined carefully in conjunction with tide records, the numbers suggest that Koombana’s draft for her last departure would have been about 18 feet aft and 13 feet for’ard. It would certainly have been less than the 19 feet claimed by the company, and almost certainly more than Barker’s 16 feet 6 inches. The most reasonable supposition is about halfway between the conflicting accounts. Formal log entries confirm that Koombana, while entering or leaving Port Hedland, took ground three times in four months. For Tom Allen, the Hedland bar was a perpetual annoyance; over time, it became his practice to empty more ballast tanks. The inquiry made assumptions about the state of Koombana’s tanks on the morning of March 20th. Those assumptions were almost certainly wrong.
The question of whether Koombana’s propeller thrashed the surface is also easily settled. The top of her propeller was at the 18ft. 3in. mark. p247Thus, if she drew less than 18 feet 3 inches, the blades of her propeller would be visible above the surface of the water as they turned; if she drew more than 18 feet 3 inches her propeller would, at rest, be submerged. But when those great iron blades turned, a few inches either way made little difference. Koombana, as the townsfolk of Port Hedland knew, threw water from her propeller on every departure from their port. Tom Allen’s draft notes are unequivocal: they affirm the local account and contradict Captain Upjohn. On no recent occasion had Captain Allen left with more than four inches of water over his propeller, and on Christmas Day, 1911, the tips of the blades were fully eighteen inches clear of the surface.
If Koombana’s propeller thrashed the calm water of the harbour, what must it have done in wind and swell at the entrance? It is difficult to accept the company’s assertion that the ship barely twitched when she met a moderate swell and a stiff crosswind at the harbour entrance. Her propeller must at times have been exposed, and exposed more than a few inches. This is not to say that it was “flogging the air” or that Koombana was “lifting her stern way out of the water.” Memory is both frail and creative.
Finally, there remains the issue of the alleged conversation between Tom Allen of Koombana and Harry Upjohn of Bullarra. As part of his regular news gathering, Hedland Advocate editor Walter Barker came to the jetty on the morning of departure, to speak to passengers and crew, and to watch the two steamers depart. He later wrote:
Scores of people discussed the weather outlook with Capt. Allen, who gave everyone, including the writer, the impression that he did not want to leave port. “Twenty-four hours here,” he declared to the writer, “will not hurt; I might bump the outer bar going out on a sea like this.” Capt. Allen’s attitude changed immediately Capt. Upjohn had a conversation with him, after which he said, “I am going out; 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.”
A few weeks later, Barker told The Sunday Times that after the decision had been made, Captain Allen seemed “palpably uneasy and disinclined to go.” He noticed some luggers blocking the channel and asked the Port Hedland harbourmaster to move them on. And when one still remained, he said that he would not go out unless it was removed.
At the inquiry, an attempt was made to dismiss as fiction any late conversation between captains. In the witness box, under oath, Captain Upjohn denied that any such conversation had taken place. By this stage of proceedings, however, Bullarra’s master had a credibility problem. With similar conviction he had made statements about Koombana’s draft and trim that were so implausible as to cast doubt on everything else he said.
p248In this respect, Walter Barker stood apart from Harry Upjohn. The people of Port Hedland knew that the editor of the local paper was vehement to a fault and prone to exaggeration, but none could recall any occasion on which he had printed a statement he knew to be false. In his three years as newspaper proprietor he had angered some and exasperated many, but none would assert that he had ever lied to his readers.
What words were exchanged by Allen and Upjohn may never be known, but it is probably safe to assume that the conversation took place and that it played a significant part in Tom Allen’s decision to put to sea.
* * *
Somehow, tragedy sharpens the public fascination for symmetry and coincidence. In 1912, how strange it seemed that two ships, of similar size, from the same company, had been lost in cyclones on opposite sides of the country, at the same latitude and a year apart, almost to the day.
These parallels between Koombana and Yongala are certainly interesting, but hardly illuminating. Yet between these disasters exists one further parallel, both interesting and illuminating. That the Koombana inquiry was brought to a close with scarcely a mention of Yongala was, in a sense, a personal triumph for Matthew Moss. On behalf of the Adelaide Steamship Company he sought an open finding and got it, but the wording of that finding carried a black irony that cannot have escaped his notice. For the sake of direct comparison, the Koombana finding must here be restated:
In conclusion, the Court simply finds, without indulging in useless speculation, that the stability and seaworthiness of the S.S. “Koombana” were unassailable, and the competency and carefulness of master, Captain Allen, beyond question, and after being lost sight of at sea on the 20th March 1912, her fate passes beyond human knowledge and remains a mystery of the sea.
Thirteen months earlier, an inquiry similarly convened had delivered its verdict regarding Yongala:
While it is both gratifying and reassuring that the vessel’s stability and seaworthiness remain unassailable, and the competency and carefulness of Captain Knight unimpeachable, the Board, with no desire to indulge in idle speculation, simply finds that after becoming lost to view by the lightkeeper at Dent Island, the fate of the Yongala passes beyond human ken into the realms of conjecture to add one more to the long roll of mysteries of the sea.
