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The Mahogany Ship
The story of the famed Mahogany Ship has captured the imagination of old and young since the early days of European settlement in Victoria. Many searches have been undertaken, some with sophisticated electronic equipment, others with picks and shovels, but to date no evidence has been found to substantiate the existence of this unknown vessel. So is it fact or fiction?
The legend begins…..
The year was 1836 and three seamen based in Port Fairy were attempting to come ashore near the mouth of the Hopkins River. Their boat capsized and one of the three drowned. The other two, known as Wilson and Gibb, buried their mate and began the long walk (about 29km) back to Port Fairy. They followed the shoreline crossing dunes swamps and rocky outcrops until they happened across the wreck of an unusual vessel in the dunes in the approximate area of Tower Hill. Upon their return to Port Fairy they reported their find to Captain John Mills who did not sight the wreck himself until a few years later. It was Captain Mills who first described the wood as “in hardness and colour not unlike mahogany”.
Over the following years (1836 – 1880) there were about 40 sightings of the wreck, with 27 of them officially recorded. These included sighting by:
- Captain John Mills – Port Fairy Harbour Master
- Captain John Mason – Architect and captain of the Belfast Militia
- Mr H C Donnelly – engineer and surveyor
- Mrs T C Manifold – later the wife of the Warrnambool Magistrate
- Mr S Furnell – Inspector of Police
The origins of the wreck have also caused conjecture. Some believe the wreck was simply an old whaling punt, a flat bottomed vessel that been built by the whalers. Others think it may just have been one of the many small vessels known to have come ashore between Port Fairy and Warrnambool in the early years of settlers, whalers and sealers.
There is, however, another possibility; a possibility that will change Australian history. That is that the boat was in fact a Portuguese caravel.
The Portuguese were great explorers and for centuries historians have marvelled at the sophistication of the maps that have been left behind by these master mariners, using what we would consider only crude and basic instruments. Maps that show the east coast of Australia were produced in the 16th century and early copies are now in the collection of the British Museum.
The Mahogany Ship – A Survey of the Evidence - J W Powling
The Mahogany Ship - Jack Loney
The Secret Discovery of Australia - K G McIntyre
Port Fairy – The First Fifty Years - J W Powling
The south west coast of Victoria is almost a graveyard of ships. In Port Fairy alone there have been around 29 shipwrecks in the sailing ship era. Many of these were small sailing vessels travelling between Tasmania and Port Fairy, while further east and around King Island a number of immigrant ships were wrecked some with a huge loss of life.
Port Fairy Wrecks
One of the earliest ships lost at Port Fairy was The Thistle. This two masted schooner fully loaded with wattlebark for tanning was blown ashore on Christmas Day in 1837.
Essington, a two masted Brig of 120 tons, had a full load of coal when she began to take water in May 1852. She ran ashore near Battery Lane and became a total wreck. Small fragments of coal are still washed ashore particularly after rough weather.
Sarah Louisa, a brig was lost on 6 July 1849. The full force of this winter storm caught the Sarah Louisa as she was about to sail for London, fully laden. She was driven across the bay and the lifeboat crew saved all but two of the crew, the steward and the cook.
The Dusty Miller was heading for Portland when a gale blew up off Port Fairy and she got into difficulties. Eventually a line was floated ashore and all passengers and crew except for the Captain who drowned, landed safely.
The Falls of Halladale grounded on a reef west of Peterborough in November 1908 and furtunately the crew landed safely ashore. The ship firmly wedged between two reefs with all sails set attracted hundreds of sightseers over a period of around two months until heavy seas and the dynamiting of salvagers reduced her to a total wreck.
Pictured >> The Falls of Halladale
In January 15 1839, Children under the care of the second mate, the Children struck a reef close to a small inlet in the sheer cliffs, now known as Childres Cove. Of the 24 passengers and 14 crew on board only 22 survived. The captain and first mate, three sailors were lost as were two men passengers, one lady and eight children.
The Schomberg was on her maiden voyage and captained by the famous James Nicol "Bully" Forbes. She was making good time to Melbourne. At 9.15pm on the evening of December 27, Capt. Forbes was playing cards in the saloon when the mate reported the ship close to shore. Capt. Forbes decided to continue playing another hand before going on deck and giving the order to change tack but it was too late. The ship slid onto a reef near Curdies Inlet with all sails set in the hope that the next breeze would lift her off however she did not move. The passengers were safely tranferred to the west coast steamer Queen the following morning.Capt Forbes was committed for trial for neglect of duty but was subsequently aquitted when it was proved that the boatswain Hodge was bribed by a number of passengers to testify against the captain.
In 1975 while cleaning artifacts from the wreck, a magnificent diamond ring was discovered stuck inside a teapot lid by crustaceans. This magnificent ring is on display at the flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum in Warrnambool.
Shipwrecks - SS Casino
In 1932 the loss of the SS Casino deeply affected the communities of Apollo Bay and Port Fairy. Built in Scotland in 1882 and powered by steam and sail, the Casino was fast and efficient.
During a period of almost 50 years SS Casino made about 2500 trips between Melbourne and the western ports, including Port Fairy, Apollo Bay and Portland, carrying farm produce and essential supplies: a record unequalled by any other coastal steamer.
On July 10, 1932, a strong south-easterly gale damaged the ship while she was trying to dock at Apollo Bay. The Captain made for the beach but the ship was taking on water rapidly.
Several Apollo Bay residents on the shore attempted heroic rescues at great personal risk. Nine people were saved from the raging surf and ten were lost, including the stewardess who had fitted lifejackets to her passengers but did not have time to fit her own. The propeller and the bell of SS Casino now form a memorial at King George Square in Port Fairy and the ship’s wheel is displayed at the Apollo Bay Hotel.
These are just a few of the great stories of the shipwrecks along the Great Ocean Road.
For further reading Shipwrecks Along the Great Ocean Road by Jack Loney Some Shipwrecks of Port Fairy Bay, a guided walk, available from Port Fairy Visitor Information Centre