A beginner’s guide to Tassie Shipwrecks

Nowadays King Island is a windy and lush haven of tranquillity, away from the city crowds and filled with beautiful scenery, great food, a world class golf course and fantastic surf, only a short flight from Melbourne International airport but a world away from your favourite #firstworldproblems. Our recent shoot for Kirkhope Aviation let us explore the island and its friendly two- and four-legged inhabitants under blue skies and transported around in great comfort. Things weren’t always that rosy though, for apart from cheese and outdoor activities in untouched landscapes, King Island also boasts a savage reputation for being the resting place of over a hundred shipwrecks.


British history books tell us that King Island was first discovered in 1798 by Captain Reed, although we can’t be sure some local Australians didn’t make it there first, rocked up, had a look around and thought ‘well f*ck that’ before returning to the Great Ocean Road. To keep it in the family, the Island was named after NWS colonial governor Philip Gidley King in 1801. Due to the island’s position slap bang in the middle of the Roaring Fourties and the relatively narrow passage into the Bass Strait, there was a lot of potential for collision with either the western shores of King Island or the western Victorian coast. The construction of Cape Wickham lighthouse in 1861 in response the Cataraqui disaster may have contributed to further wreckage as lighthouses usually signal safety, not sharp rocks, and the space between the Victorian mainland Cape Otway lighthouse and the Cape Wickham lighthouse (open ocean suitable for ships) was often mistaken for the space between the Cape Wickham lighthouse and the Currie lighthouse (sharp pointy rocks and solid land, not so suitable for ships). Intriguing stories are so deeply wound into these disasters – here are some of the most notable ones:



1) Cataraqui, August 1845: The Mega-Catastrophe


Built in Quebec, the Cataraqui was chartered by the Land and Emigration Commissioners to carry emigrants to Melbourne under the bounty system, which encouraged British skilled and responsible workers to move to Australia. After three months at sea the Cataraqui ran into rough weather, combined with the captain believing he was way further North than he actually was, resulted in a serious clash of ship and shore, which distorted the hull so badly it imprisoned hundreds of emigrants including many women and children below deck. Over two hundred were reported to be clinging to the outside of the wreckage as salvaging efforts took place overnight, but after the ship broke in two in heavy storms, only nine people (the Chief Officer, six seamen, one apprentice and one emigrant named Brown) made it to land alive. Over a month later, the Constable of the Strait David Howie visited the wreckage and had a total of 342 washed up bodies buried in five main graves. Over one hundred and sixty years on, the wrecking of the Cataraqui still rates as Australia’s greatest civil disaster.


Due to the exposed nature of the wreckage site a mere 4m underwater, little remains of the ship itself on the seabed. Memorial plaques mark the site on the south-west shore of King Island and a number of items, including a canon, that were removed from the wreck by divers can be seen at the King Island Museum, Currie.



2) Neva, May 1835: Nothing like Orange is the New Black


Built in London, the Neva was en route from Cork to Sydney with 150 women convicts, 9 voluntary emigrants, officers, crew and 45 children on board when she hit the pointy end of Navarino Reef with such force that the prison doors burst open, resulting in a mass exit into the lifeboats and subsequent capsizing of the latter. A massive wave that broke and sunk the Neva swept passengers far and wide, with only 15 finally drifting ashore several miles from the scene of the disaster. The survivors sustained themselves with salvaged provisions before being met by the survivors of another wreck, the Tartar, which had met a similar fate on another part of King Island at roughly the same time. It is believed that at least 218 of the Neva’s passengers lost their lives, making it one of the worst wreckages of Australian history.


The Neva sunk just north off Cape Wickham but not remains are visible. Some graves were accidentally dug up in the dunes and a plaque has been installed to commemorate the victims.



