The passenger ship, SS Yongala, sank off Cape Bowling Green, on 23 March 1911. En route from Melbourne to Cairns she steamed into a cyclone and sank without a trace south of Townsville, Australia. The actual cause of the wrecking remains a mystery.
One hundred and twenty-two people perished in what was considered one of the most tragic incidents in Australian maritime history. There were no survivors. It was only in 1958 that the wreck of the Yongala was discovered lying in northern waters south of Townsville and has since become renowned as an internationally regarded diving and tourist destination.
SS Yongala was a steel passenger and freight steamer built in Newcastle upon Tyne, England to special survey for the Adelaide Steamship Company, at a cost of £102,000. She was launched on 29 April 1903 and was registered in Adelaide and took up the busy passenger route linking the gold fields of Western Australia with the eastern ports of Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. Following company tradition, the vessel was named after a word in the local Aboriginal language. 'Yongala' (originally pronounced Yonggluh) meant "broad water", or "broad wide watering place". It was also the name of the small town Yongala in South Australia.
The vessell was propelled by a large triple expansion engine, driving a single propeller. The engine was built by Wallsend Shipway and Engineering Co. and she could attain an official top speed of 15.8 knots. However, in her previous 98 trips, it was recorded that Yongala had often reached 17 knots. Five single ended steel boilers working under natural draught supplied steam of 180 pounds pressure. At 15 knots, Yongala's engines burned approximately 67 tonnes of coal per day. A powerful direct acting steam windlass and capstan was fitted on the forecastle head and seven winches with derricks and derrick-posts and two steam cranes were provided for efficient cargo handling. Electric lighting was fitted throughout the ship with a duplicate generating plant. It had also been provided with refrigeration facilities for the carriage of frozen cargo. A specially arranged steam and hand steering gear was fitted in a house at the after end of the poop and controlled from the bridge.
In 1906, Yongala was transferred to the Brisbane - Fremantle route and during that time, Yongala was the first vessel to complete a direct trip of between Fremantle and Brisbane, the longest interstate trip at that time. During the winter months from 1907 to early 1911, Yongala serviced the east coast run from Melbourne to Cairns, as the Fremantle - Brisbane route became quieter at that time of year.
On the 14 March 1911, under the command of Captain William Knight, Yongala embarked on its 99th voyage in Australian waters. It left Melbourne with 72 passengers, including the only two passengers who were to remain on board after reaching Brisbane, intending to travel to Cairns.
The vessel arrived at the Municipal Wharf in Brisbane on the morning of 20 March. Captain William Knight aged 62, was one of the company's most capable men, who had been in the service of the Adelaide Steamship Co for 14 years without mishap or incident. Having completed the loading of passengers and a large general cargo, including a race horse known as 'Moonshine' destined for Townsville, and a red Lincoln bull for Cairns, Yongala finally left the wharf, having been inspected and found to be in excellent trim.
Although Yongala had been delayed in its departure from Brisbane, it was in no hurry to reach Mackay. Captain Gerrit Smith of the Cooma overtook Yongala the following day and later commented that the Yongala had been steaming easily as it was not necessary to arrive at Mackay until 23 March.
On the morning of 23 March, Yongala steamed into Mackay to drop off and receive passengers and discharge 50 tons of cargo, leaving 617 tons in the lower hold - properly stowed. By 1.40 pm she had departed, carrying 49 passengers and 73 crew, making a total of 122 people. Yongala was still in sight of land when the signal station at Flat Top (Mackay) received a telegram warning of a cyclone in the area between Townsville and Mackay. Although the first Australian shore-based wireless station capable of maintaining communication with ships had been established in Sydney in 1910, few ships carried wireless in 1911. Unfortunately, a wireless destined for installation in Yongala had recently been dispatched from the Marconi Company in England. Five hours later, the lighthouse keeper on Dent Island in the Whitsunday Passage watched Yongala steam past into the worsening weather. It was the last known sighting.
Meanwhile, the Cooma had lost time during the previous night and arrived late at Mackay. Having been signalled from Flat Top about the approaching cyclone, the vessel was able to find shelter until the following day. Further north the wind was swinging from the south east to the north west, and was coming from the north east when it would have hit Yongala, travelling at right angles to the full force. It is possible that the diameter of the storm did not exceed 30 kilometres (30 mi) although it left a trail of devastation at Cape Upstart. The late arrival of Yongala in Townsville caused little immediate concern. However, when three other ships that had been sheltering from the storm finally arrived - among them the Cooma - the alarm was raised. Yongala was posted as missing on 26 March although it was thought to have been lost on or about the 23 March. The Premier for Queensland, the Hon. Digby Denham turned all the resources of the state over to the search, including the public service, the police force and shipping - which included seven search vessels.
News of wreckage found washed up on beaches gradually trickled in - from Hinchinbrook Island to Bowen, but there was no sign of the vessel or of those on board. Hope had been abandoned by the following Wednesday after scores of vessels had scoured the coast and found no trace. The only body ever found was that of the racehorse Moonshine, washed up at the mouth of the Gordon Creek, not far from Ross Creek, Townsville. Many theories were put forward regarding its possible location and reason for loss. Some speculated that it had been rendered helpless due to some unknown mishap between Whitsunday Passage and Cape Bowling Green or been overpowered by the extreme force of the wind; perhaps the anchors had been dropped causing the boat to slew broadside into the wind; others thought it had hit a submerged reef between Flinders Passage and Keeper Reef or run into Nares Rock, or even struck Cape Upstart.
