SS Yongola

Australia’s own Titanic: 10 things you never knew about the S.S. Yongala

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One of Australia’s worst peacetime maritime disasters created one of the world’s most renowned underwater tourist attractions. But just how did the S.S. Yongala end up 25m underwater off Townsville?

On the evening of 23 March 1911, Captain William Knight, one of the most capable and experienced captains then working the busy Australian coastal route aboard a stout and the well-maintained vessel, sailed past the lighthouse on Dent Island in the Whitsunday Passage and was never seen again.

Here are 10 things we bet you never knew about Australia’s own Titanic. 

1. She may have been English but she was named after an Aussie

Photo courtesy of Yongala Dive

Launched in Newcastle, England, in 1903, the 3700 ton S.S. Yongala was named after the tiny South Australian pastoral town of the same name.

2. Had the postie been more prompt, disaster may have been avoided

As the eight-year-old S.S. Yongala steamed leisurely out of Mackay, aboard were 49 passengers, 73 crew, a racehorse named “Moonshine” and a prize bull.

What the 14-year veteran master didn’t know was that a cyclone warning had just been received and with her brand new Marconi radio still on its way from England, the frustrated keeper could only watch her sail away. He was the last person to ever see the Yongala.

3. Some contemporary critics claim the ship was top-heavy

SS Yongola

In the raging cyclonic seas, a wave or waves broke over her side, immediately filling her with water and sending her quickly to the bottom.

Three days later, concern escalated and Yongala was posted as missing. Every possible vessel was thrown into the search but apart from some debris washed up on the beaches, no trace was ever found and the subsequent inquiry was inconclusive.

4. The only body ever to be recovered was Moonshine’s

The doomed racehorse washed up in a creek three miles south of the Ross River, near Townsville.

5. Sightings of a ghost ship seen sailing between Bowen and Townsville kept public interest going for a few years

SS Yongala

Photo by Adrian Stacey, Yongala Dive

But the outbreak of WWI all but erased her from memory.

During WWII, a minesweeper fouled on something 11 miles east of Cape Bowling Green and a subsequent postwar search by an RAN survey vessel, HMAS Lachlan, all but confirmed the Yongala’s location in around 25m of water. But the Navy did nothing.

6. In 1958, divers cracked the code

It wasn’t until 1958 when local skin-divers, Don Macmillan and Noel Cook, brought back a steel safe from a wreck that the world was forced to remember the Yongala.

The anticlimactic opening revealed only mud, but the safe’s serial number was traced back to Chubb in the UK who confirmed it was installed in the purser’s cabin aboard S.S. Yongala in 1903.

7. The wreck is now a world-famous dive site attracting some 10,000 divers annually

SS Yongala

The S.S. Yongala shipwreck is protected by legislation, so divers can only visit the wreck with a licensed operator like Yongala Dive at Alva Beach near Ayr. It’s at a perfect depth for Open Water Advanced divers, but OW divers can still enjoy the experience at their 18m limit as no penetration of the wreck is permitted.

8. Once, divers were confronted by human remains inside the hull

Which probably explains why, since 1994, divers are prohibited from entering the superstructure.

9. A cyclone took her down, then another revealed the next chapter

SS YongolaSS Yongola

Ironically, exactly 100 years later as centenary celebrations were being prepared, 2011’s Cyclone Yasi blasted off much of the century’s marine growth, revealing detail and artefacts never seen before. S.S. Yongala, and her ghostly complement, now await thousands more submarine visitors.

10. You can get up close to the Yongala on dry land in Townsville

At the Townsville Maritime Museum artefacts on display include the ship’s bell, glass decklight, ship’s lantern, light fixtures, crockery, bottles and brass items, a letter found in a mail bag on Cassady’s Beach and four farthings retrieved from the only passenger luggage ever found.

Have you dived the SS Yongala? What’s something you never knew about the shipwreck until you did?