[Editor: This untitled article was published in the general news section of The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), 4 April 1912.]
[Australia has had more than its share of shipping disasters of late]
Australia has had more than its share of shipping disasters of late. Towards the close of March, 1911, the Yongala went down, with over 130 people on board, somewhere between the Barrier Reef and the coast of Queensland; and now, just a year afterwards, the community is horror-stricken by the only too certain loss of the Koombana, with a passenger and crew list totalling, it is believed, 123 souls.
Both were strong, well-found vessels, and both were under the command of seamen familiar with the waters they severally plied in, and of the highest reputation for skill and caution. Of the Yongala scarcely a trace, beyond a few packages presumed to form part of her cargo, ever came to light. Whether anything more of the Koombana than the few fittings picked up off Port Hedland will ever appear or not, scarcely a hope can be entertained of any of her unfortunate company being seen alive again.
Such disasters as these, occurring, as they do, within a few hours’ steam of port, bring home to us the delusion of supposing that science has robbed the sea of nearly all its terrors. In “blue water,” navigation proceeds, on the whole, with a smoothness and certainty which could scarcely be improved upon; but here in the vicinity of the treacherous Australian coast the peril is still very great.
The Yongala was overtaken by a cyclonic storm while threading her way through difficult narrow passages. The Koombana encountered one of those terrific disturbances known in the West as willy-willies, and apparently put to sea as the best way of riding it out. From all accounts she would appear to have been regarded as a steamer capable of weathering any storm that ever blew; but she must either have been overwhelmed by a sea or have struck a rock.
Just fourteen months ago the Norwegian barque Glenbank was loading copper ore at Whim Creek (where two schooners were blown ashore, with considerable loss of life, last week), when a willy-willy struck her unawares; and though she managed to get out to sea she ran upon a reef, and only one of her 22 hands survived.
Where skill seems to avail so little even on large and powerful vessels, it is not surprising that the small luggers and schooners which form the pearling fleets should fare so disastrously in these fearful storms. Their helplessness was strikingly shown in the big “blow” of 1910. The glass began to fall on the morning of November 18, and about 100 luggers in the vicinity made helter-skelter for such shelter as Broome affords. The storm broke during the night, and next morning Broome was in ruins, 67 luggers were lying piled up on the shore, 28 whose anchors had held were sunk at their moorings, and 54 corpses were washed up. And that storm was not half as destructive of life as one that fell without more than an hour or two’s warning in 1908.
To prevent the recurrence of disasters like these may be quite beyond the capacity of human skill. We are certainly not in a position to suggest any expedient even for mitigating the dangers of the north-west coast. From the middle of December to the end of April cyclonic disturbances of greater or less severity are never unexpected in that region.
To make the indentations of the coast which pass for harbours really secure for large vessels is probably impossible. The enormous rise and fall of the tide would necessitate any works in the shape of moles being carried miles out to sea in some places, and even then they would not protect the ships against the wind.
So perilous indeed are natural conditions up there that one master mariner, interviewed at Fremantle the other day, expressed an emphatic opinion that no sailing ship ought to be allowed to enter the danger zone during the cyclone season. That, of course, is an altogether impracticable solution of the problem. But the admitted difficulty of finding a remedy or an ameliorative will not justify either the West Australian or the Commonwealth Government in any longer shirking the task. It is really more a Federal than a State concern, seeing that the Commonwealth has taken over the meteorological bureau, and is about to assume control of the coastal beacons and lighthouses. But the work is one in which both should take a hand.
An expert inquiry might elicit some practical suggestion as to the means whereby mariners could at least be warned of the approach of a cyclone in time to make even possible preparation for meeting it successfully, if not avoiding it. The Yongala might conceivably have been saved had her master been advised in good time that a storm was expected. Wireless telegraphy should prove a valuable agent in communicating intelligence of this kind, and if the advice were available and reliable, it would probably pay to have one vessel in every pearling fleet equipped with the apparatus. In any case there should be no abandoning the quest for remedy, however partial, until it is proved beyond all question that no remedy is to be found. The toll of lives exacted by the north-west coastal seas is becoming too fearful to contemplate.
More wreckage has been found by the vessels which were engaged in the search for the Koombana. A smoking-room settee and the bottom board of a boat have been found between 50 and 70 miles west of Bedout Island.
The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), 4 April 1912, p. 6, columns 3-4
ameliorative = to make something better, easier, or improved; to lessen the effect of something (especially regarding something negative)
barque = (also spelt “bark”) a small sailing ship in general, or specifically a sailing ship with three (or more) masts, in which the aftmost mast is fore-and-aft rigged, whilst the other masts are square-rigged
blow = a big wind, a stormy atmospheric event, a cyclone, a tornado
helter-skelter = to move fast in a confused or disorderly manner; to run or move quickly in a hasty and disorderly fashion; to act in a hurried and haphazard manner, with carelessness, disorder, or turmoil
intelligence = information, news
lugger = a small ship with usually two or three masts, which uses lugsails rigged fore-and-aft (a lugsail is a four-cornered sail, suspended from a spar)
See: “Lugger”, Wikipedia
mariner = sailor, seaman
mole = a long pier, a breakwater; a harbour or anchorage protected by a breakwater; a massive structure designed to separate two bodies of water
See: 1) “Overview: mole”, Oxford Reference
See: 2) “Mole (architecture)”, Wikipedia
schooner = a type of sailing ship with a foremast and mainmast (the ship having at least two masts), with the lower sails being rigged fore-and-aft
See: “Schooner”, Wikipedia
willy-willies = plural of willy-willy [see: willy-willy]
willy-willy = a whirlwind which occurs in desert areas (plural: willy-willies); dust storm; also, a severe tropical cyclone
[Editor: The original text has been separated into paragraphs.]
[Editor: The quotation marks within a quotation (placed at the start of each typographical line, as a matter of publishing style) have been removed. Re: In “blue water,” navigation proceeds.]