Victoria's Shipwreck Coast

David Cook — 15 April 2020
Glorious scenery turns into a watery hell for historical seafarers along the Great Ocean Road.

In 1798 George Bass and Matthew Flinders discovered the wide strait between what is known today as Tasmania and the Australian mainland and instantly created a shortcut of several days for the majority of ships coming from Europe and heading for New South Wales. 

With the establishment of the new settlement and soon colony of Victoria, from the mid-1830s, the amount of shipping passing along the coast greatly increased, and when gold was discovered in 1851 the flow of ships became a virtual barrage, all heading for one of the most rugged and storm tossed coastlines of the new continent.

The most common shipping route from Europe was to the west of Africa, then south into the Roaring Forties — known as the Great Circle Route — where the rough seas and occasional icebergs were compensated by the strong westerly winds which allowed the sailing ships of the day to cut up to six days off their time at sea. To the west of Tasmania, the ships turned north-eastward to come up to the Victorian coast.

However, the stretch of coast from around Warrnambool eastwards to Cape Otway was a particularly difficult one for sailing ships in the 19th Century. The strong south-westerly winds tended to push the sailing vessels towards the jagged rocky cliffs, and often foggy or wild weather made navigation difficult. 

Without the modern aid of GPS navigation captains and navigators were often sailing blindly by dead reckoning. With the huge expansion in shipping it was an ongoing disaster that, in many ways, was inevitable.

For a captain sailing in thick fog, with a heavy southerly or south-westerly swell and an onshore wind, especially at night, the sound of the crash of waves onto nearby rocks was often the first sign of serious trouble. A lee shore, as this is called in sailing parlance, is still one of the most feared situations for a sailing commander. At night it could be doubly so. Trying to turn a large ship away, against the wind and waves, can be almost impossible and at best takes a lot of time and room. If you had neither your fate was often sealed.

The Shipwreck Coast, as this section of the Victorian shore is called, may hold as many as 700 wrecks, dating from as early as 1837 through to as late as 1940. The actual number is uncertain as many wrecks have not been found and in the earliest colonial days this was a poorly settled area and many ships sank without evidence of their loss other than that they failed to arrive at their destination.

One of the most famous shipwrecks was that of the Loch Ard, which foundered along the Shipwreck Coast on June 1, 1878. The ship was a still near-new iron-hulled, three-masted clipper, built in Glasgow. Clippers had been developed to compete with the faster steamships and were the most exotic ships of their day but it made no difference when the Loch Ard struck the outer end of Mutton Bird Island, just off the coast, in foul weather at 4am. The initial blow brought down much of the rigging and rocks as the masts were smashed against the cliffs and the ship sank within 15 minutes.

There were only two survivors, an 18-year-old girl — Eva Carmichael — who had been tied to a spar by the captain, and an 18-year-old apprentice midshipman — Thomas Pearce. Pearce had made his way to shore beneath an upturned lifeboat when he heard Carmichael’s cries for help. He swam back and fought for an hour to assist the struggling girl, who had already been in the water for two hours. After dragging her to shore he revived her with a bottle of brandy which had been washed ashore then climbed a sheer cliff and set out to find help.

He found a local farmer, who sent out an alarm before coming to assist but he could only find were the dead bodies of four of the other 37 passengers and 17 crew. Included in the dead were the rest of Carmichael’s family, her wealthy father, mother, three sisters and two brothers. The valuable cargo being carried by the Loch Ard was largely stripped by looters, though a grand piano, as part of a two-metre high pile of debris, washed ashore in the gorge. 

A large porcelain peacock made by Minton and intended for display at the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition was later recovered intact and was displayed at the 1988 World Exposition in Brisbane.

The wreck made the two survivors into celebrities, with collections taken up for them and their stories retold around the world. Pearce was awarded the gold medal by the Humane Society in front of a crowd of 5000. The pair was inundated with telegrams calling on them to marry, and though Pearce did pop the question, Carmichael rejected him because he was from a lower class family, before returning to Ireland and the pair never saw each other again.

The cove into which they had been washed was named Loch Ard Gorge and is well signposted, has excellent viewing areas and a number of well-made tracks to explore the area. Nearby are the graves of four of the victims as well as the nearby (1km eastwards) Glenample Station where the full story is told. You can descend by a stairway into the gorge and try to imagine the scene.

Loch Ard Gorge is located, of course, on the glorious Great Ocean Road, which means it is smack in the middle of so many natural and historic attractions it will make your head spin. There is plenty of accommodation — except on major public holiday weekends, when half of Melbourne seems to relocate to the region, most especially the eastern end of the road. If you want to go swimming then we’d highly recommend making your sojourn in summer, but if you don’t mind heavy winter clothing there’s a lot to be said for the quieter and more somber nature of a winter trip, when the crowds will be smaller and you can take your time discovering one of Australia’s true touring gems. 


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