In the calm after the storm, the Harbourmaster thought all was safe – but he was wrong. He had not one shipwreck, but two to deal with, and the prospect of tragedy if he chose the wrong ship to see to first.
This week’s Cursed Coast – Western Australia, where else? – involves two shipwrecks, in a tale of tragedy and heroism…with a mystery we may never know the answers to.
Carlisle Castle and the City of York
On 11th July, 1899, a winter storm swept across the Indian Ocean into Fremantle. Six vessels were driven ashore, but the damage was minimal. Looking at the reports the next day, Chief Harbourmaster Captain Russell considered the port had been very lucky to get off so lightly.
To the west and south of Fremantle, there is a long chain of rocks, reefs and islands, starting from Rottnest Island on the edge of the continental shelf and stretching south through Shoalwater to Coventry Reef. This shipping hazard is one of the reasons Dutch explorers rejected the site for settlement back in 1658 and why the English hesitated so long before creating a colony in Western Australia. And the storm wasn’t over yet.
By the evening of the 12th, there were reports of debris washing ashore at Penguin Island to the south and flares were sighted off Rottnest to the west. Dreading that their luck was too good to last, Russell sent a tug boat down to Shoalwater to investigate.
The tug boat crew found lifebelts, buoys and two broken boats, all bearing the name of the Carlisle Castle, washed up on shore. The Carlisle Castle was due in from Glasgow and Liverpool, carrying some of the last equipment to finish the Eastern Goldfields water pipeline. Fearing the worst, they reported back to the Harbourmaster on their return in the morning.
Captain Russell prepared to take the government steamer, aptly named the Penguin, down to Shoalwater to search for the Carlisle Castle, when more news came in. The flares they’d seen to the west didn’t belong to the Carlisle Castle at all – there was another ship on the rocks, only a couple hundred metres offshore from Rottnest Island.
Torn between the possible distress of the Carlisle Castle and the definite danger to this second ship, Captain Russell made his decision – and set out for Rottnest Island, 20km off the coast.
Douglas and the Dunskey
Captain William Douglas on the steam tug Dunskey spotted the Penguin preparing to head out. He’d heard about the wreck off Rottnest and he followed the Penguin, hoping to help.
On the way over to Rottnest, Douglas spotted clothes and oars floating on the waves, but he didn’t stop to collect the flotsam. It was only further evidence that there was a ship in trouble and the Penguin was well ahead of him.
When he figured he was getting close, the Penguin came into sight – going in the opposite direction. Captain Russell hailed him, telling him to try to get close enough to the wreck to tell those aboard that Russell had only gone to get the pilot’s whaleboat, which could navigate in the surf on the reefs and get close enough to help them.
Douglas agreed and continued on to the wreck. He anchored as close as he could – about 400m windward of her, in 11 fathoms of water. Not close enough to convey Russell’s message. Safely anchored, he decided to work out how to get closer. From watching the waves, he worked out where the reefs were – and the path he could take in a dinghy to reach the stranded City of York.
He called his crew together, which included his son, Clem, and gave them orders to follow in case he didn’t return. Alone in a dinghy, he ordered it to be lowered into the surf. He struggled against the waves until he managed to pull the dinghy into the lee of the wreck. He got three survivors aboard, trying to keep between the breakers as they rowed back to his tug. By some miracle, he managed to get back to the Dunskey and unload his passengers…before heading back for more.
He got another three men to the Dunskey, before returning for the last two. In the end, Douglas single-handedly rescued all eight of the men remaining on the City of York wreck. Once they were all aboard the Dunskey, they told their tale – how a crew of twenty six men had been reduced to eight on the reefs of Rottnest Island.
The City of York
The City of York was known for its speed – it had once raced the Cutty Sark, though I don’t know who won. Loaded up with 743,444 feet of Oregon timber and 3638 doors, the City of York left San Francisco on the 13 April, 1899. Like the Titanic, she made the voyage in record time – until she met with a problem. Ninety days later, she ran into stormy weather just off Rottnest, the island to the west of her destination of Fremantle.
Even through the blinding rain and heavy seas, the beam from the lighthouse was clearly visible on the deck of the City of York. They spotted a flare-up, the standard signal of a pilot boat. The City of York’s crew flashed the responding signal – a blue light, stating that they wanted a pilot to guide them into port. A second flare-up appeared, which, under the international code of the time, signalled that it was safe to approach the pilot boat.
With the responding blue light flash again, to indicate that they’d seen the pilot boat’s signal, the City of York turned and proceeded directly toward where they’d last seen the flare-up. Sailing in unfamiliar waters, they took continuous soundings. First it was deeper than 55m – plenty of space. Suddenly, the depth shallowed to 29m. Worried, Jones sent down the lead again…and now it was 9m. Much too shallow to be safe waters. He gave orders to turn the ship around, but it was too late. Both the wind and the waves drove her right onto the reef, turning her so she stuck fast with the waves breaking all down her side and over her deck. That was when they realised there was no pilot boat and the light they’d seen was at the base of the lighthouse – and it was close. If they could make the land, they’d live.
