Wake of the Navigators Part 2

Wake of the Navigators Part 2

Story by Trevor Jackson
Images by Julia Sumerling and State Library of Qld

There’s a bit of shipwreck folklore that goes something like this: In the Menai Strait off the coast of Wales, 3 ships have been lost over the centuries and the same day, December 5th. A bit of a coincidence yes, but it goes further. December 5, 1664, a ship sunk in the Menai Strait, every person but one perished, the sole survivors name was Hugh Williams. On December 5, 1785, another ship sunk in the Menai Strait, with again everyone aboard dying except for one man…named Hugh Williams. And then again, on December 5, 1820, yet another ship sunk in the Menai Strait. Only one man survived, and he was named Hugh Williams. This legend is perpetuated later in further folklore which states that another two ships sank in the same area with the survivors bearing the name Hugh Williams, except they weren’t on December 5. In one of those wrecks, there were actually two survivors, an uncle and nephew, and both were named ….you guessed it ……………Hugh Williams.

Now there are folk about the place who might be persuaded to believe this type of ghostly ship story, I’m not one of them, but there are enough strange coincidences in life, and in particular , life on the high seas, to suggest that one should always leave room for curiosity. There’s the phenomenon of ships sinking and landing vertically upright sitting on their sterns, with the bows pointing back to the sea surface from whence they came. An example of this can actually be found off the southern NSW coast. Then there is the equally intriguing notion of two ships sinking right on top of one another. You might expect to see this in an area designated for an artificial reef but in real life, surely not…….in Torres Straits, its exactly what happened.

Now I’m fairly sure there were no passengers named Hugh Williams on board the Scottish built SS Phoenix when she climbed onto rocks north of Thursday Island in July 1855. For a start , everyone survived. This 240 ton timber paddle steamer was en route to Singapore when the treachery of the Torres Straits tidal currents made short work of her navigation officer’s most meticulous calculations. All were saved and taken on to Indonesia but the weather made mince meat of the timber hull and the Phoenix soon broke apart. Her boilers and paddle wheel however, stayed intact, setting a trap that took another 20 odd years to trigger.

In 1878, the much larger SS Mecca, fell right into it, ripping her belly out. At 1450 tons, the Mecca was loaded with Chinese immigrants returning home with the riches gained from years in the Australian gold fields. Her captain later said that if the he hadn’t struck the boilers of the SS Phoenix, he would have cleared the rocks and been still on his way to China. The board of enquiry was not inclined to agree, not that the outcome could be affected anyway, the SS Mecca and the SS Phoenix were to remain, like teenage lovers, joined at the hip. As they are to this day. Just a few short hours from Thursday Island, these two ships are still nestled together on the rocks that claimed them, so closely nestled in fact that it’s virtually impossible to tell them apart. The paddle wheels are certainly from the Phoenix, and they lie atop the iron hull plates of the Mecca (even though the Mecca was sunk second). Amongst the bits and bobs are Chinese coins scattered in the coral, part of the wealth left behind as the passengers scrambled to safety. It’s an intriguing dive site, made doubly so by the temptation of grabbing whatever booty one might come across. The pre-dive briefing was blunt the last time we were there…..”Don’t be knocking off any coins”.

The intriguing coincidence of these two wrecks atop one another is one of the highlights of day one of the ‘Wake of the Navigators’ trip, scheduled to leave Thursday Island on December 11 this year. After lunch we will traverse the two short miles across the Prince of Wales channel to North West Reef . There, the nearly intact hull of the 75 metre iron tall-ship “Volga” , lies tucked up in the shallows. Like her two ‘across the channel’ neighbours, the 1700 ton Volga was coincidentally also forged from Scottish iron and was just a few years old. As testimony to the strength of the surrounding currents, she traveled over 12 nautical miles after hitting Beresford Shoal, before settling in shallow water on the western edge of North West Reef. She lays there now, her cargo of coal still secure in her holds.

That evening, we’ll point the boat north east, to a place we’ve never been before, Moresby Rock and the wreck of the SS Fenstanton. We will spend a few hours finding her and getting set up in the morning, from that point, the story will have to write itself for a few days, who knows what strangeness awaits, but I guess that is what a trip like this is really all about……….

The Wake of the Navigators Expedition leaves Thursday Island on December 11 2014 and travels down the coast to Cairns, docking on Dec 18. It is a trip for hard core historical wreck nerds. Hugh Williams need not apply. For further details complete a Contact Us form, or find out more and book direct online.


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