Tuesday, August 2, 2011
During the nineteenth century, before the time of organised weather forecast and warning services, shipwreck was an all too frequent occurrence along the Australian coastline. The rugged shores of South Australia saw several such disasters during this time with the greatest tragedy occurring during August 1859 involving the steamship Admella.
Above - The Admella under way in rough seas. (Image from Wikipedia Commons)
This vessel was a passenger steamship of around 400 tonnes named after the route she plied, from Adelaide to Melbourne and Launceston. She was fast for the day, offered the passengers a high standard of comfort and overall was regarded as one of the finest local passenger vessels of the time.
The Admella departed Port Adelaide on 5th August 1859 and set course for Melbourne carrying 84 passengers and 29 crew, as well as general trade merchandise and four racehorses bound for the Melbourne Cup due to be run in November of that year.
There were no weather charts issued at that time in Australia and so ship’s captains had no real idea what weather lay ahead, apart from talking with other captains who had recently sailed around the area.
Soon after departure the ship encountered rough weather, and being August it is likely that this was some type of westerly gale, involving cold fronts and a low-pressure system nearby. Navigation in these conditions was difficult, especially at night when the shoreline could not be seen.
At around 4 am on Saturday 6th August the Admella ran aground on Carpenters Reef, only about 1 km offshore from a length of coast to the southwest of Mount Gambier. The iron hull broke into thee large sections, battered by the relentless waves that continually broke across the reef as desperate survivors clung to the wreckage.
The Admella lies wrecked on Carpenters Reef - (Image from Wikipedia Commons )
After the news of the disaster eventually reached the authorities, several desperate attempts were made by lifeboats to reach the wreck but were thwarted by the smashing waves, and although the survivors could see the shore only a short distance away they were unable to move from the wreck.
Hours turned into days with no abatement in the weather, and many passengers and crew fell to their death in the sea, suffering from exhaustion and exposure.
Finally, more than a week after the grounding, a lifeboat from Portland managed to pull alongside and the remaining survivors were taken onboard and rescued. In all, 89 lives were lost in the disaster.
One of the direct results of the tragedy was the construction of a lighthouse at nearby Cape Banks in 1881 to warn ships of the proximity of the deadly rocks of Carpenters Reef.
Gale force westerly winds were the likely cause of the disaster. (Image based on that supplied in Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)
It appears that the Admella was exposed to a week of strong winds and very rough seas and this could well have been produced by a strong low pressure cell to the south of the area in which a series of cold fronts were embedded. This circumstance is not infrequent in the area during August.