3) British Admiral, May 1874: Blaming your tools…


Built in Liverpool and made out of iron, the British Admiral survived a previous extensive battering in the Bay of Biscay and was all fixed and pimped up ready for years of service, when she crashed into rocks four miles south of Currie with 49 passengers and 39 crew aboard only four months later. Only nine survived to tell the tale of a ship that was over-rigged (i.e had too much sail area in proportion to the body mass), had a faulty compass and an unreliable chronometer. Bodies and cargo washed up along twenty kilometers of beach, burials took place in more mass graves (King Island, looking a little bit sinister now?) and diving gangs spent the next twelve months recovering cargo from the seabed. So much for shoddy workmanship.


The British Admiral wreck location is roughly four miles south west of Currie and not accessible for diving. In fact, only 10% of wrecks in Tasmania have been found. If you walk to the southern end of the beach, you’ll find a memorial plaque though.



4) Carnarvon Bay, Sep 1910: The Phantom Ship


Built in Scotland, the Carnarvon Bay weighed 1932 tons and was the largest ship to be wrecked in King Island. Unlucky it had 4000 tons of cargo on board when it was blown to the South in a huge storm on a Sydney-Liverpool trip and developed a list that threatened to flood her. To boats made it off the ship and landed at Cape Liptrap in eastern Victoria and the other in Launceston, Tasmania. The Carvanon Bay sank completely and has never been seen again. Spooky.


You can’t find it cause no one ever has. On to the next one.



5) Loch Leven, Oct 1871: The Unfortunate Family Line


Built in Glasgow, the Loch Leven was one of 25 ships of the same family that happened to have a reputation of bad fortune, despite all being inventively named after Scottish Lochs. Yes, there was a ship called Loch Ness. Of the 25 only 5 ended up not sinking in accidents, disappearing, getting wrecked or torpedoed in oceans and ports around the globe. Fortunately for the Loch Leven though, she hit Harbinger Reef in thick fog about two kilometers south-east of Cape Wickham, presenting a magnificent picture lying there on an even keel with all sails set. Or so said the crew who all landed safely. The captain however went back for his papers and subsequently drowned when his boat capsized. Poor man. The cargo of wool valued at £150,000 (worth roughly a gazillion pounds in modern money) was recovered.


The Loch Leven’s resting place was obvious enough for some bright spark to mark it on a map, so you can dive the wreck on a calm day. Yey!



6) Flying Arrow, Nov 1855: Phoenix from the Ashes


Weirdly, the Flying Arrow was found abandoned off Fitzmaurice Bay with no one aboard to explain her condition. Anchors missing and chain cables hanging loose, it was assumed that she had been anchored somewhere whilst the crew landed on King Island. Finally finding someone connected to the boat in Melbourne, it was decided to forget about the embarrassing incident and keep on sailing business as usual. She was re-named Wings of the Wind just in case anyone started asking questions.


You can’t find it cause it was de-wrecked. How’s that for a curve ball?



7) Netherby, Jul 1866: The Happy Ending?


Built in Liverpool, the Netherby was on her way from London to Brisbane when without warning she struck on the East coast near Currie. All 452 passengers (most emigrants) reached shore using a boat hauled back and forth on a rope between the boat and a rock on the beach. Not one life was lost, indeed, thee were gained as a female passenger gave birth to twins soon after landing and another baby was born the following day. The Cape Wickham lighthouse whaleboat was sent to fetch transport for all passengers and whilst most were assisted by the Queensland emigration program, most decided to stay in Victoria (founding the township of Netherby in North-West Victoria) and some decedents still live on King Island today. Unfortunately though, during the salvage operation a heavy iron bar slipped and crashed into one of the boats with six men, of which only three made it back to land. Eye witnesses reported “The water was tinged with blood and it was thought they had been torn to pieces by sharks.” Well, you did want to learn about shipwrecks, they had to be in here somewhere…


After all cargo and equipment had been salvaged, nothing was left of the Netherby other than a few rotting timber beams. There has recently been a 150 year celebration and commemoration, so in a way, the remains of the Netherby can be seen everywhere on King Island.