Shipwrecks of the Solitary Islands

The South Solitary light could be seen twenty-one nautical miles away in clear weather. What a comfort it must have been to ships, wending their way up and down the coast, to see that friendly light.

But clear weather is by no means a feature of the sea – wild seas and vicious storms can be treacherous to shipping, and the Northern Coast of New South Wales is recorded as having had more wrecks than any other stretch of Australian coast.

The most serious wreck in this area was the loss of the steamer, Keilawarra (964 tons) on December 8, 1886 while bound from Sydney to Brisbane. It collided with the Helen Nicoll between North and South Solitary Islands and sank in seven minutes with the loss of forty-eight lives.

The Helen Nicoll was badly damaged but no lives were lost.

At the inquest, following this dreadful disaster, it was recommended: (a) that South Solitary Lighthouse be placed in telegraphic communication with the mainland, and (b) that the proposed Coffs Harbour Jetty be immediately constructed, and (c) that a Coroner was much required at Coffs Harbour or other central position, nearer than Kempsey or Grafton. 

The Lady of Lorn, a ketch of 150 tons, was blown ashore on June 9, 1889, at Moonee Beach, about half a mile south of Signal Point Headland. One seaman, Alfred Egmont, was drowned. He was buried on the Headland near the Signal Mast. 

The Grecian Bend, a schooner of 375 tons went ashore at Woolgoolga Lake on June 8, 1892 but was subsequently refloated, only to be lost later, with all hands, when on a voyage from the Clarence to New Zealand.

The Buster, a steamer of 198 tons was driven ashore and became a total wreck at the mouth of Woolgoolga Lake on March 8, 1893, but no lives were lost. On June 12, 1893, the Saucy Jack, a schooner of 156 tons, was driven ashore and lost about two miles south of Coffs Harbour but all of the crew were picked up.

However, the worst shipping disaster for the people of Coffs Harbour was the sinking of the S.S. Fitzroy (623 tons), on June 25, 1921, near the Manning River. She was carrying passengers and cargo from Coffs Harbour to Sydney on her weekly- run. The ship was steaming south when she ran into a gale, shipped several heavy seas, took a heavy, list to port, turned over on her side and sank. Only four of a total of thirty-four persons survived. Captain James Colvin, master of the vessel was drowned. Known as “Crowbar Jimmy” he was held in wide esteem in shipping circles and had been in this area as a seaman for about thirty years.

During World War Two, many ships were lost along our coast after being attacked by Japanese submarines.

The Wollongbar was torpedoed and sunk on April 29, 1942, six miles off Crescent Head. Only five survived of a crew of thirty-seven.

On December 5, 1940, the M.V. Nimbin (1052 tons) struck a mine while steaming down the coast from Coffs Harbour and sank almost immediately. Seven of her crew were lost.

On April 12, 1943 the Ormiston (5832 tons) was torpedoed in convoy from Sydney to Brisbane but the vessel reached Coffs Harbour with no casualties. An American vessel was torpedoed near Coffs Harbour, and eighty-seven survivors were landed safely at Coffs Harbour Jetty, where they were cared for by local residents.

On May 5, 1943 the Fingal (2137 tons) was torpedoed off Solitary Island, twelve seamen losing their lives, while the Portmar (5551 tons) was also torpedoed off Coffs Harbour on June 16, 1943 with a loss of two lives.

One wonders why South Solitary Lighthouse was not destroyed by the Japanese – apparently, it was a valuable guide for them.

As late as 1950, the motor vessel Fairwind, (250 tons) with a crew of seventeen, disappeared off Coffs Harbour during a cyclone on June 27. This was a Navy vessel used by Papua and New Guinea Administration for fisheries survey. After a period of twelve years parts of this wreck were believed discovered near the entrance to the Macleay River.

Wrecks around the Solitary Islands

Ann Moore – a schooner, 90 tons, length 26.20m, built 1865, lost 3.7.1889 south of Sandon Heads

Aurora – a wooden schooner, 580 tons. 50.3m in length, built as a whaler at Dundee,Scotland in 1876. Registered at Sydney, folio 44 of 1881, Official No. 79509. Involved with Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic explorations. Wrecked in the vicinity of the Solitary Islandsin June 1917, while carrying coal from Newcastle, NSW to lquique, South America. Neither the master nor crew of 20 were seen again. The wreck site has not been found. 

Beaver – a wooden schooner, 77 tons and 20.3m in length, built on the Clarence River in 1849. Registered in Sydney as folio 31 of 1849. The vessel went ashore, without loss of life, somewhere in the Solitary Islands when wrecked on 23 September 1851 while sailing from Sydney to Moreton Bay. No trace of the vessel has been reported to date.

