The excitement of shipwreck is a universal emotion.
With no lives lost, a sea wreck at close range is an imposing, awe-inspiring, and exciting experience.
Spectators, however, are rarely callous.
Image right: Pasha Bulker is fully two football fields long, dwarfing Nobbys Beach Pavilion.
We, curiously staring at some stricken lady of the sea torn upon rocks, or floundering in a wild coastal swell, would, if we possibly could, carry her to dry sand till the fury passes.
Then comes our sorrow such a magnificent creation so cruelly lost.
The cruel sea, pounding the fragile carcass of some hapless ocean-dwelling machine, is merely extracting the penalty for so brashly imperilling a precious cargo.
If shipwreck can be distilled to positive and fascinating elements, it befits that Panamax coal collier, Pasha Bulker, that arrived with undignified drama upon the sands of Nobbys Beach, Newcastle, Australia, in the teeth of a ferocious winter cyclone.
Only injured were crew’s pride and captain’s career – and the vessel, mildly bent beneath the Plimsoll. When the drama faded, the City of Newcastle was presented with a most magnificent, if misplaced, icon.
One that arrived with all the air of a grand ocean-going vessel deliberately resting at her chosen port, on the terms and location of her choosing.
It’s not the first shipwreck to visit Newcastle’s port or beaches, nor will it be the last.
In 1974, during a similar winter rain depression, the 600-foot Sygna floundered in Stockton Bight, then was driven ashore in gale-force winds and high seas. It, too, lacked the ballast to keep steerage and propeller immersed in giant seas.
During salvage, Sygna stuck fast and broke in half.
Image left: Identical circumstances led the Norwegian carrier Sygna to an identical, yet permanent, fate on Stockton Beach, north of Newcastle Harbour, in 1974.
All manner of schooners, cutters, barquentine, brigantine, paddle and screw steamer, dredge, barge, sloop, ketch, launch, and, well, boat, have prostrated themselves upon Newcastle’s beaches, rocks, cliffs, breakwaters, bights, bars, and banks – or sadly simply disappeared without trace.
In its first century (1800 – 1900), port traffic comprised a steady stream of typically small ocean-going vessels loaded with timber gained from the shores of the Hunter, Patterson, and Williams Rivers, and many of these tiny ships were built in small shipyards up the river.
Larger ships, to thousands of tons, bore Newcastle’s high-grade coal to Sydney and far-flung ports around Australia, Asia and the Indian Ocean.
In its short life of 200 years Newcastle has hosted an average of one shipwreck a year.
Oyster Bank, now overlaid by the northern breakwater of Port Hunter entrance. Image at right courtesy Newcastle City Council archives.
Testimony to improvements in weather forecasting, navigational aids, and maritime procedures, the last four decades have seen only a handful of losses.
First honours went to a 25-ton sloop called “Norfolk” that ran aground at Pirate Point in 1800, sailing from the Hawkesbury River to climes unknown. Pirate Point indeed, as the Norfolk – which Bass and Flinders famously used to circumnavigate Tasmania – had been commandeered by a bunch of convicts who made for Port Hunter when a wild storm spooked them.
About 32 vessels have come to grief at Stockton, most on the Beach, a few on the western side, many of them significantly-sized boats, including 14 steamers, two motor vessels, and a swag of schooners and large sailing ships.
Twenty-six more floundered and died on Oyster Bank on the northern side of the entrance channel, where the northern breakwater was later built..
Thirty two steam and sail ships ended their careers on the south side of the channel, which is of course Nobbys, originally “Coal Island” and later joined to the mainland by a breakwater that created Nobbys Beach.
Adolphe, a beautiful four-masted, two-year old, 32/2400 tonne, steel barquentine had foul luck to be wrecked on Oyster Bank near the entrance when a tow line to one of two tugs failed in huge pounding waves.
Interesting, but till the Pasha Bulker threw itself upon these golden sands, only one other similar event is recorded, that of the Maianbar, a twin-prop steam ship one tenth the size of Pasha B., but quite impressive beside the pavilion walkway (see image below – courtesy Newcastle City Council Photobank).
The Maianbar, a 490 gwt 30-year old steamer, ended its life on Nobbys beach after a tow line snapped in 1940, and it drifted ashore to sit high and dry in scenes reminiscent of the 2007 drama.
Crews were miraculously rescued time and again from such situations – not by Westpac Choppers, as Ole Sydney Cove had none spare for King’s Town, but - by a crew of very brave men in a giant row-boat using deviously clever rocket-fired ropes.
At least 26 vessels met their sad end in this infamous spot around the turn of the 18th to 19th century, forming a breakwater in their own right, one upon t’other. No wonder the oysters loved it!
Berbice, a 20-year old, 50-meter triple-masted sailing ship of 700 tons, washed ashore at the foot of Stockton Beach by the usual suspect, a southeast gale and huge seas on 5th June 1888.
The classically-lined 1200-ton sail ship Susan Gilmore (Gilmour) lay like a beached whale, another victim to that ultimately wasteful maritime incident, the all-too-common “parting tow rope.”
Starting to sound like an insurance scam.
Our good captain of the Pasha Bulker is only the second commanding officer in a hundred years to lob one on the wrong side of the lighthouse (correct me if I’m wrong).
Misfortune seems to be the common theme, either the bad luck to be caught in unusually severe wind and swell, or fickle fate parting a tow.
As size goes, this latest misadventure is the largest, being a standard Panamax, second largest the Sygna at 53/35500 tonne (NT/GT).
P. Bulker Esquire seems more likely to remain than float away, a truly most awesome but unwelcome guest in this totally inconvenient landing spot.