The Queensland government offered a £1,000 reward for information leading to the discovery of the ship, but as nothing of the vessel was ever heard this was eventually withdrawn. Communities throughout eastern and South Australia commemorated the tragedy in churches and village halls. Donations were offered to the 'Yongala distress' fund, begun in March 1911 for the relief of families in distress. It was wound up on 30 September 1914, with an amount of £900 which had not been disbursed and which was credited to the Queensland Shipwreck Society.
On 20 June 1911, the Marine Board of Queensland met in Brisbane to finalise the inquiry into the loss of Yongala that had begun on 8 June 1911. It was agreed that the task of determining the cause of the tragedy through eyewitness evidence was not possible, and so the Inquiry will chiefly lie in the direction of the ship's stability, equipment, and seaworthiness, together with the question of Captain Knight's carefulness and general efficiency as a ship's master.
According to evidence given by Mr Adamson, the superintendent engineer, the tests that had been carried out on the vessel after it had been built all complied with the standards and specifications supplied by the Adelaide Steamship Co, and that the seaworthiness and stability of the vessel had been proven during seven years continuous running on the coast without accident. The Board were satisfied that the vessel in construction, stability, seaworthiness was equal to any in her class.
The competencies of Captain Knight were scrutinised, as were the sailing decisions he may have taken on that night. Witnesses called to give testimony as to the ability and character of the captain unanimously described him as a careful and experienced master. The Board found the ability of the captain to be unimpeachable, and 'with no desire to indulge in idle speculation, simply find that after becoming lost to view by the light keeper at Dent Island, the fate of the Yongala passes beyond human ken into the realms of conjecture, to add one more to the mysteries of the sea.
The Board were confirmed in their opinion that the risk of navigating the Queensland coast is considerably enhanced during the hurricane months, or from December to April; and although with plenty of sea room and a well-found ship the observant master can, by heaving to on the right tack, or keeping out of the path of the storm, invariably avert disaster. But when caught inside the Barrier Reef, with the number of islands and reefs intervening, the Board think it will be generally conceded that the only element of safety is to be found in securing the best anchorage available.
In the years that followed the disappearance of the Yongala, stories began to surface about a ghost ship, exactly resembling the Yongala, being frequently seen moving in the distance in seas between Bowen and Townsville. By the time of World War II, the loss of Yongala was almost forgotten. In 1943, a minesweeper fouled on what was then thought to be a shoal eleven miles east of Cape Bowling Green. The Captain marked on his chart an obstruction in about thirteen fathoms, dead on the track of vessels bound for Townsville.
After the end of the war, the obstruction was investigated by the survey ship HMAS Lachlan. She arrived over the area in June 1947 and after several runs in the locality using anti-submarine instruments and echo sounder found what appeared to be a patch of shoal water at six fathoms surrounded by soundings from twelve to fourteen fathoms. The Lachlan steamed over the area several times and found that the object was about long and probably the wreck of a fair sized steamer, possibly lying on her side. No other ship other than Yongala had been reported missing in those waters. Despite finding the wreck, the Navy did nothing to follow up the find.
In 1958, two skindivers from Townsville, Don Macmillan and Noel Cook, became interested and as members of an expedition located the wreck and brought to the surface a barnacle-encrusted steel safe which they have found in the cabin. When broken open with a pinch bar, hammer and chisel, the safe was found to contain nothing but black sludge. The only thing that offered a clue to its identification was part of the safes serial number - 9825W. It was subsequently established that it was a Chubb strongbox and the number was sent to the manufacturers in London for tracing. In 1961, the reply came back that the safe was one supplied to the purser's cabin of the SS Yongala during her construction in 1903.
The wreck of Yongala was in length. The bow points in a northerly direction (347º), and although it lies listing to starboard at an angle of between 60º - 70º, the vessel's structural integrity has been retained. The depth of water to the sea floor is approximately 30 metres, with the upper sections of the wreck below the surface.
In 1981 the wreck was sketched by marine biologist Leon Zann. Although the superstructure of the wreck remains intact and very much like this sketch, the significant build up of sand around the starboard side of the vessel has been scoured away, and the ventilators and railings have collapsed.
The wreck of Yongala lies within the central section of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. It is approximately 48 nautical miles (89 km) south east of Townsville and 12 nautical miles (22 km) east of Cape Bowling Green. SS Yongala is today a major tourist attraction for the dive industry in Townsville.
In late 2002, the site had several moorings installed to ensure that no more impact damage occurs by careless anchoring practices. A policy of 'No Anchoring' was also introduced within the protected zone following the installation of the moorings. The wreck is protected under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 and is managed through the Museum of Tropical Queensland, Townsville. Penetration diving and interference with artefacts is prohibited under the terms of the Act. Access to the site is through permit only, obtainable from the Maritime Archaeology Section of the Museum of Tropical Queensland.
Today, the SS Yongala is a popular dive spot with an extensive array of marine life. More than 10,000 divers visit the wreck every year. At long she is one of the largest, most intact historic shipwrecks.
The Townsville Maritime Museum has an extensive display of Yongala memorabilia.
The Yongala shipwreck is registered on the Queensland National Estate (place ID #14835) as a Heritage site. Its official location is: About within a circle of radius at , north-east of Ayr and east of Townsville off Cape Bowling Green in the Coral Sea and inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.