Belmore – a schooner. 66 tons, 30.99m, built at theMacleay River, NSW in 1876. Registered at Sydney, folio 58 of 1891, Official No. 64349. Beached in a heavy sea atCoffs Harbour in March 1893, during a voyage from Sydney to Bellinger River. The wreck site has not been found.

Buster – a wooden barquentine, 310 tons, 39.4m in length, built at Nova Scotia Parraboro, Canada in 1884. Later registered at Sydney as folio 66 of 1888 Official No. 85626. Wrecked at Woolgoolga on 17 Feb 1893 while waiting for a cargo of timber for Dunedin, New Zealand. A strong gale parted the ship’s hawsers and the Buster was thrown ashore. None of the 10 crew was injured. The vessel is exposed from time to time after storm activity.

Carry Well – a wooden schooner, 74 tons, 25.3m in length, built at Melbourne in 1850. Registered in Sydney as folio 20 of 1865, Official No. 31689. Wrecked ashore at Coffs Harbour on 12 July 1866 with a cargo of timber from Coffs Harbour.  

Euroka – a schooner, 51 tons, length 20.90m, built 1866, lost 03/1875 inside mouth Sandon River.  

Frederick E Davis – a steamer, 61 tons, length 26.21m, built 1970, lost 26.12.1908 Bare Point off Wooli.

Keilawarra – an iron screw steamer, 784 tons gross, 486 tons net and 61 m in length, built at Kinghorn, UK, 1878. Registered at Sydney, folio 50 of 1879, Official No. 79507. On 8 Dec 1886 a collision with another steamer, the Helen Nicoll resulted in the loss of at least 35 fives (reports vary from 35 to 48) when the Keilawarra foundered off North Solitary Island. The Keilawarra was carrying passengers and cargo from Sydney to Brisbane. The wreck site has been found.

Lady of Lorn – a wooden ketch, built at Lake Macquarie in 1877. Registered in Sydney as folio 54 of 1884, Official No. 74830. On 19 July 1889, the vessel was driven ashore in a gale at Moonee Beach while on a voyage from Nambucca to Sydney with a cargo of sawn hardwood.  

Lucynder – a cutter, 12 tons, length unknown, built unknown, lost 29.12.1867 inside Sandon River

Narara – a wooden schooner, built at Brisbane Water, NSW in 1842 by Robert Papworth, 24 tons and 13.3m in length. Registered in Sydney as folio 59 of 1845. It was lost off Solitary Island during a gale in May 1849. The crew survived but the ship’s remains have not been found.

Orara – a wooden screw steamer, 66 tons, 21.54m, built by Rock Davis at Blackwall Brisbane Water in 1894. Registered in Sydney as folio 40 of 1894, Official No. 101129. Wrecked at Woolgoolga on a voyage from Clarence River to Sydney on 30 Dec 1895 and not seen since.

Saucy Jack – a wooden brigantine, 156 tons, 32.18m in length, built at Manning River, NSW in 1874. Wrecked on a beach 1 mile south of Coffs Harbour on a voyage from Sydney to Queensland on 24 June 1893.

Port Phillip – a wooden schooner, 40 tons and 16.9m in length, built at Melbourne, Vic in 1841 Registered at Sydney as folio 2 of 1843. The vessel was beached on Korff’s Beach, (now Coffs Harbour), Solitary Islands during a gale on 26 August 1848. The crew of 5 survived and procured nourishment from Aborigines they met during a 12-day overland walk. The vessel was on a voyage from ‘Bellingham’ River to Sydney. The wreck site has not been found. 

Restless – a brig, 258 tons and 35.8m in length, built in the State of Maine, USA, in 1862. Registered in Sydney as folio 15 of 1866 and wrecked -20mis off North Solitary Island on 24 August 1872. The vessel was on a voyage from Solomon Islands to Brisbane but forced off course in a heavy gale and sprang a leak. The remains have yet to be found. The crew, Solomon Islanders, all survived.

Wanderer – a wooden fishing yawl, 15 tons, 16.97m in length. Wrecked on the ‘SW wall’ Coffs Harbour, 4 April 1929 with the loss of one life. The wreck site has not been found.

Wyong – a screw steamer tug, 37 tons gross, 25 net and 22.61 m in length, built at Balmain in 1884 and rebuilt at Berrys Bay in 1897. Registered in Sydney as folio 24 of 1897, Official No.89330. The vessel was wrecked at South Solitary Island on 12 November 1901 after losing its propeller and becoming unmanageable.