Shipwrecks - Some of the ships that have come to grief
Extract from Lady Elliot Island - Great Barrier Reef Australia, Chapter 10, by Anthony Walsh. this book can be purchased from the island shop.
Numerous vessels have been wrecked on the reefs around Lady Elliot Island. Some have disappeared without a trace while others have been washed ashore. A few of the lucky ones have been salvaged.
The largest ship to go aground was the Port St John in May 1939. It was a cargo steamer of substantial tonnage and carried a large crew.
A search of the Lady Elliot Island lighthouse records shows a surprising large number of groundings during 1975.
At 7.30 am on 29 April 1975, a vessel was noticed on the north-eastern end of the reef. The lighthouse keeper reported this information to Canberra. Shortly after, the vessel managed to free itself but was back on the reef at 10.00 pm that evening. The mast eventually snapped and drifted over the reef and off the western side of the island. The vessel itself then began drifting away from the island in a north-north westerly direction.
Meanwhile, one of the crew managed to swim ashore and made his way to the back door of number three cottage. His name was Vern McLaren and he told one of the assistant lighthouse keepers that his two other companions, Bruce Lynton and Allan Fletcher, were still on board the now drifting vessel. McLaren spent a few worried hours in the lighthouse until a radio message was received telling him that his companions had been safely picked up from the disabled vessel by a German freighter.
The Vansittart measuring 18 m was on its way from Sydney to take part in a turtle farming project in Torres Strait when on 4 August 1975 it ran aground on the north-north-east end of the island at 1.15 am. It was not until 3.00 am that the five men on board decided to abandon the steel vessel and they managed to get safely ashore. Fortunately, with the aid of daylight, they could see that the craft had not suffered any serious damage. In fact, it was successfully refloated at 6.00 am that morning. The Vansittart continued its northern voyage on 5 August.
The north-eastern end of the island was the scene for the wreck of the 15 m cutter Tahuna on 3 November 1975. It struck the reef at 1.45 am. One man stumbled ashore to raise the alarm and by 6.00 am the remaining two sailors were safely brought to the island.
The next day, the badly holed craft was washed onto the beach where most of the fittings were removed. Some sea vandals set fire to the Tahuna after being warned to stop souveniring fixtures from the vessel. The rusted steel ribs of the Tahuna md a little of the remaining charred timbers could still be seen on the northern beach for many years after.
For some unfortunate sailors, the island acts like an irresistible magnet willing their craft closer and closer till it comes to grief on the jagged reef. This happened in 1976 to the two-person crew on the Huzure. They were 20 days out of Auckland on their way to Gladstone when their craft ran on to the reef and was gradually washed across the reef flat and on to the beach.
However, it was 1980 that really put Lady Elliot Island on the map as 'Shipwreck Island~ two sailing boats came to grief on the outer reefs of the island within six weeks of each other.
After two days of hell in the clutches of Cyclone Simon the five man crew of the schooner Thisby saw Lady Elliot Island during a brief break in the unbelievable weather and sea conditions. The vessel was heading north and ran into the first heavy weather off Sandy Cape on Monday 25 February 1980. Then followed a nightmare ride during which the old schooner was battered by shrieking, cyclonic winds and rode roller coaster waves 20 to 30 m high.
The engines failed and a huge wave smashed into the chart room and washed over the radio. As a result of the heavy pounding of the mountainous seas, the seams of the boat began to open up.
All the men could do was to lie in their bunks and hope for a miracle. It came two days later when they saw Lady Elliot Island about five km to the north-west. A short time later the Thisby, with three anchors out to slow the impending crunch on the coral, came to a sudden halt on the outer reef. The crew made it safely to shore with the help of the lighthouse staff.
Though the Port St John was the biggest vessel to run aground on the reef surrounding Lady Elliot Island, Apollo I was the most famous.
It happened during the 1980 Brisbane to Gladstone Yacht Race when Australia's best known and most successful ocean-racer came to grief on the notorious north-eastern edge of the island. The 19 m Apollo I was owned and skippered by Sydney businessman Mr Jack Rooklyn who had raced the magnificent sloop to line honours in most events around Australia.
At the time of the grounding, Apollo I was leading in the ocean classic and was sailing before a 20-knot east-south-easterly wind in rough seas. The yacht came to a grinding halt and was slewed sideways on to the coral reef. With every wave, Apollo I was driven further on to the reef. She was badly holed on the port side so it was decided to abandon ship. With the help of tourists holidaying on the island, the crew was brought to shore in a glass-bottomed boat.
Having salvaged what they could including the 24m aluminium mast, the crew reluctantly set her on fire on Tuesday 13 May 1980.
The outer edge of the reef on the eastern side of the island continues to remain a trap for the unwary. In late 1990, the crew of the Islander anchored for the night but early next morning a sudden squall arose and was enough to make the Islander drag its anchor so that the luxury cruiser was swept on to the reef.
The resort staff came to the rescue, and at low tide, made emergency repairs to the hull with marine ply which was enough to enable the Islander to make it safely back to Bundaberg.