Phillip Island & District Historical Society

The Wreck of the Coramba, 1934

Last updated on 12-Apr-19

At the general meeting of 2nd November 2011 Des Williams spoke about the Coramba, the crew members and the finding of the wreck. Arthur Woodley launched Des’s book on the wreck of the Coramba for the 50th anniversary of the wreck in 1984. Des showed a photo of various people at the launch including Jack Dowling, who was son of the Coramba’s captain. Neither Arthur not Jack lived to see the wreck found.

The Coramba came to Port Fairy through the Belfast and Koroit Steam Navigation Company which set up the shipping line because they were tired of the high prices charged by the Hentys. Their first ship was the Casino, which became known as Cassie. The Cassie sank on 10.7.1932 with 10 lost including Captain Middleton. After chartering a few ships the company bought the Coramba, a tough, solid ship of 50 metres long. It was built by Scottish ship builders in 1911 and was mainly for cargo, having only room for 2 passengers.

Coramba was used in rivers and so had two propellers to more easily turn in those conditions. There were cranes on the masts to load and unload. She arrived at Port Fairly in 1933. Des showed a slide of her leaving Port Fairly with a massive (and illegal) cargo of wool, late 1933. She competed with the railways so every load counted.

In 1934 the bridge was closed in, making conditions on board a lot more comfortable for the helmsman.

On 29.11.1934 Captain Dowling looked at the barometer and decided it was not good weather to be sailing. He was heavily loaded with wool and Nestle condensed milk and was due to leave Warrnambool. He telegraphed head office but the reply was this if he left now he would beat the storm to the Port Phillip Heads. This turned out to be one of the worst storms experienced in Victoria. Thirty four people were killed, 17 of them on the Coramba which lost all crew. This was not just a tragedy for the individuals involved, but for their families, as most were breadwinners and this was still in the Depression.

The first signs of the wreck were found by Bill Mallory, then a boy, as he rode to Berry’s Beach. He reported finding wreckage to Constable McGrady who said “You’re dreaming”. However, McGrady then started getting reports of a missing vessel and went to look for himself. Various objects were washed up: the ship’s bell, lifebuoys, and alarm clock, rudder from a lifeboat. Seaweed was piled 2 ½ metres high on the beach, with bodies amongst it.

Des showed a slide of some of the Coramba crew in times before the wreck. Their ages ranged from 19 to 55 years. Only five were not married. Captain John Dowling had wanted to get his Pilot’s Licence so that he could be at home more. He had a loving relationship with his wife. The family has the last letter he wrote to her on Friday 23rd November 1934.

Robert Wishart, the second mate, 55 years old, was one of four washed ashore. His wife had died two months before him and they left a child. George Madden, cook, left four children. Timothy Byrne, aged 24, was found in the kelp and is buried in Footscray cemetery. Bobby Bellairs, who had survived the sinking of the Casino, had nightmares about drowning. He very nearly did not make the voyage as he had lain down to have a sleep at his home in Warrnambool and nearly missed the sailing. His mother had woken him.

Arthur Murphy, 32 years old, left five children. Henry Jenssen, the donkey-man (who attended the boilers and engine) was 51 years old.

Of the relics surviving, the bell is mounted at Port Fairy museum, and the lifebuoy and other relics are at Portland.

Not long after the sinking, famous helmet diver “Johnno” Johnstone used the Hollydene to try and located the wreck. They dragged half a mile of rope and snagged a wreck in 35 m of water a couple of miles off Kitty Miller Bay. Des has been searching for the Coramba for 20 years. This year a “Technical” (deep water) diver Peter Taylor of Southern Ocean Exploration decided to try and find the Coramba. He had been through records of the Navy mine sweepers of WWII and found three targets in the Phillip Island area.

Des showed a slide of the three positions variously suggested by Johstone, Arthur Woodley and Peter Taylor. They were all well apart, with Peter Taylor’s position well of Cape Schanck and ten miles from Flinders. Wreckage had been found from Cape Woolamai to Berry’s Beach and empty beer kegs had even washed up at Rye.

On 29.5.11, Peter Taylor, the other divers from Southern Ocean Exploration, Des and crew left on the MV Action from Yaringa Marina. A boat with two divers had gone on ahead to dive on the location and if a red buoy was sent up, Peter and Des would know there was a wreck below. They were happy to see the red buoy, so their divers went down, passing the other two divers still decompressing.

Each diver carried one cylinder of Nitrox, two of Trimix for their twenty minutes on the wreck, and oxygen for decompression. They also had cameras and compasses for getting a reading, though in the end all three got different readings due to the effects of the depth of 22 feet.

The divers sent up a red bag when they found the two props to indicate to Des that this was likely  to be the Coramba. They filmed the ship in three sections, apparently due to being shattered by depth charges from the mine sweeper during WWII thinking the wreck was a Japanese submarine. They were able to film what was left of the stern, bow and mid section, funnel, bollards, the boiler, some portholes and the two propellers.

On 27.6.2011 James Parkinson’s crew from Professional Diving Services dived again on the wreck and took more film footage. It is hoped to make a document6ary using the two lots of footage. Meanwhile, Des and Peter Taylor are collaborating on writing about the Coramba and the finding of the wreck.