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Issue 29. Out Now!

Mystery of the Yongala Print E-mail

David Jones - Queensland Maritime Museum


On Sunday, January 30, 2011, as north Queensland battened down for category 1 cyclone ‘Anthony’ due to cross the coast that night, even greater concern was felt about a second, much larger cyclone named ‘Yasi’, located north east of Vanuatu.  ‘Yasi’ was closely tracked by satellite technology, sophisticated analysis and computer modelling as it strengthened into a category 5 storm, then crossed the north Queensland coast with devastating force three days later.  While little could be done to reduce damage to property, advance warnings kept injury and loss of life to a minimum.

 Yongala on the Brisbane River

A century ago it was very different.  Only a falling barometer, a freshening wind, rising seas and the pattern of the clouds warned mariners of an approaching cyclone, and it was only a few hours’ notice at that. 

This was the situation facing Captain William Knight of the coastal steamer Yongala when she weighed anchor from Flat Top Island off Mackay at 1.40pm on Thursday, March 23, 1911.  She was bound for Townsville where she was due at dawn next day.  Knight was an experienced sea captain who knew the coast well.  But without radio on his ship, he was unaware of the cyclone warning that came through to Mackay later that afternoon.

Yongala was a fine, modern passenger and cargo liner of 3,664 tons gross, less than eight years old with a cruising speed of 15kts.  At 6.30pm the lighthouse keeper at Dent Island in the Whitsundays reported sighting her in worsening weather.  SS Cooma and two other ships astern of Yongala did receive the cyclone warning at Mackay and anchored in sheltered waters nearby.  Heading south from Townsville, Yongala’s sister, Grantala, was forced to anchor for protection in Bowling Green Bay.  One of these ships’ captains stated the night which followed was the worst he had ever experienced on the Australian coast. 

The northbound ships limped into Townsville on Sunday morning to learn that Yongala had not arrived and was now two days overdue.  None of these vessels had seen anything of Yongala, and it seemed likely something serious had happened to her.  A search began immediately.  This covered Yongala’s estimated track from Dent Island north as well as the adjacent coast and offshore reefs, and it continued for several days.  Items of cargo and wreckage appeared over a scattered area as far north as Hinchinbrook Island, but of Yongala herself there was no sign.  Paradoxically the most telling evidence came not from the sea, but from the land.

First class saloon on Yongala

South of Cape Bowling Green searchers were shocked to see a landscape flattened by the force of the cyclone with every tree either uprooted or broken by the force of the wind.  The devastation was repeated on the northern slopes of Cape Upstart where every tree had been snapped off about 2.5m from the ground.  The nameless cyclone had been very intense, passing through with destructive force over a front of 30 miles.  Clearly, Yongala had been caught squarely in its path and overwhelmed.  Along with the ship, the cyclone took the lives of 122 passengers and crewmen aboard her.

While the agent of Yongala’s loss was apparent many questions remained.  How did she go? and where?  A Court of Enquiry followed, exhaustively sifting through all the available evidence.  But in the end it could only conclude ‘the fate of the Yongala passes from human ken into the realms of conjecture to add one more to the long roll of mysteries of the sea.’

With Yongala and all her people so totally wiped from the surface of the globe rumours flourished.  Tales of a ghost ship answering Yongala’s description gained attention and there was speculation about cryptic remarks made by her captain before she sailed.  There were indeed some strange aspects of Yongala’s loss that caused some to ponder.  Radio equipment which could have warned her to seek safety had been ordered, but not delivered when Yongala sailed.  By coincidence her twin sister Grantala, sheltering in Bowling Green Bay, was the nearest ship to Yongala’s estimated route on the night she disappeared.  And this was Yongala’s 99th voyage.

 Part of the Yongala gallery at the Martitime Museum of Townsville

For years nothing came to light.  Yongala became firmly established as one of the great mysteries of the Australian coast.  Two world wars would pass before Yongala began to reveal her secrets.

In 1943 a minesweeper reported an obstruction off Cape Bowling Green and this was investigated by the survey vessel HMAS Lachlan four years later.  In a position 22km east of the cape in the normal shipping channel, Lachlan recorded an area of shoal water which matched the dimensions of a reasonably sized steamer.  But with the shoal charted and its minimum depth of 16m not representing an immediate hazard to shipping, Lachlan moved on.

It seemed likely that this shoal was the wreck of long lost Yongala but another decade passed before the mystery would be finally solved.  In 1958 divers visited the shoal, discovering the wreck of an old passenger steam ship.  Among the artefacts brought to the surface was a steel safe and its serial number confirmed the wreck’s identity.  Yongala had been found, 47 years after she went missing.

Examination of the wreck showed her facing north on course for Townsville, only 90km away.  Although rust had weakened her structure, no damage was found that could explain her sinking.  Yongala had been sunk by the overpowering force of the elements.  She faced the full power of the cyclone with hurricane winds, mountainous seas and blinding rain.  Green seas crashed down on her decks, beating on her hatches, as the wind roared at her like an express train sending Yongala into uncontrolled contortions as she strove to make way towards Townsville.  Whether she was still afloat when the eye of the cyclone passed we will never know, but the change of wind direction, returning with increased ferocity, would have been irresistible. 

 Yongala's bell at the Martitime Museum of Townsville with Captain Knight in left background  Yongala at South Brisbane

Since her discovery Yongala has become one of Queensland’s most famous and popular dive sites.  A hundred years on, the seabed has seen her wreck taken over by nature and she has become herself a coral reef, home to a vast array of fish and marine growth.  Divers can enjoy the marine life and reflect on her tragic story, but Yongala is a protected shipwreck to remain untouched under controlled access. 

Yongala is a central feature at the Maritime Museum of Townsville with a wide range of relics and memorabilia on display.  The ship, her loss, rediscovery and current situation are explained and presented fully, including personal stories of her people. 

On the 100th anniversary of Yongala’s loss the museum hosted a commemorative gathering followed by a memorial church service and wreath-laying over her wreck.  Despite the years since Yongala was taken, there was a timeless quality about each of these events.  In gathering to remember Yongala we also gave thanks for those who still go down to the sea in ships and prayed for their protection.  Cyclone ‘Yasi’ has shown us yet again that the dangers of the sea are no less today than they were 100 years ago. 



With grateful thanks to the Maritime Museum of Townsville.

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