The loss of the SS Koombana in 1912

Gerard Foley Monday, March 19, 2012 - 15:09

The loss of the SS Koombana on a journey from Port Hedland to Broome in March 1912, has been described as Australia's worst weather related maritime disaster of the 20th century. 

Built by Alexander Stephen and Sons and launched in Glasgow in October 1908, the SS Koombana was operated by the Adelaide Steamship Company. It was the first ship to be built exclusively for passengers and cargo for service along the Western Australian coast. Sailing from Fremantle the ship made frequent visits to ports in WA’s North West from 1909-1912. Named after one of the pioneering Forrest family’s properties near Bunbury, the word 'Koombana' is Noongar and reputed to mean calm and peaceful. But its last voyage from Port Hedland to Broome on 20 March 1912 was disastrous. The ship, plus all crew and passengers, was lost in a tropical cyclone, never to be found, except for a small amount of wreckage found at sea near Bedout Island. 

The loss of the SS Koombana in 1912 caused much grief and anxiety in Western Australia, not least because of the loss of 150 lives. It has been said that the loss of the Koombana was a major impetus for the early development of the State Shipping Service, which was to dominate north west coastal shipping trade until the end of the 20th century.

State archives from the period in the State Records Office detail the response of government and the community to this awful maritime disaster, conveying the circumstances surrounding the loss, the search attempts for the ship, and also touch on the human and individual stories about the effect of the loss of loved ones on families and the community. One of the most interesting files is a Harbour and Lights Department file (Cons 1066, item 1912/0438 - a copy of which [Cons 5055, item 1] is available for the public to view) on the Court of Marine Inquiry into the loss of the ship.

This file includes the last reports of the SS Koombana at Port Hedland, where it was stated that the "steamer Koombana left Port Hedland on the 20th inst. (March) bound for Broome, but has not reached her detsination ... she was observed by the Master of the Bullarra for two hours after leaving Port Hedland to be steaming in a N.E. direction, a gale blowing from the E.N.E at the time." The report goes on to state that the Bullara which was heading west from Port Hedland encountered a cyclone and "stood out to sea for 70 miles". At noon on 21 March the eye of the cyclone passed in the Bullara's vicinity, resulting in the ship putting "into Cossack Roads in distress" on 23 March. This file also details the search for the Koombana, various ships in the area, such as the Penguin and Una, and later a repaired Bullara being sent to join the search of areas such as the Turtle Islands, Bedout Island and the Rowley Shoals.

Other files about the Koombana's loss cover other related issues including concerns about the estates of men who were lost on the Koombana (Cons 1056, item 062); a Police file requesting the names of Government officials who lost their lives (Cons 430, item 1912/2250); and another file on the payment of compensation to the relatives of those lost on the SS Koombana (Cons 752, item 1914/0641)

The site of the wreck of the SS Koombana has never been located. But the file on the Court of Marine Inquiry into the loss of the ship contains strong clues to its final position. Captain Rantzan, the master of one of the search ships, the Una, reporting to the Chief Harbour Master at Fremantle on 16 April 1912, states that at "19.7 S. and Longitude 118.53 E." he had found wreckage which "seemed to come from the bottom" of the sea, indicating to him "that the ship was lost at about this point." Ominously, in the next sentence he states that "at this particular place there were a large number of Sharks to be seen."

A commemoration of the centenary of ths disaster was scheduled to occur on 17-18 March 2012 in Port Hedland, but had to be postponed due to the dangerous presence of tropical cyclone Lua, which battered the same coastal area where the SS Koombana was lost 100 years before.

Gerard Foley

Senior Archivist: State Records Office of Western Australia