Update on the wreck of the AV Ulonga

April 13, 2017|Posted in: Maritime History, Shipwrecks

This photo of the AV Ulonga at the North Parade Wharf in Port Adelaide was posted on the Facebook page for The South Australian Ketch Fleet recently: –

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The Ulonga at Port Adelaide circa early 1960s

(Source: https://www.facebook.com/234583500036716/photos/a.237879926373740.1073741831.234583500036716/775086302653097/?type=3&theater )

It came with these details: –

“Three mast auxiliary schooner “Ulonga”, at North Parade Wharf, Port Adelaide, sometime in the very early 1960’s. The bow of the ship near her bow belongs to the schooner “Coringle”, also engaged in the same trade. At this time, she was in the Kangaroo Island trade, carrying general cargo and superphosphate to American River, and returning with bulk gypsum, wool, and general.

Originally a Murray Paddle Steamer, she came down to the Port in 1948 and was converted to a schooner for the bagged salt trade from Port Price. Possibly not the prettiest looking schooner, but she could carry a good load on a shallow draught, perfect for calling into the salt Port at Price, at the top of St Vincent Gulf, or to some of the tidal ports on the east side of Yorke Peninsular for bagged grain in season.

She lasted in the KI trade until 1976, much modified with only 1 mast and a raised wheelhouse aft, she sank on the return voyage off Normanville and is now a historic shipwreck. Photo courtesy of the South Australian Maritime Museum.”

I shared the photo and details on Facebook, resulting in an online conversation with Ron Bellchambers. He told me that he had a friend called John McLaughlin who had been a deckhand on this ketch and was rescued. Details further on in this article suggest that the Ulonga’s crew of five were rescued by the SS Star Lily, then transferred to the prawn vessel Speedewell. Unfortunately, John has since passed away.

In 2005, I wrote an article regarding the AV Ulonga. It was titled “Two Riverboats That Sank In SA’s Gulfs” and it was published in our March 2005 Newsletter (No.319). The article was followed up in our April 2005 Newsletter in a brief article titled “More about the Ulonga and the Moorara”. These two articles resulted in the publishing of a combined article titled “The History of the Ulonga Wreck” in the July 2006 issue of Dive Log Australasia (No.216).

I soon received an email message from David Cowan about the Dive Log article. David said that he had plotted the location of the Ulonga on to a chart, using Christopher Deane’s GPS readings given in the article.

David said that, by plotting the location from the GPS readings given, he found that the wreck is approximately 26.5 km due west of Haycock Point (give or take 1 or 2 degrees), or approximately 16.5 km from Rapid Head (on a bearing of approximately 310 degrees or approximately 21 km from Wirrina Cove (on a bearing of 295 degrees).

David suggested that this meant that it would be more correct to state that the Ulonga sank off of Rapid Head.

David went on to tell me about a web page that claimed that Richard Harris (along with Andrew Bowie and David Teubner?) had discovered the Ulonga wreck. That website is not accessible any more, but my printout of it reads: –

“After many years of research and searching particularly by my faithful companions Andrew Bowie and David Teubner, we finally located and dived this elusive wreck which sank (in 1976).”

The web page described the wreck as sitting “with a roughly north-east-southwest lie with the bow pointing back to KI (Kangaroo Island)”. Richard Harris and his team say that they saw “numerous crates of soft drink bottles, deck fittings, portholes and the Chrysler Valiant which has slipped off the deck” and “A number of anchor ropes and original lines on the ship wave in the current, as well as a fair bit of monofilament”.

It went on to say “Clearly a few fishos have been giving the wreck a fair nudge! Still plenty of snapper and trevally in and around the wreck. An enormous Wobbegong stands guard in the main companionway of the wheelhouse, daring anyone to enter, although the tight fit pushed that thought from my mind. The current out there is nothing short of ferocious! Diving can only be safely enjoyed around slack water. An hour later we found the deco bar just about surfing behind the boat.”

The web page also stated, “Judging by the dent in the forward starboard rail, and the missing plates below the water line, one wonders if the ship struck something prior to sinking” and that the Ulonga’s crew of five were rescued by the SS Star Lily, then transferred to the prawn vessel Speedewell. The crew of five rescued from the Ulonga included the skipper, Albert ‘Skug” Cutler and John McLaughlin, who had been a deckhand on her.

Richard Harris’ two dives on the Ulonga must have been made prior to January 2005 because he stated that the ship sank “nearly 30 years ago” and, although David Cowan said that Harris “claims to be one of the discoverers of this wreck”, David himself dived on it in January 2005.

Richard Harris’ two dives were made using “EANx28% doing accelerated deco on 60% O2”. David Cowan said “The Ulonga was effectively still in one piece” and that it was sitting “upright on the bottom”, and all of his “instruments recorded a depth of 37 metres” for his dive there in January 2005.

Certainly, many of the above details are now from at least 11-12 years ago, and many things may have changed during those 11 or 12 years.