It appears that not one of the Koombana inquiry’s critics noticed this extraordinary antecedent. Awareness of it could only have sharpened the suspicion that the outcome owed little to evidence or testimony. Indeed, had Walter Barker discovered this plagiarism, he must surely have declared the “handling of the whitewash brush” not merely capable, but experienced!
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p249Chief Harbourmaster Charles Irvine retired to an orchard in 1917, but poor health cut short his enjoyment of it. He died in 1922. Obituaries spoke of a young man who had captained the Adelaide Steamship Company’s Rob Roy, and of an older man who had left his mark upon the port of Fremantle.
Only much later would an important family recollection come to light. In 1911, when Irvine heard that the pastoralist David Forrest was looking to hire a manager for his Minderoo Station on the Ashburton River, he recommended his brother Claude for the position. Claude, who had been managing a merino stud in South Australia, was duly appointed. In February 1912 he brought his family to Western Australia and stayed with his brother at the harbourmaster’s residence in Fremantle.
Claude’s children would recall that when Uncle Charlie learned that they were to travel north by Koombana, he vehemently opposed it, declaring that the ship was top-heavy, and a very bad sea boat. Reluctantly, their father accepted his brother’s advice, and glamourous Koombana was forsaken for old, rusty Bullarra, departing a few days earlier. As it happened, the Irvines would have been safe aboard either ship. They disembarked in Ashburton Roads on March 15th, five days before the disaster unfolded further north.
* * *
The Koombana inquiry placed Charles Irvine in a difficult position. As chief harbourmaster, he was its sponsor. Its finding, at least officially, was his own. He probably believed that in the absence of survivors, the inquiry was unlikely to reach any conclusion that would help the families of the lost to win compensation. He understood also that the Adelaide Steamship Company would be severely punished, but not by his finding or through his agency. There would be an immediate financial loss through the under-insurance of the ship, and an irrecoverable loss of business. Moreover, it seemed likely that the Nor’-West mail contract, which the company had held for several years and which underpinned the profitability of the run, would soon be handed to the new State Steamship Service. This, then, was the de facto verdict: the company exonerated by the inquiry would be banished by broader circumstance.
In the wake of several disasters, there was growing unease about the direction of ship design and the terrible price that might be paid for high cabins and a comfortable ride. Just two days after Koombana was declared lost, that sentiment was voiced in a gentle but persuasive letter to the editor of The West Australian.
Sir,—It seems only a few months since we were mourning the loss of the Waratah, and even less than that of the Yongala, and now of the Koombana right on our own shores. The ships mentioned above were as fine a trio as ever sailed out of a port, the very latest in marine architecture—the last word in comfort and beauty combined. What p250is the reason for these disasters? The aggregate loss of life is simply appalling. Not one single word from either, not one survivor from among all those hundreds. The writer has seen and admired each of these fine ships. There is no doubt of their great beauty. They were almost like things of life, and yet there has been a feeling (even while admiring) that the height from the water line seemed to a lay mind abnormal, and the thought has come, “What would happen in a Nor’-West willy willy?” What has happened? Alas, a fine ship, with its precious burthen, vanished. I have no doubt that the foremost architects have proved, theoretically, that this latest type of ship is equally as seaworthy as, say, the Albany and Bullarra (both of which have come successfully through strenuous times). With a wind blowing at such a rate, and with such force as in this recent blow, the great resistance offered by the height of the Koombana from the water line to her bridge must, in my opinion, have had a great deal to do with her undoing . . . I have come to the conclusion that in the architecture of these floating palaces we have sacrificed something and brought the margin between danger and safety to a very narrow limit when storm conditions prevail.
Yours, etc. KIANU.
* * *
The Court of Marine Inquiry could never establish Koombana’s fate. To do that was beyond its mandate and beyond its human capability. Over the years, many theories have been advanced. Few bear close scrutiny. Ironically, it is Walter Barker’s summation from The Hedland Advocate of April 6th, 1912 that survives the unhindered reappraisal that the passing of time permits. Here now, in the court of careful reassessment, under different rules and before the greater jury, the “journalistic busybody” will have the last word.
The following theories as to the Koombana’s fate have been hazarded:
1. Mountainous seas flooded the ship by means of her cattle decks and she sank.
2. Bedout light being extinguished, Capt. Allen misjudged his position in the dark, the ship struck and turned over, or her bottom being torn she subsequently sank in deep water.
3. Machinery became disabled, and the vessel, left to the fearful wind and seas, foundered.
4. That when the vessel attempted to alter her northward course, to face the hurricane, she heeled over, the wind drove the water from her bottom, and the next big sea turned her completely over.
Nos. 2 and 4 are held by seamen most competent to judge. The opinion generally held by Nor’-West residents was that the Koombana would meet her fate in the first willy willy she struck, and we have a sad fulfilment of that prophecy.