The most luxurious passenger liner WA’s north-west had ever known, the S.S. Koombana, started plying the waters off our shores 105 years ago. It was a glamorous way of connecting people between Perth, Port Hedland and Broome.
But just three years and 37 voyages later, en route to Broome from Port Hedland, this beautiful ship vanished, with 156 passengers and crew on board, victim to a summer cyclone. Its wreck has never been found.
It was WA’s biggest-ever peacetime maritime disaster, says author Annie Boyd.
She’s devoted years to unraveling some of the mystery surrounding its disappearance on March 20, 1912, and is still confident of finding the wreck. The result is her fascinating book Koombana Days (Fremantle Press).
She chats to The Starfish:
Annie when did you become interested in the story of Koombana?
It was about 10 years ago. I’d just returned to WA after many years in NSW, teaching physics mainly. When I came back I started diving again and joined the Maritime Archaeology Association of WA. Somebody there began talking about this ship, and how the wreckage had never been found. My fascination grew from that.
What did you do?
I started researching where the boat was believed to have sunk, with a view to finding more about the wreck. But then I started meeting descendants of the people who had died and I got more interested in the human story. Over the past 10 years, I’ve got to know many of those related to those who perished.
Why did the boat go down?
It just got caught up in a very big cyclone, which was talked about for years after as ‘the Koombana Blow.’ When she left port she was very high in the water—she needed to be to get over the sandbar—and that may have been her undoing. There is some evidence that the ship capsized about eighty miles from Port Hedland.
Do you think the captain did anything wrong?
No. The north coast has always been difficult for navigation. The passage the boat was taking was surrounded by reefs and islands, and Captain Allen had very few options when the storm struck.
It’s WA’s very own Titanic. Why have so many West Australians never heard of this disaster?
I think it’s a story that was forgotten by many because it vanished just two years before the First World War. Suddenly the scale of that worldwide calamity overshadowed a shipwreck in Western Australia.
What sorts of people were on board? Many movers and shakers of the day?
No big name-politicians or anything, but a few fairly successful business people. Most of the people who used the Koombana had interests in pearling, wool and mining, the major business pursuits of the Northwest. There were also 22 shearers on board, all heading to one station. There was a prominent pearl buyer on board, a fellow called Abraham Davis who divided his time between Broome, Melbourne and Sydney. I devote a chapter to him in my book. There were only seven women on board, including two stewardesses. One woman was Louise Sack, from a prominent pastoral family. She was the matriarch of the family and her death had a big impact on many.
Do you feel as if you know some of the characters that were on board fairly intimately?
I do. I still get quite emotional when I think about some of them. There was one Port Hedland fellow, Harry Briden, a shopkeeper with four young kids. He was really struggling: his wife was in hospital in Perth and his business was failing. He told his children he had to head north, to Broome, to find work to support them all. Of course, he was lost at sea. Seventy years later, one of his daughters, Mollie, wrote a memoir talking about how when she was just five years old her dad took her for a walk and said goodbye, and how she never saw him again.
What happened to the family, do you know?
Yes, Harry had a brother Percy in England, who said he’d come over and care for the children. He came out and moved into a flat beside the family home in Port Hedland. Two years later he went to war, and was killed after only twelve hours in the trenches.
So you’ve uncovered some fascinating stories?
Yes there were 74 crew, 80 passengers and two tourists. Nearly everyone on board was there for business. I’ve met many of the descendants and as so much time has gone past, this generation is able to talk about what happened and pool information without getting to upset about the tragedy.
In March 2012 a get-together was held in Port Hedland for many of the descendants, which was a great chance for people to meet up and pool stories. I think about 100 people went along. I already knew many of them from my research. I was supposed to be there as speaker, but my Dad was close to death and I went to Sydney and missed it.
Aside from talking to descendants, where did you get your research material?
I pored through newspapers, archives, court records, shipping records and minutes of directors’ meetings. I was always on the lookout for personal letters, which give a different kind of insight. In one letter, written aboard Koombana just three days before it disappeared, a passenger told his wife how smooth and pleasant the trip had been.
What were the biggest finds you uncovered?
Other than some of the personal stories, it was a thrilling moment for me when I got hold of some photos of the ship’s interior. They came to me from the University of Glasgow. I’d been expecting the boat to be sparser. These pictures really illustrate how beautiful it was.
Do you think the Koombana will be found?
Yes, I hope so. It’s always a difficult challenge to find any shipwreck, even if money were no object. I have teamed up with two other long-time Koombana searchers and we are fortunate to have the backing of the big geological survey company, Fugro. Three times since 2011, Fugro has made a vessel available to our group, for a day or two at a time. And as the boats cost about $40,000 a day to operate, that is help worth having!
How does the arrangement work?
Opportunities come up when a vessel has a gap in its programme. I’ll get a call saying, “A boat is available for 24 hours.” I will fly to Broome or Karratha to meet it. These are not diving trips, of course. Sophisticated instruments draw three-dimensional images of the seabed, so most of the time is spent staring at computer screens in the middle of the night. There is a lot of what is called “post processing” too, so we may not know we have found something until later.
What do you hope to find?
The wreck site of Koombana will be very interesting. For miles around the seabed is just bare silt, moving around on the tidal currents. But the wreck of the ship will be a haven for all kinds of marine life. It really will be an oasis in a marine desert, and it’s good to imagine that the ship, after all these years, is buzzing with life again.
If people want to know more, what can they do?
Go to my website www.koombanadays.com – or buy the book, of course!