Many believe that the sinking of the Titanic was the greatest maritime disaster of all time. In fact there have been almost 50 maritime disasters resulting in greater losses of life. Many of these were during wartime, but even in peacetime the loss of life when the Titanic sank was exceeded in at least four other disasters.
Fortunately, the worst maritime disaster in Australian waters does not compare to the Titanic. While the Loch Ard tragedy is quite well known to Victorians, few have ever heard of the Cataraqui, which was wrecked some 30 years earlier when almost at the end of its passage to Melbourne.
The Cataraqui was the last emigrant ship chartered to bring settlers to the Colony of Victoria under the bounty system, which paid a bonus for every person landed safely. She departed from Liverpool on April 20, 1845, with 362 emigrants. After an uneventful passage of 106 days, the vessel was approaching the Victorian coast. Strong winds and incessant rain was usual for a winter crossing of the Southern Ocean, but heavy clouds over the previous four days had made it impossible for the captain to fix his position using the sun or stars. By his calculations, on August 3 the Cataraqui was about 60 miles (96km) to the west of King Island and on a course to pass it safely to the north. In fact, he was much closer and headed for its southwest coast.
About 7 o’clock that evening the captain prudently ordered his ship to be hove-to until dawn but was persuaded by the surgeon that the ship should reach Melbourne as soon as possible to gain the bounty for landing healthy passengers. Sail was therefore set again at 3am, but just an hour and a half later, in total darkness and ahead of a howling gale, the ship drove on to a reef. By dawn, 200 had died either by drowning or against the cruel rocks of the reef, and by the time the vessel disappeared under the waves late on the following day, a further 200 had perished. There were only nine survivors.
By Maurie Hutchinson
President, Peninsula Ship Society
T: Maurie Hutchinson 9787 5780
The Peninsula Ship Society meets at Hastings Yacht Club on the fourth Tuesday of each month at 10am. Visitors always welcome.