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Wednesday, 23 May 2001 00:00

In search of the "SS Dorrigo" - Part 1

By Trevor Jackson - Esperance Star

It all started at the Qld Maritime Museum at Southbank. They have a map there showing the rough whereabouts of most of the wrecks of significance lost in Qld. There were some familiar names on the map, famous wrecks like the Yongala, the Kowarra and the Quetta, sunk with massive losses of life and little trace, but these wrecks were well known now,and were for the most part too far away to be of any use to a Brisbane Charter boat like the Esperance Star. What I needed was a big significant wreck, in the area in which we worked, a Warship or a Steamer, something that had never been found, something we could get our teeth into!

Part 1

On the map just to the north of Double Island Point, was the name "Dorrigo". I decided to check it out.

At 6pm on April 1st 1926, Capt. C.A.Gray slipped lines in Brisbane and helmed the Dorrigo through the lower reaches of the river and out into Moreton Bay, their trip was to take them as far north as Rockhampton but by dawn the following day the Dorrigo had disappeared and all but 2 of the crew of 24 had succumbed to the ocean depths, Capt Gray went down with the ship but by an amazing quirk of fate, was returned alive to the surface when the section of deck he was on broke free of the descending ship and rushed skyward leaving him to ponder the loss of both his ship and the men in his charge, his son was the only other survivor.

After leaving the museum pondering the possibility that a large Steamer did in fact lay undiscovered a few hours steam from our home port at Scarborough, my first task was to contact the Qld Museum maritime archaeological section in Townsville. This was to determine whether or not the wreck had officially been located. It had not.

Which meant, that if we were lucky enough to discover its location, we would be diving on a "virgin" wreck. I then began the painstaking process of recreating the ships last voyage so as to give us some idea of where to start looking. . .

After a few months of research, checking out court reports, old newspapers and photographs we were fairly certain that the Dorrigo had sunk considerably to the south of where it was located on the museums map [the museum had the wreck situated about 5 miles north of the wide bay bar, which I now believe was the position that the survivors were picked up]. We still had a fair area of ocean to look at, in fact it was still a "needle in a haystack" search area. The next step was one that we had used to great effect when finding other wrecks like the now infamous "Barcoola" and the deep Brisbane wrecks, "Bulldog" and "Sharon K", we had to find a Trawlerman who worked the area and who was willing to give us access to his GPS equipment to list the position of any underwater snags he had recorded over the years, unfortunately I didn't know any fishermen from up that way, so we had to think laterally. We made up a shrunk down chart of the area we wanted to search and marked on it the approximate position of the wreck.

A few months later, Maryborough diver Aaron Suthers was down for the weekend doing some diving in the Bay and we got to talking about the "Dorrigo" and other wrecks of interest up that way. He agreed to suss out a few old timers he knew of in Maryborough that might point us in the right direction, 4 hrs after getting off the boat on Sunday night he was on the phone back to me. He met a bloke who knew a bloke who knew a mate whose ex-girlfriend's brother bought a dog off a bloke who knew a fisherman whose mate might know something about a wreck which probably wasn't the Dorrigo but might be, maybe if we're lucky. I said to Aaron to persevere and maybe we might get lucky.

A few weeks later he called me back and had heard that some guy known only as "Dennis the Menace" from Tin Can Bay had hooked up on a wreck thought to be the "Dorrigo" and had in his possession, a rudder about 12 feet high, dragged up from the depths some 18 years ago, the problem was that we only knew him as "Dennis the Menace", no surname or address. Enter onto the scene one Col Jackson, known throughout the boating community as a bit of a rogue and a bloody good Trawlerman . Col and I were sitting in the McDonalds in Gladstone having brecky one day and I was teasing him about how he never gave me any help in finding any wrecks when he, as my own dear brother, should be putting his hand up the most, Col said " well what do you want me to do?" I said "well you can start by finding this "˜Dennis the Menace' from Tin Can Bay!! Ten minutes and a half dozen phone calls later, Col had Dennis, now retired and living in Bowen, on the phone! Yes he knew where the "Dorrigo" was, yes he had caught the rudder. We were by no means however, home and hosed, Dennis lived and worked in a time before the availability of accurate GPS equipment, so his mark was in the form of Radar distances from certain points on the land, he was also confused as to which distance was from which piece of land, on one hand the site could be 14.3 miles from Noosa Heads and 13.7 off the beach, OR 13.7 off Noosa Heads and 14.3 off the Beach. I managed to lay off both positions on a Chart of the area that in turn gave me two Lat. and Long. positions to work from, they were about a mile apart, still too big an area, we needed a corroborating mark from someone else! There was also Dennis "˜ description of his rudder which was a cause for concern, he claimed that the rudder was made of wood with a Bronze or Brass frame, it didn't sound like the rudder from an iron Steamer to me, but the size and height descriptions were right, so we decided to adopt a wait and see attitude, and hope.

A few weeks later again it was business as usual aboard the Esperance Star, I'd just got back from two weeks on the " Coolidge" and we were running back to back trips in the Bay, busy as hell, when one evening, the Bat Phone rang. " Hi is this Trevor?" "Yes". I replied.

It was Ipswich diver Chris Smith, another keen wreck seeker who had heard me waffle on about the "Dorrigo" one night, and he had a mark that I "˜might' be interested in.
Chris told me that some fishing buddies of his knew of a wreck in the waters north of Noosa, it was in about 60 metres depth, was broken in two and it could be our baby! I wrote down the mark in the back of the tide book and promised Chris I'd get back to him if it panned out.

