Finding the SS Tasman

by Peter Fields

The Tasman was an iron screw steamer built in Glasgow by Blackwood and Gordon in February 1873. She was 210 feet long, 27 feet wide and 19 feet deep, and powered by a compound steam engine with a service speed of 10.5 knots. With her elegant clipper bow and accommodation for 100, the Tasman was regarded as a luxury ship in the early 1880s. She was built for and used only on the Sydney-Hobart run by the Tasmanian Steam Navigation Company until her sinking. On November 27, 1883, the SS Tasman left Sydney for Hobart under the command of Capt. J. Evans . She called at Eden, New South Wales for cattle and picked up the Tasmanian east coast at 0300 on the 29th. Evans left the bridge when the vessel was 15 miles north of Schouten Island. She was making 10.5 knots and on a course which should put her clear of all dangers.

After the Captain had gone below the Chief Officer, Mr Marshall, was in charge of the watch. Before turning in, Evans had ordered that, when abreast of Schouten Island, the course should be altered to a line which would take her east of Hippolytes, two rocks east of Fortescue Bay on Tasmania’s east coast. He also left instructions he was to be called should the weather change. The Chief Officer’s watch had finished at midnight but he was back on watch at 0400. In evidence at the enquiry, Captain Evans stated he woke at 0430 and lay awake. At 0530 he rang for a hot drink and asked the steward where the Hippolytes bore. The steward went to check and reported on his return, saying they were right abreast. Because the steward had gone to the starboard side Evans thought the Tasman was on her proper course. He said ‘I had no idea she was passing between the Hippolytes. Then I heard a grating noise, rushed out and found her where she had no business to be …’

The Chief Engineer, Mr Williams, came on deck and informed the captain she could not keep afloat much longer. The boats were swung out and all hands got away. Contemporary reports said she sank in 60 fathoms within 15 minutes. It was believed that, as she grazed the reef, her bilge bad been ripped. She sank with her flags flying and her sails set.

Fishing boats Foam and Morning Light were soon on the spot to render assistance. Foam left for Spring Bay to telegraph the news of the disaster to Hobart; Morning Light took some of the passengers on board and made contact with the schooner Robert Burns. All hands landed in Fortescue Bay. There Evans took his First Officer aside and asked him why he was inside the Hippolytes. The mate replied that by going inside he hoped to save a little time and distance, and so overtake the SS Corinna which was ahead and also bound for Hobart.

All on board behaved in an exemplary fashion at the time of the wreck. The stewards had all passengers on deck within five minutes. One little lad calmly got out of his bunk, put on his overcoat and straw hat, picked up his little black bag with his treasures, quietly went on deck and stood beside his mother. Second Officer Mason picked up the lad, bag and all, and put him in a lifeboat. The second cook had to be sought; the search found him leisurely putting on his best suit for the evacuation.

At the enquiry Captain Evans was censured for not turning out at 0530 to satisfy himself all was well with his command; and Marshall’s certificate was suspended for 12 months. Wreckhunter John Riley had long been interested in finding the Tasman. From research he knew her rough location, and from the results of some inconclusive magnetometer searching earlier in the 1990s had a fair idea she lay on sloping reef in deep water west and south of Hippolyte Rock. A bounce dive and a manned submersible search at the time failed to find any wreckage, due mainly to the strong currents which flow in the area.

Another Riley-organised and determined bid was made in the summer of 1998; this time with a better magnetometer, good echo sounding equipment and a state-of-the-art GPS along with a team of experienced mixed gas divers with members skilled in underwater still and video photography. Mixed-gas capability was essential as we expected the wreck to be in 60-90 metres depth, and air diving under the local conditions of temperature and current posed too many hazards. We also took with us a Shark POD, a South African-developed device very effective in repelling great whites; a species common around the Hippolytes, which contain a seal colony. (John Riley carried with him a picture of a mature seal, taken on a previous visit, with a huge bite out of its back).

The seven man team flew from Sydney and assembled and checked all their equipment at Eaglehawk Dive Centre, an excellent facility – which included accommodation – at Eaglehawk Neck, run by a competent, cooperative and friendly operator, Gary Myers. It was our intention to find, dive, video and still-photograph and sketch the wreck. A nearby wreck, the Nord, sunk in 1915 after hitting the same pinnacle as the Tasman. Located in shallower water at 42 metres, this wreck was to serve as a warm-up and standby dive site.

The divers’ rig was to be one cylinder of air and one of heli-air mixed for an equivalent nitrogen depth of 50 metres. This required only one G sized cylinder – previously delivered – of helium to allow two dives each for six divers on the Tasman. Computer tables were cut for deco on air and surface supplied nitrox (EAN 36). As well, divers carried a third sling tank of high-oxygen nitrox for decompression. Thermal underwear and drysuits were also used, although the summer water temperature so far south was still a comfortable 16 degrees Celsius (and the visibility was to be a brilliant 30 metres or better).

On the first day the team dived the Nord as a work-up. Then, using our portable Lowrance echo sounder with a zoom function which enabled us to look only at the bottom 20 metres of the water column, and the superb Lowrance hand-held Global Nav GPS, we plotted positions and depths in the high-probability area, returning late to our base at Pirate’s Bay, Eaglehawk.

The morning of the second day was used to plot magnetometer readings. A scattered wreck in 70 metres plus doesn’t give a strong signal, and the signal can be attenuated according to the direction of travel. With these limitations in mind we commenced searching, after first establishing an exact position at the base of Hippolyte Rock, a massif about 91 metres high and the best part of a kilometre long. We waypointed this position on the Global Nav GPS and expressed it in UTM, rather than latitude and longitude as the map we were using was gridded in the UTM system.

By using the zoom function on the handheld’s screen, we were able to set a screen of about 0.3 of a nautical mile square on which we could track very accurately our runs and course changes and on which we could waypoint our best magnetometer reading. Coordinating these data with our echo soundings we were able to establish that our best shot lay on a plateau in roughly 70 metres just short of where the bottom dropped off to 90 metres. We waypointed this as #4, where our best tracks and readings intersected, and packed up searching for the day, departing to enjoy a superb second dive on the Nord, with the intention of returning to the site of the Tasman on the morrow. Next morning, using the GPS, we tracked directly to waypoint #4 and dropped a deep anchor in the strong north-running current. Our first two divers, Barry Hallett and Merv Maher, took off for the bottom. Over an hour later, following a long deco, they surfaced. The smile on Barry’s face said it all. The anchor was in the wreck near boilers and an engine, with the ship lying east-west in 70 metres – it was the Tasman.

John Riley and Mark Spencer were the next pair in, followed by Scott Leimroth using his home-built rebreather. The current had eased and, after a four minute descent, the divers found a wreck glowing gold from its covering of yellow zoanthids. In the 30 metre vis the bow could be seen to the west and stern to the east, exactly the way the ship was headed as it sought sanctuary in Fortescue Bay after the reef impact. Mark shot photos using 1600 ASA film and John sketched the wreck and retrieved a porcelain plate for archaeologists to identify.

Despite the notoriously ‘sharky’ reputation of the area, none were seen. But just in case, the Shark POD was rigged at the top deco level where the divers had its reassurance during their longest stop. The only encounter with aggressive wildlife was when a young male seal behaved naughtily on the deep deco stop at 50 metres, rushing at and challenging with bared teeth our intrepid videographer ‘Nipper’ Maher.

Diving continued for one more day, photographing, videoing and recording details until a strong frontal system blew the good weather out. Our Tasmanian sojourn was over. No matter – we had succeeded in our task and found the long lost Tasman.

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