Seaman survives ocean swim after ship’s boat capsizes
THE ship’s boat rose and fell in the heavy swell beneath Barwon Heads Bluff while the crew strained at the oars. Under the command of third officer O’Flaherty the boat was making a course eastward in an attempt to round the Bluff and make for shore where the party would walk to Queenscliff.
Hours earlier, as the ship rounded Cape Otway the 47 passengers aboard the ship Sussex had gathered to make a presentation to Captain John Collard in acknowledgment of his skill during the voyage from Plymouth.
It was 31st December 1871 New Year’s Eve – and passengers and crew were anxious to step ashore in Melbourne after the voyage which began at Plymouth on 9 October.
During the early evening Captain Collard had verified the ship’s position after the Cape Schanck light was sighted on the starboard bow and he altered course to what he believed would be Port
Phillip Heads. A watch was kept for the Point Lonsdale light, but suddenly breakers were spotted in the darkness and the ship sailed straight onto a reef about a kilometre west of the Barwon Heads Bluff.
Heavy seas bounced the Sussex over the reef and closer to shore where she grounded on a rock shelf about 200 metres from the beach. Distress rockets were fired and later people reported seeing the blue flares from as far away as Mount Moriac and higher parts of Geelong.
Captain Collard ordered the ship’s boat to be launched with a crew of five under the command of third officer 0’Flaherty. The intention was to make for Queenscliff after landing on shore around the Barwon Heads Bluff. After about an hour’s rowing the boat was off the Barwon Heads Bluff battling heavy seas. Suddenly a big wave broke over the tiny ship’s boat filling her with water and forcing her to capsize and briefly trapping the six crew beneath. One by one they clawed their way out from under the upturned boat and clung to the keel. But with each wave breaking over the boat the men were washed away in the darkness.
Crewman Labdon, a young able seaman, discarded his heavy coat and boots and started to swim for the breaking sea in the distance, Despite being a strong swimmer he made little headway in the rough seas, Eventually he felt his feet touch the rocky bottom and he dragged himself up onto a reef where he collapsed out of exhaustion.
Just before dawn he was jerked back to consciousness by the cold seawater washing over him.To his good fortune he had dragged himself onto a reef that lies about 500 metres east from the Barwon Heads Bluff. Low tide at the time, and in the darkness he thought he had reached the shore. But with the incoming tide the reef was nearly submerged. As Labdon stood up he could just make out a long sandy beach about a kilometre away on the mainland. The sea was calmer in the early morning and with his steady stroke he eventually made it to the beach where he lay exhausted for some time.
In a newspaper interview at the time Labdon said he walked inland and found a farmhouse where a family fed him and alerted the police who took Labdon to Geelong where he boarded the steamer Despatch for Melbourne. The five missing men 0’Flaherty, Feast, Churcher, Graham and Milliner were never seen again and their bodies were never recovered. A short time later, salvagers on their way along the beach from Queenscliff to the wreck of the Sussex reported to the duty police constable Mulcahy that they had seen several pairs of trousers washed up on the beach and what appeared to be the remains of a human stomach.
After the Sussex grounded on the reef on New Year’s Eve attempts to refloat the 175 metre long, 950-ton sailing ship by a tug Warhawk sent from Melbourne proved in vain and she was declared a wreck. Passengers from the stricken ship were transferred to the tug with assistance from the Queenscliff lifeboat.
Much of the Sussex cargo was sold for £6800 at an auction held on the beach on 4 January. A wire rope from the ship’s foremast to the beach was used for hauling boats loaded with the cargo. A team of 12 bullocks and an iron tramway was laid down the sand hill to haul the goods from the beach to drays. From here the cargo was taken to Geelong. Cases were also dropped over the side with the idea they would wash ashore with the
incoming tide. Only a few floated to the beach. Several were found along the beach between Ocean Grove and Point Lonsdale while other cases washed ashore at Portarlington and Werribee.
Most of the cases contained boots and soft furnishings. The ship carried a general cargo including furniture, iron, rum, brandy, soft goods and a grand piano.
The piano was salvaged and sold for £250. The wreck was sold for £375, but broke up by pounding seas and remains settled in about seven metres of water. This was to be the 28th visit to Melbourne by the 19-year old sailing ship Sussex. At an inquiry into the wreck, Captain John Collard was found guilty of criminal negligence and was ordered to serve one month in prison and had his Master’s Certificate suspended for six months.