Part 2

I fired up the GPS and went to the area in question where I had previously laid off the two marks I had worked out from " the Menace's " radar marks. I then dragged the cursor icon across the screen and positioned it on the marks that Chris Smith had given me, which just so happened to lie almost precisely at " the Menace's " second mark, 13.7 from Noosa, 14.3 off the beach!!!!!!!!!BINGO!!!!!!!!!

All we had to do now was assemble a team of divers and wait for the weather.

Well the weather finally broke and a decision was made in the early evening of Wed 10th May to take a run up the coast that night. We were armed with a hand full of divers, to see what we could sea sea sea.

We loaded up the dive gear, food etc. and set off around 8.30 pm, fairly confident that we would turn something up and that our research would prove effective. We cleared the bay and crewmember Carl Watson took over the watch, as the boat slipped silently north across a beautifully flat sea, all the divers went to bed hopeful, and were out like logs!
At 4.00 am next morning Carl's long overnight stint had come to an end, he dropped the anchor a few hundred metres shy of where we would begin our search, but the noise of it going down woke everyone up so I promptly picked it back up and started what I was sure would be a long process of search patterns across the areas we had laid up on the chart.

We went round and round and round for several hours, there were a few glimmers of hope in that time but nothing really solid would show on the sounder. Then at about 10.30 am we started to see schooling fish on the sounder, massive schools, the kind you see hovering in the vicinity of large wrecks, the depth read 60metres, and the schools were 30 to 40 metres deep, how long I could not tell, but the pulse was beginning to race, were we right near the Dorrigo? Was the ship just beyond our sounders " line of site", then bang, up it came, a massive solid red lump of wreck-like beauty, unbelievable unmistakable! I circled the E.S. around again and as we hit the site Carl dropped every last link of anchor chain we had straight into the bowels of the ship - TIME FOR A DIVE!!

Max Stephenson, well known loud mouth, was the diver with the honour of the first look, Max owns an "Inspiration" closed circuit rebreather, and he could therefore safely do a quick, no fuss dive, with a minimum of Deco, and still be able to get back in the water with the second group within the hour.

Max's job was to verify what we were on. He agreed that if it were a wreck he would float an orange marker buoy, and if it were not a wreck he would float a yellow buoy. Max's return 20mins later however heralded no buoy, of either colour, what does "no buoy" mean someone asks, "it means he's either too excited or too thick to remember", I replied. Luckily for us, it was the former, Max had a ceramic plate clutched in his big mit, and a smile that could launch a thousand dives!!!!

Everyone lept with excitement, I fired one question after another at Max, he fired back the answers, "about 70metres long, about 20 wide, debris everywhere, but I don't think its the Dorrigo", "WHAT, WHY??", Max handed me up the plate, on the back was the manufacture date, it read "Jackson Ceramics 1941", and since the Dorrigo had sunk 15 years earlier, it couldn't possibly be her. So what was it?

Max jumped up and pulled off his rebreather, and started talking about guns and ammo, cases of them, and stacked up ceramics, lots and lots of rusting metal, and a giant motor sitting proud of the sand, " sounds like a military vessel", I said. The other team of divers were beginning to prepare their gear up on the front deck as Max and I jumped in for the first recce about an hour later, the weather had begun to pick up a little and the chain was bouncing around a bit due to the increasing seas, viz was not crash hot,probably around 12 to 15 metres, but as we approached the bottom, we found that the bouncing chain was stirring up the fine silty bottom and slowly but surely reducing the viz to a muck dive. As we neared the bottom I could see off to the left of the chain what was a tall structure, perhaps the remains of a bow or bridge section, it rose about 10 metres off the seafloor, but we had already decided to concentrate our dive around the area where the anchor chain crossed the wreck, so we pressed on. Scattered about the place were crates of munitions, from 303 size up to 20mm Anti Aircraft Cannon shells, still in their boxes, there were plates and cups and knives and forks, bottles of all descriptions, including one that said "˜Hot Stuff' on it, it looked like a Tabasco sauce bottle, another large clear bottle simply read "˜One Gallon'. All of the ceramics we saw had US manufacturers stamps on the back, and after 10 minutes on the bottom it was fairly clear that we had, in our search for the Dorrigo, stumbled across the remains of a WW2 supply ship, probably American, and given its position and the vast amount of supplies left aboard, probably sunk accidentally rather than as part of the post war scuttling process that occurred just after the war.

We got back from the dive loaded with excitement and goodies, a dozen or so ceramic items including an entire coffee set, some 50cal bullets, 4 or 5 bottles, the gun sights from a 20mm cannon, a brass porthole, and several brass framed emergency lights, not a bad effort for 12 minutes on the bottom - we were happy. The next pair of divers jumped in a few moments after our return, but were unable to ascertain too much more about the wreck, the anchor chain had succeeded in silting out the whole area, they could barely see a foot in front of them and had bailed on the dive early. Our excitement however could not be contained, we turned the ES for home and cracked open the Champagne, although we have yet to end our search for the Dorrigo, we had turned up a completely unknown wreck, ram packed with wartime artefacts, in a depth that was easily dive able, and there was still so much to learn about it.

Images  © 2001 - Max Stephenson - (Used with permission)