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Shipwrecks whisper past secrets

spring 10

FOR ALL HER BEAUTY, the Sunshine Coast has sure wreaked her share of terror, especially for those who rode the high seas.

With wide open ocean on one side and picturesque land on the other, the coast is dotted with hidden sandbanks and shallow reefs. If what lay beneath did not claim a ship in centuries past, that which howled above just might. Ferocious subtropical storms, occasional cyclones and a few acts of man-made violence have crafted ship graveyards in the coast’s part of the deep blue.

To the north, the Great Barrier Reef is said to have a shipwreck for every kilometre and most of those occurred in the mid-1800s. Even in southern waters, those who made their living or travelled on the high seas were right to be fearful that they might lose more than their time in transit.

Queensland Museum shipwreck expert Ed Slaughter says fascination with shipwrecks evolves because they reveal tales from history and humanity.

“The human stories are amazing; the survival stories are extraordinary,” Ed says. “When we investigate a wreck where people have been aboard, there are often personal items seemingly untouched – sometimes for a hundred years – and very often human remains because shipwrecks are the perfect vessel for the preservation of organic matter. The ocean can be a far better environment for preservation than on land.”

Ed says shopping catalogues, hairbrushes, photographs and jewellery are among the items perfectly preserved in the deep.

International convention dictates that unless there is a scientific purpose for bringing items to the surface, they should be left untouched for all time. They are, sadly too often, grave sites and there is universal respect for the sanctity of the dead.

Seafaring has been fodder for storytellers for centuries. There is a romance inherent in a borderless, watery world where adventure abounds and the sun ever rises on a new and unpredictable day. The stories of the demise of some of the vessels that take on such adventures are equally romantic, and take on an air of myth and mystery.

“We don’t have ruins here like countries with ancient civilisations like those in Europe,” says Ed. “We don’t have those links to the past. But we have shipwrecks – and often they were built in other times and can offer us a link with our past. It gives us a social connection to past societies.” 

It seems ironic that a boat about which very little is known is the highest profile, having given its name to an entire coastal suburb and a beloved beach. Dicky Beach is believed to be the only recreational beach in the world to be named after a shipwreck – in this case the S.S. Dicky.

An iron steamboat, it is believed the Dicky was built in Germany. Not much else is known for certain. But she was certainly forced on to the shore by a cyclone and high seas in 1893, carrying 40 tonnes of sand and 11 passengers and crew. The sand dispersed and the people were all brought safely to the beach.

The Dicky was even refloated successfully, but to the beach she quickly returned, this time never to be moved.

It is believed a subsequent inquiry found that her loss was due to negligent navigation and the master lost his certificate for three months, but perhaps her story lacked glamour and action enough to become part of folklore.

Her rusty ribs protrude as she is slowly enveloped in the sand and devoured by the air, but she remains part of the beach and the Sunshine Coast community and is possibly one of the world’s most photographed wrecks. Her rugged, jagged beauty continues to intrigue.

But Ed says vessels like the Dicky, which are exposed to the elements, are certain to disintegrate over time.   

Another wreck adorns another well-loved Sunshine Coast beach, but happily, more is known about this one. 

A landmark on Fraser Island, the S.S. Maheno is a mysterious, rusted skeleton, but in her heyday, she was a grand old girl. Built in Scotland in the finest Edwardian style in 1905, she was designed for carrying paying passengers in luxury as they traversed the Tasman.

When World War I broke out in 1914, she answered the call to duty and was used as a hospital ship by the New Zealand division of the Royal Navy. She saw the world, not so much in style as to serve and house the sick, injured and dying in the Mediterranean, off Gallipoli in Turkey and in the English Channel before being returned to use as a luxury liner at the end of the war.

Perhaps it was because of the dangerous places she had been, or having to change identities too many times, but the Maheno was declared worse for wear, and in 1935 she was sold as scrap metal to Japan. She was being towed from Melbourne up the Queensland coast when she was caught in a severe cyclone and had to be cut adrift.

She washed ashore on Fraser Island on July 9, 1935 and has lain there ever since, a reclining former beauty that the years have dressed in layers of rust and sand.

But the Maheno’s spirit of adventure seemed to call out for more and being part-buried on the Fraser Island beach was no impediment. Her wild and somewhat frightening life continued as she became the target for RAAF bombing practice during World War II.

She stands today, a relic of her former glory, but it is a case of look but do not touch, with the Queensland Government declaring her dangerous and therefore off limits. Fines are issued to those who breach the three-metre no-go zone.   

While making the whispers of our seafaring past off limits seems eminently sensible because of safety concerns, it also moves these vessels and their stories away from the community.

Another vessel the government deemed to have been too far gone was Cooloola’s Cherry Venture, a wreck which lay on Teewah Beach for more than 30 years. In the winter of 2007, excavators crushed its superstructure, folding it in on itself, and the remains were covered with sand.

The Cherry Venture had been a 1600-ton cargo ship, empty and on its way from Auckland to Brisbane in 1973 when it was caught in a mighty, blinding storm with unseasonal swells – waves so frightening that the ship’s propeller was rhythmically exposed. Ultimately, the vessel was forced ashore and left high and dry when the massive tide receded. Happily no crew member was injured. 

Ships also have a habit of bobbing up from the deep, or from the sands of time, when wild and woolly weather beckons them and peels back their hiding places.

One mystery ship, wrecked between Rainbow Beach and Inskip Point, appears then disappears every couple of decades. Its identity is uncertain, with some saying it is the wreck of the St Magnus, an 1856 timber sailing ship that sank, killing all on board, in 1875. Others say it is the Natone, a 1919 Norwegian-built vessel that was bought by the Commonwealth Government in 1939. The mystery is that samples scavenged when the wreck last emerged from the sand in 2002-2003 show she was built of baltic pine, larch and jarrah – a very strange combination indeed.

Late last year, an unprecedented, high-profile search deeper into the ocean than any that had gone before bore fruit when the AHS Centaur was finally found on the Sunshine Coast after vanishing 66 years earlier. The public knew her demise had been horrific, and symbolised everything hideous about war, but the location of the sunken vessel itself had been unknown.

The Centaur was a cargo ship working the Fremantle-Singapore trade route when she was seconded and converted into a hospital ship in 1943 during World War II. Her shallow, broad layout was perfect for the task. Australian troops were seeing a lot of warfare in the jungles of New Guinea and she was ordered to head there to tend the wounded.

Two months later she steamed from Sydney with 332 medical staff, field ambulance drivers and crew of merchant seamen. In accordance with the international conventions, she was painted white and marked with enormous red crosses. The authorities let all neutral diplomatic channels know to publicise her voyage, hoping it would ensure her safe passage. 

But all this just made her a better target and Japanese submarines torpedoed her in the early hours of May 14, 1943. The ship exploded and the death toll was the highest of any merchant vessel sunk by a submarine in the Pacific theatre of war. Only 64 survivors were rescued.

The barbaric act caused shock and awe around the world.

Like the stories behind her shipwreck sisters, the Centaur’s tale reverberates, pulling shadows of the past into the present and reminding coast dwellers of the sea-borne lives that have come and gone, like ships in the night.

words jane fynes-clinton  


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