Motions - 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of SS Yongala

Mr HUSIC (Chifley) (18:34): I rise to speak on the motion moved by the member for Dawson, noting the circumstances 100 years ago in which 49 passengers and 73 crew perished on board the SS Yongala. The SS Yongala is unlikely to be a name known to many Australians, other than serious scuba divers. Today, the wreck of the Yongala lies approximately 48 nautical miles south-east of Townsville and 12 nautical miles east of Cape Bowling Green in relatively shallow waters at a depth of 16 metres below the surface. The Museum of North Queensland, which manages the conservation of the SS Yongala wreck, recognises it as the largest, most intact historic shipwreck known in Australian waters apart from the modern Australian Navy warships intentionally sunk for recreational diving purposes.

Of course, the loss of the Yongala was a tragedy unparalleled in its time, having claimed 122 lives. Communities throughout eastern Australia 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. Other than the sheer tragedy of this story, I was intrigued by another dimension all together. That was the role that technology and innovation played in the loss and finding of the Yongala. On the fateful last voyage, Yongala departed Mackay bound for Townsville and Cairns and, while the Yongala was still in sight of land, the signal station at Flat Top received a telegram warning of an approaching cyclone. 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. Ironically, 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 sighting.

Of course improvements were made to technology, and continue to be made, to make shipping safer for the generations that followed. Technology also played its part in the rediscovery and later identification of the Yongala. Despite its shallow resting place, Yongala remained undiscovered for 36 years. In 1947, the Royal Australian Navy hydrographic vessel HMAS Lachlan stopped to examine an obstruction reported four years earlier, using antisubmarine equipment and an echo sounder. The obstruction was thought to be a sunken ship, and was presumed to be the SS Yongala, but no further action was taken.

In 1958, a shell fisherman came upon this obstacle once again and, being fascinated by the mystery of the Yongala, spent the next few weeks dragging the sandy seabed with grapnel. The fisherman, Bill Kirkpatrick, commenced a salvage operation using a hardhat diver but this was unsuccessful. A second salvage attempt was made some time later, this time with Kirkpatrick and the Queensland Underwater Research Group hoping to positively identify the wreck as the Yongala. During this salvage operation, a safe was recovered and brought to the surface. In the presence of Customs officers, the safe was smashed open but it contained only sludge. Positive identification of the wreck only occurred after a photo of the safe was published in the Townsville Daily Bulletin and seen by the Chubb safe dealer who identified it as one of their safes.

In another irony, it was much older technology which helped identify the wreck. The partial serial number found on the door tongue was sent to England for identification, where Chubb confirmed that it matched the serial number of the safe which had been supplied to the ship builder Armstrong, Whitworth and Co. for the Yongala, and which had been installed in the purser's cabin.

Today, there are more than 10,000 recreational dives on the Yongalaevery year. The site is protected under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 and managed through the Museum of Tropical Queensland, Townsville—a beautiful part of the world. The museum controls access to the site through permit only. There is strictly no access to the internals of the wreck but the artificial reef Yongala is now home and provides a great haven for sea life and wonderful viewing to those who dare to venture beneath the surface. I thank the member for Dawson for moving this motion.

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Ed Husic MP
Federal Labor Member for Chifley


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