Most likely you only get one crack per lifetime at discovering a shipwreck, and with twenty years coming up since I found mine, thought I’d post what I can remember about it all. I guess it’s also proof that I do have some sort of existence outside of China…
On 7 December 1997, a group of us went for a day’s scuba diving around Bailey Islet off Mackay aboard the Waiben, an old Torres Strait pilot vessel skippered by Ray and Val Goldston. Part way there, divemaster Mark Earney and Ray went in to a huddle over the sonar; after a few minutes the Waiben pulled up in open water and Mark asked if I wanted to come along for an exploratory dive. He said that the sonar had found what looked like a possible wreck in an area where fishing boats kept getting their nets snagged – it might be the remains of a barge from a nearby coal terminal which came adrift and went missing in the 1980s. Three of us – Mark, Deb McLennan and my good self – kitted up and got in.
Generally speaking, this “paddock” of open water between the coast and the inside edge of the reef is rubbish diving: with a flat 40m depth and tides of up to 7m, currents are fierce and typically stir the sandy bottom up into pea-souper visibility. But today conditions were easy, and the moment we saw the wreck it was clear this was no modern barge. A slim, old-fashioned ship about 30m long sat on the bottom intact, exactly if she’d been steaming along on the surface; fortunately, she faced into the current so hadn’t been rolled over and broken up. The whole thing was covered in soft corals, with fish everywhere, an artificial reef in this sandy plain. A large turtle sat under the bow.
Visibility was superb – my log says 10–20m which was something of a record for the area – and I remember sitting in the middle of the wreck and being able to see both ends. There was a squarish wheelhouse, the broken stump of a funnel, and part of what might have been a telegraph or flag mast broken off at an angle and lying on the starboard deck. Debs kept pointing into the wheelhouse; I stuck my head inside and gradually became aware of two huge fish eyes, about a foot apart, staring back out of the gloom – a decent-sized grouper. A few potato cod cruised past, alongside huge coral trout and schools of batfish. The whole deck area was literally covered in wobbegongs (carpet sharks).
Back on Waiben, Mark and Ray owned up that they’d been hoping all along that this wreck wasn’t the barge; an ecstatic Ray was certain it was the Llewellyn, which had sunk in a storm in 1919 with the loss of all hands. The ship had been built at Liverpool in 1884 as a pilot vessel for the Queensland government, but had proved so unstable in heavy seas that she was soon confined to river duties around Brisbane. Then came the 1919 Seaman’s Strike, and a shortage of vessels to carry much-needed supplies – especially flour and coal – to north Queensland’s isolated coastal communities, and the Llewellyn was pressed back into service as a relief vessel. Having made several successful trips, she left Rockhampton for Bowen on the evening of 16 July 1919 under Captain Holloway with eleven crew and two passengers: a young nurse from Proserpine called Rowena Gordon, and Mr W. J. Bradford, a shipping accountant. She was carrying 30 tons of cargo, plus “a full bunker of coal” and stores for the Cape Capricorn lighthouse – all stored forwards, which might have fatally weighed down the bow. A minor part of the cargo was 450 Peace Medals, celebrating the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and due to be handed out to schoolchildren.
On the morning of 17 July, the Llewellyn called in to the Cape Capricorn lighthouse to deliver stores, steamed away, and was never seen again. A week later, wreckage was found washed up on islands off Mackay by a local man, Mr Bassutin: “On the 23 July I found a garment on a beach [on St. Bees Island] in a bay facing S.E. by E. with the name R. Gordon in black on it. I left it on the beach. On the following Friday, I found a boat sheet in the same bay. The same day we went over to Keswick Island and found a hatch, a portion of a deck house. This made me suspicious of a wreck… On Thursday 31 July I went around [St Bees Island] and found on the south side a broken lifebelt with strands of hair attached [tied in to the knot of the belt fastener], and on the east side a ladder, a waistcoat with the names “Coombes” on it, companion ways, two chairs, broken pieces of timber, and the stanchions of the bridge.” And, aside from a puzzling newspaper report from 1934 saying that the Llewellyn’s bell was being used as a dinner gong at nearby Brampton Island Resort, that was that – although a few divers in Mackay claimed to know where the wreck was, but wouldn’t tell anyone.
We made four more dives over the following year, attempting to map the wreck and confirm that it was, definitely, the Llewellyn. Unlike the lucky first dive, conditions were always poor, and what with bad visibility you almost bumped in to the wreck before you saw it – though on one occasion I was pulled up by the sight of the tail of a 2m-long tiger shark whipping away into the grey-blue murk. And despite only diving on the turn of the tide, when currents were relatively slack, we often had to hug the deck for shelter. This brought you a bit too close for comfort to the wobbegongs, eyes shining satanic green in our torch beams; they’re not aggressive but will bite if disturbed.
The tricky conditions and 35m depth also made you feel the effects of narcosis – tingling lips, disorientation, a tendency to keep checking gauges. I made at least one attempt to get into wheelhouse, but the door was too narrow – probably only 60cm or so wide – to get through with my tank on, and (luckily) I was too stoned to take it off. Still, I wasn’t the worst affected. “Nitro Boy” Eric made some spectacularly incomprehensible sketches of his sector, which looked more like Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles” than a map of the wreck (though to be fair, back on the surface he was able to explain what it all meant). And despite using guide ropes and safety stops, I guess we cut a few corners – dives usually ended to the sound of Mark’s rapid ascent alarm going off as he shot to the surface.
Anyway, the Queensland Museum soon took control of the site and slapped various orders on the wreck that stopped us from diving it again, but some good came of it all. Incredibly, it turned out that, 78 years on, Captain Holloway’s two sons were still alive, and in 2004 they attended a service in his memory. There’s also a half-model of the Llewellyn, with the history of the wreck and names of the crew, on display at the Rockhampton Customs House.
For more information, check out the official report, “A History of the Service and Loss of the Queensland Government Steamer Llewellyn, 1884–1919”, Memoirs of the Queensland Museum Cultural Heritage Series, Volume 4, Part 1. You should be able to find it online.
Just for an idea of what the Llewellyn might have looked like as a working ship, below is a photo of the similar-looking Lilian. Aside from the visual resemblance, there’s no connection between the two vessels: Lilian was built in Sweden in 1916 and, despite the steamship-style funnel, used a diesel engine. She’s moored up on the Thames at Twickenham, London.
Many thanks to Bruce Haines for permission to use his photos of the Llewellyn, taken in 2015 and 2016, and to Debs for the wreck map. Bruce has also given an update on where to get permits, and confirmed the general dive conditions, in the Comments below.