Here again are my two articles regarding the AV Ulonga – “Two Riverboats That Sank In SA’s Gulfs” (as published in our March 2005 Newsletter, No.319) and the follow-up article, published in our April 2005 Newsletter, titled “More about the Ulonga and the Moorara”.

 

Two Riverboats That Sank In SA’s Gulfs

According to “Paddlesteamers and Riverboats of the Murray River” by Peter Christopher, riverboats that left the river to work in SA’s gulfs include the Avoca, the Moorara and the Ulonga.

The Avoca was built at Milang in 1877. It was moved to Port Adelaide in 1891 so that it could be used to tow barges in the Port River and SA’s gulfs. She was also used to carry grain from jetties to sailing ships which had to stand offshore. She returned to the Murray River in 1922 and was converted from steam to diesel electric. She then operated as a tourist vessel out of Murray Bridge. In 1976, she moved to Mildura and became a floating restaurant called the Showboat Avoca.

As for the Ulonga, she sank off Carrickalinga Beach, near Normanville in 1976. Her exact whereabouts were unknown for some two decades until a group of divers discovered the site in the mid-1990s. They managed to keep the location a secret for a few years but word of the spot slowly got out. By 2003 it seemed that everyone wanted to dive on the wreck, said to be laying flat on her keel at a depth of 38metres.

The Ulonga was first built as a paddle steamer for work on the Murray River so how did she come to be wrecked in Gulf St Vincent?

She was sailing up the gulf from American River on Kangaroo Island in 1976 when she dipped her bow and sank about 6pm on 6th July. Her wheelhouse and hull were said to be still very much intact in 2003. Numerous fishing lines and anchor ropes were streaming off of the wreck though.

Peter Christopher’s book “South Australian Shipwrecks – A Data Base 1802-1989” says that the sinking was reported in the next day’s Advertiser (7/7/76). It also says that the Ulonga was a 119-ton composite power schooner with three masts. It gives her cargo as gypsum and possibly one car.

There were no casualties as the captain and all of her crew escaped in a raft. They were then picked up and taken safely to port. Some cattle are said to have drowned though.

“Ketches of South Australia – A record of small sailing ships on the coast of South Australia – 1836-1970” by Ronald Parsons says that the Ulonga was built as an iron-hulled paddle steamer in 1910. She was known as the PS Ulonga at the time, PS standing for Paddle Steamer.

She had been built by Permewan, Wright & Co. Ltd at Moama, New South Wales. Moama is on the Murray River near Echuca. Her tonnage at the time was 87 net tons and 127 gross tons.

She was rebuilt in 1948 as a three-masted schooner with auxiliary twin screws. That is why she is now known as the AV Ulonga, AV standing for Auxiliary Vessel. Her new tonnage became 99 net tons and 119 gross tons. At that time she measured 110.7 feet in length, 22 feet in breadth and 6 1/2 feet in depth.**

She was then registered at Port Adelaide in January 1949. Her owners were Ulonga Shipping Ltd and R.Fricker were the managers of her.

According to Parsons, when the Ulonga sank she was under offer to a buyer who intended returning her to the Murray River. Her Captain on her final voyage was an Albert Cutler.

“Redgum & Paddlewheels – Australia’s inland river trade” by Peter J Phillips says that in 1976 plans were made to take the Ulonga back into the Murray River and convert her back to a passenger steamer. The full plans had already been drawn up by a naval architect when she sank near Normanville.

“Redgum & Paddlewheels” also says that the Ulonga was a sister ship to both the Pevensey and the Wanera. Both of these other ships were owned by the same company as the Ulonga (Permewan, Wright & Co.). The Pevensey herself was built on the Moama slipway in 1909. She was first a barge called the Mascot. She was then converted into a paddle steamer and was powered by a Marshall 20-horsepower two-cylinder engine.

She was very similar in appearance to the Ulonga and the Wanera, although she apparently had a bluffer bow. She also was a similar size to that of the Ulonga. Her length is given as 111 feet and her beam (breadth) 23 feet. She was 30 feet across the ‘sponsons’ (platforms projecting from the ship’s sides). Her paddlewheels were 14 feet in diameter and her paddlebox carried the large red circle (spot?) of the Permewan, Wright & Co. with her bluffer bow, the Pevensey was more difficult to control and it was hard work keeping her on course. A derrick crane was fitted on to her foredeck a few years after her construction.

“Redgum & Paddlewheels” gives a detailed account of the history of the Pevensey. It seems that she was named after a shearing shed. She was able to carry either 120 tons in her holds or 90 passengers.

Both “Redgum & Paddlewheels” and “Paddlesteamers and Riverboats of the Murray River” say that the Pevensey is now kept at the Echuca wharf. She featured in the film “All The Rivers Run” (based on the book by Nancy Cato) as the Philadelphia. There is a picture of her on page 63. The book gives her dimensions as 34m X 7m X 1.4m. She is described as having a composite hull, paddle wheels on the sides and a wood burning steam engine.