With the mast looking ready to fall at any moment, Captain Jones called for them all to abandon ship – into the lifeboats. Six men managed to get into one, leaving the remaining twenty men to board the other, but then they had to contend with the breakers. The waves quickly filled both boats with water and the twenty men soon found their boat sinking fast. They lost sight of the other boat in the swell and presumed it was lost, too. Captain Jones ordered them to return to the ship – if they could. Alec Burke, the cook, managed to catch hold of a chain but the boat capsized in the waves beneath them. Two men managed to scramble on top of the overturned boat, while Burke climbed the chain to the ship’s deck. He was followed by William Lee, one of the men still in the water. Between them, they managed to help some more aboard the wreck. With the galley fire still lit and no foreseeable way to shore with the two lifeboats gone, they proceeded to spend the night as comfortably as possible – kept company by the contents of the Captain’s personal wine store.
When the sun rose on the following day, they were happy to see there were people on the shore at Rottnest, but there was no way for the watchers to help until the Penguin or the Dunskey arrived, at 10.30 that morning.
Eight men had made it aboard the stranded City of York – the eight who were saved by Douglas and his dinghy from the Dunskey – but the rest were presumed drowned, including Captain Jones.
The Dunskey headed back to Fremantle to tell the sad news.
The Second Lifeboat
Meanwhile…hidden by the breakers, the six men in the other boat managed to rescue one of their capsized comrades – but only one. They didn’t have an easy time of it, either – the waves swamped their boat and carried away their oars, but they were determined to survive and ripped planks from the boat to use as paddles, making for a calm patch of water and a beach, where they dragged the boat ashore. Cold, soaked and tired, they scrambled through the bush, headed for the lighthouse as the only sign of civilisation they could see.
Once they’d had some rest, brandy and a bit of medical assistance, they were sent back to Fremantle in the Waratah.
The Carlisle Castle
Having done all he could for the City of York, Harbourmaster Russell steamed south in the Penguin – this time, in search of the Carlisle Castle. Reaching Coventry Reef, he noticed spars and rigging floating in the foam. There was no name on them, but he knew he was close.
West of the reef, he spotted a mast sticking out of the water. He ordered the Penguin to steam closer. The other masts and sails became visible – he’d found the Carlisle Castle, but she’d sunk for sure in 20 metres of water – with only the tips of her masts and rigging on the surface.
Russell thought that the ship might have sunk so fast in the storm that none of the crew had even the time to grab a lifebelt or a buoy to save them from drowning. And drown they did – Captain Lindsay and his entire crew went down with their ship. So we’ll never know the story of how the Carlisle Castle came to grief, or even when – for by the time help arrived, there was no one left to save.
It wasn’t until several days after the storm that bodies from the City of York and the Carlisle Castle started to wash up at Rottnest and Rockingham, respectively – and not all of them, either. Only seven of the bodies from Carlisle Castle were ever found – but the vessel was lost in waters that are well known for great white sharks.
Most of the cargo from the Carlisle Castle was salvaged, but the boat itself and remaining cargo remain to this day as a spectacular dive wreck off Coventry Reef.
The City of York broke into three pieces, strewing 180,000 feet of timber on nearby Ricey Beach – a combination of the ship’s cargo and her skeleton. Some of the wreck still remains in what is now called City of York Bay.
Afterwards, there was an inquiry into the loss of the City of York, and at first, the findings were to blame dead Captain Jones or the pilot for not reaching the ship in time to save it. The company that owned the City of York wasn’t too happy with that finding and took matters further – suing the West Australian government for the loss of its ship because of poor signalling. They won, too.
It turned out that the flare-up signals seen by the City of York were lit by the assistant lighthouse keeper, at the base of the lighthouse, who had seen the ship waiting offshore and wanted to know if they needed a pilot. With only one flare – a kerosene-soaked torch on a pole – he could only respond to their request for a pilot in the same way, despite wanting to tell them that should wait where they were and a pilot would be available soon. He didn’t have a copy of the latest set of international shipping signals and he had no idea that his light flashes meant something entirely different to the ship who saw them. A tragedy of miscommunication whose monument still stands in Fremantle Cemetery.
Two, more practical monuments were built to the City of York wreck, too – a telephone cable between Rottnest Island and the mainland…and a new lighthouse at Bathurst Point. This new lighthouse truly was a life saver – but that’s another story, for my next episode, as that’s it for this week’s Cursed Coast!