Rusting bones of old ships are an important part of our maritime heritage. Shrouded in the depths of the unknown they not only offer clues of a tragic event but stories of bravery and self-sacrifice.
From the first days of European settlement of this region, ships were the main, if not only, means of transport. However ships and their crew, passengers and cargo were at the mercy of the prevailing weather conditions and the skills of the ship’s captain.
Being navigable for 67 km from the entrance, the Clarence River quickly became a major trading route but the only exit and entrance was (and still is) over the bar between Yamba and Iluka. Many ships and lives have been lost in North Coast waters, quite a few of them whilst attempting to enter the Clarence River.
The first European to live in Yamba (or Clarence Heads as it was then known) was the pilot, Francis Freeburn; his skills were much in demand. As ships became larger and more numerous and shipwrecks more frequent, the need to provide for the safe navigation of the often unstable, shallow and dangerous river entrance became urgent. Hence the construction of the training walls in the Clarence estuary.
While storms, rocks, reefs, fire and floods have long been shipping hazards it was often human error in the shape of bad seamanship such as drunkenness or navigational errors that caused shipwrecks.
One of the earliest shipwrecks was the paddle steamer Pheonix, which, belying its name seemed particularly ill fated. After running aground on Angourie beach in March 1850 and being hauled overland to Yamba, it was finally wrecked on the beach at Clarence Heads in April 1852, fortunately without loss of life. This was not the case with the SS Helen McGregor (1875 – 8 lives lost) or the SS Wanganui (1880 – 2 lives lost) or the SS New England (1882 -11 lives lost). Each ship had been attempting to cross what was then called “Black Bouy Reef” when they foundered. In the last case the Pilot’s licence was cancelled after criticism of a failed rescue attempt.
The crew of the HMAS Waree were more fortunate when the naval tugboat was wrecked on the North Spit at Iluka in October 1946. Unable to use the lifeboat in the mountainous seas, the twenty-one crew were forced to swim over 2 kilometres to reach the shoreline. All were saved, including the ship’s cat, but the ship was a total loss. Its remains can still be seen at low tide along the Iluka breakwater, marked by a memorial plaque erected by the Iluka History group in 2017. The Waree’s bell, binnacle and helm (pictured) can be viewed at the Yamba Museum. As keepers of our maritime heritage these artefacts are a noteworthy resource, holding a wealth of information and glimpses into our shipwrecked past.