“Redgum & Paddlewheels” has a picture of the Ulonga on page 75 and the Pevensey on page 76. On page 82 is a picture of the Ulonga’s barge, the Echuca. Two pictures of the Ulonga (One with the Echuca) are featured on page 84. Another two pictures of the Ulonga are featured on page 132 (including one of the Moama slipway). There are another two pictures of the Pevensey on page 164.

In 1932 the Pevensey caught fire and burned near Morgan. Only the hull, the boiler and engines remained of her. She had to be rebuilt at the Morgan wharf. The PS Decoy was being dismantled at the time and her cabins were transferred to the top deck of the Pevensey. According to “Redgum & Paddlewheels”, the words ‘Decoy – Fremantle’ can still be seen on the rear-cabin front wall. This probably means that the Pevensey (that is now said to be kept at the Echuca wharf) doesn’t resemble the original PS Ulonga too closely.

A good history of the Ulonga is given on pages 132-3. She is described as one of the finest steamers in the wool trade. At the height of the trade she could carry (with her barge) 2230 bales of wool. That was 850 bales in the steamer’s holds and 1650 bales on the Echuca (five tiers high).

The Ulonga kept going long after the wool trade passed. She was then sold in 1948 and steamed towards Port Adelaide. She damaged her bow in a collision with a larger steel steamer. Her bow was later sheathed in metal. It was then that she was converted to a twin-screw auxiliary ketch with three masts. She then traded between the ports of Spencer Gulf.

“Redgums” says that it is possible that part of her gypsum cargo may have become moist, expanded and sprung her seams. In the July 2003 issue of Dive Log Australasia, Christopher Deane said in his “South Aussie Snippets” column that you can still see the plank that sprung loose in her bow, causing her demise. Chris also gave her location as S 35 25.433, E 138 03.760 (wgs 84 datum).

The Ulonga’s sister ship, the Wanera was apparently at Mildura for many years, taking passengers to Wentworth and up the Darling River.

 

(The remainder of this article has been omitted because it was solely about the Moorara.)

 

** (Although it is stated “At that time she measured 110.7 feet in length, 22 feet in breadth and 6 1/2 feet in depth”, Richard Harris suggests a length of 111.5 feet, a width of 22 feet and a depth of 6.9 feet.)

 

More about the Ulonga and the Moorara

Further to my article “Two Riverboats That Sank In SA’s Gulfs” published in the March Newsletter, I have since found more details about both the Ulonga and the Moorara in Captain James Gillespie’s book “Traders Under Sail – The cutters, ketches and schooners of South Australia”. Page 221 of this book features a great photo of the Ulonga arriving at Port Adelaide as a paddlewheel vessel in February 1948. When she was converted to a three-masted auxiliary schooner she traded between Port Adelaide and Stenhouse Bay, bringing Gypsum to Port Adelaide. She went on to become a regular visitor to American River on Kangaroo Island, taking general cargo and superphosphate there. It may have been about this time that she ran aground on Kangaroo Island. There is a photo of the incident on page 222 of Captain Gillespie’s book. Apparently the Ulonga sustained no damage in the incident. There is another great photo of the Ulonga “in her latter days of trading” on the same page.

 

(The remainder of this article has been omitted because it was solely about the Moorara.)

 

REFERENCES: (For both newsletter articles)

“South Australian Shipwrecks – A Data Base 1802-1989” by Peter Christopher. Published by The Society for Underwater Historical Research, 1990.

ISBN 0 9588006 1 8.

“Paddlesteamers and Riverboats of the Murray River” (second edition) by Peter Christopher (revised & enlarged edition 2001). Axiom Publishing. ISBN 1 86476 040 0.

“Ketches of South Australia – A record of small sailing ships on the coast of South Australia – 1836-1970” (third edition) by Ronald Parsons (completely revised & corrected). Printed & published by the author, July 1978. ISBN 0 9599387 9 6.

“Redgum & Paddlewheels – Australia’s inland river trade” by Peter J Phillips. Greenhouse Publications P/L, 1980. ISBN 909104 26 3.

“Wardang Island – Graveyard of Ship” by the SUHR (Society for Underwater Historical Research). ISBN 0 9597500 3 7.

“Marine Life on Wardang Wrecks” by Steve Reynolds, MLSSA Newsletter, January 1992 (No.174).

“Report on the Wreck Moorara” by Evan John, MARIA Journal No.1, October 1979.

“Wardang Island Maritime Heritage Trail” published by the State Heritage Branch of the Department of Environment and Planning, 1991. ISBN  0 7243 8629 7.

July 2003 issue of Dive Log Australasia (Christopher Deane’s “South Aussie Snippets” column).

Ships’ graveyards of SA website at www.shipsgraveyards.sa.gov.au  .

“Traders Under Sail – The cutters, ketches and schooners of South Australia” by Captain James Gillespie, 1994.

Steve Reynolds is the current President of MLSSA and is a long-standing member of the Society. Steve is a keen diver, underwater explorer, photographer and is chief author of the Society's extensive back catalogue of newsletters and journals.

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