After the Second World War Australia embraced immigration to both repopulate and protect the country in the future. People arrived mainly from Europe, with a particular focus on the United Kingdom. Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s we were always hearing stories about voyages from Europe to Melbourne.
These stories were also common when we went to work and made friends who had emigrated as young adults. The stories usually recalled stops at Cape Town and Freemantle, and sometimes Bombay. They always included fearful recollections of wild seas around the Cape of Good Hope and the wildest seas and storms across the southern ocean from Freemantle to Bass Strait, the famous roaring forties.
A century before this influx the same route was followed by sailing ships bringing convicts and free settlers from England to the ports of Sydney and Hobart on the eastern coast of Australia. Ships had sailed around the southern end of Tasmania, but began navigating Bass Strait shortly after 1800.
There were many shipwrecks along the coast approaching the western end of Bass Strait, a combination of wild seas, difficult currents and a narrow passage between King Island and Cape Otway. Eventually the risk was lowered with a lighthouse on Cape Otway and later on King Island, but shipwrecks continued until the end of the sailing ship era.
The discovery of gold in Victoria around 1850 resulted in an even wilder voyage for fortune seekers from England. Gold fever created a desperation to reach Melbourne as quickly as possible. Competing shipping companies in Liverpool and other ports needed to offer shorter passages to Melbourne. A straight line to Melbourne ran south across Antarctica then north along the west coast of Tasmania to Melbourne. So ships began going as close as possible to the ice of Antarctica and companies advertised less and less days on passages to Melbourne. The voyage crossed the wildest oceans on earth so passengers and crew endured incredible conditions, suffered prolonged bouts of sickness, and lived in fear every day. It was often two months from last sight of land along the South African coast to sighting the west coast of Tasmania or the cliffs of the Shipwreck Coast. Passengers were locked below decks during gales for weeks on end. Many ships went too far south and were wrecked by icebergs with all hands lost.
To understand why people took these risks it is worth considering what they were leaving. This was the England of Charles Dickens. The working class of English cities in the south lived miserable lives full of squalor and disease, with little prospect of improvement. Rural workers fared a little better, but lived with crippling rents on lands controlled by the aristocracy.
Then came news of gold in places like Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria, accompanied by stories of gold so easy to find that many had made fabulous fortunes simply picking up nuggets from the dry and dusty ground.
Few of these fortune seekers would have known of the real dangers of the voyage, although the English newspapers had often reported on shipwrecks on King Island and near Cape Otway. Their perceptions of Australia were most probably framed by stories of convict relatives who returned to England, or more generally of stories about convicts who never came home.
There are modern and old sources of information to help visualize what passengers might have seen and felt as their ships sought the approach to Bass Strait.
There are large touring craft that sometimes go out to sea from Strahan on the west coast of Tasmania. Their masters often tell tourists stories about the seas on the west coast. One of the more popular concerns attempts by a government scientific agency to measure storm wave heights along this coast to aid the fishing fleet based at Strahan. The initiative included anchoring electronic beacons in the sea that would ride up with waves and measure the height of swells, transmitting data to land stations. Ocean swells as high as 120 feet (37 metres) were recorded. An horrific storm with swells of that size wreaked havoc among modern yachts off eastern Victoria in the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, with five yachts sank and six lives lost.
There were several public inquiries in Australia and London that led to the decision to build a lighthouse at Cape Otway (construction commenced in 1846), and later on King Island. Many ships’ masters gave evidence to these inquiries about narrowly avoided catastrophes attempting to navigate between King Island and Cape Otway. This had become known as ‘threading the needle’ due to the difficulty of navigation in often difficult conditions. There are frequent references to this are being the most dangerous sea in the world. There were numerous instances of ships being way off course in bad weather, and then sighting reefs just metres away that they thought were well behind them. Or sighting reefs to left when their course should have had them to the left. Imagine the fear of passengers as crews frantically worked to bring ships away from these perils.
Standing on the lookouts over the cliffs along the coast of the 12 Apostles often makes visualizing easy. If there is a southerly wind and big seas lashing the rocks and a mist further out to sea it would hardly surprise you if a sailing ship appeared from the fog to meet its fate, as so many did.