Shipwrecked in Townsville

First off, despite the sensationalist headline, we have not had a disaster aboard Corroboree. Quite the contrary: Since 30 June, she has been comfortably berthed at the yacht club in Townsville, North Queensland, and with our circumnavigation still on hold due to Covid-19, we expect to be here a while. Though we no longer have a car, the yacht club is a mere five minutes’ walk from the central business district, giving us easy access to shops, a supermarket, the library, restaurants and more. Best of all, we have embarked on a new volunteer gig at the Maritime Museum of Townsville, which sits just across the basin from our dock. That’s where the shipwrecks come in.

Like many museums, this amazing place had humble beginnings as a nautical display on the upper floor of the former Pier Master’s office in 1986. Today it is a complex of buildings and outdoor exhibits brimming with ship models, artefacts and maritime history. You can pore over the details of famous naval battles, watch videos on marine archaeology, and read tales of heroism and tragedy on the high seas. Also in store for visitors are two of Queensland’s early lighthouses, one located on the grounds, one stationed on the traffic roundabout just up the street. The museum’s largest acquisition, the decommissioned Royal Australian Navy patrol boat HMAS Townsville, is being refurbished at a dock off-site. In due course she will be taken out of the water and moved to the museum grounds where she will be open for tours.

Welcome to the Maritime Museum of Townsville
In operation from 1915-1990, the Wharton Reef Lighthouse still lights up the night

Now, on to those shipwrecks, and who doesn’t love a thrilling shipwreck tale, as long as you’re not one of those aboard. There are some 70 known wrecks in the waters around Townsville, the best known of which is the 350-foot steamship Yongala. Her name means “broad water” in the local Aboriginal language, and she was built in England in 1903, then transferred to Australia to carry passengers and freight along the coast. In March 1911, she disappeared in a cyclone off Townsville. Every last soul on board, 49 passengers and 73 crew, was lost. Over the coming weeks, pieces of wreckage washed up on shore, along with the shark-mauled remains of a racehorse named Moonshine, whose owner was also aboard. No human bodies were ever found. The wreck site was finally discovered by divers in 1958 at a depth of 35 meters.

Yongala was on her 99th voyage when she sank
Retrieved from the deep–Yongala’s Bell
One of Yongala’s portholes

Yet Yongala lives on. The largest and most intact Australian shipwreck, home to an array of colorful marine life, she is rated as one of the top ten wreck dives in the world. Many of her salvaged artefacts, including the handsome ship’s bell, reside in the museum. Most poignant are the personal stories of the 122 who perished. Captain William Knight, described as one of the shipping company’s “most capable men,” had a spotless record. Mrs. Manbey and her son were on the last and what should have been the safest leg of a voyage from London to reunite with their family. Jean Buxton, a young nurse at Townsville Hospital, was returning from a holiday in Sydney. All their plans and dreams perished with them. Ironically, Yongala had just ordered a new-fangled device called a “wireless,” but it did not arrive before she embarked. Had the radio been installed, she might have received warning of the impending cyclone and made for shelter.

Lost to the sea. Captain William McKnight is at top left. Mrs. Manbey is third from the left in the bottom row.
Nurse Jean Buxton

In addition to Yongala, models of over a dozen other ships that ended up on the ocean floor are spread among the galleries. They include Captain Bligh’s Bounty, burned on Pitcairn by the mutineers, and the Pandora, sent from England to capture the mutineers and wrecked on a reef in the Torres Strait. From World War I comes the German raider Seeadler, probably one of the last windjammers used for waging war. World War II wrecks include the USS Lexington, sunk by Japanese aircraft in 1942 in the Battle of the Coral Sea. All the models in the museum are donations, and Eric and I read their stories as we familiarized ourselves with the museum layout. So when the managing curator, Robert de Jong, asked us for suggestions on a shipwrecks program for school groups, the idea of a “treasure hunt” to find the shipwreck models leaped to mind.

The result is a “Shipwreck Trail” handout that challenges kids to identify the models based on pictures and descriptions on the sheet. We trialed it on group of 45 second-graders on a field trip and got two enthusiastic thumbs up. The program opened with a short talk by Robert about what causes shipwrecks, how artefacts are salvaged, and why shipwrecks are important today. Then, divided into smaller, chaperoned groups, the kids went on the hunt. They were curious, excited and incredibly well behaved, and feedback from their teacher will enable us to tweak the handout and make the experience even better for that age group.

The Shipwreck Trail

As for Eric and me, we had a blast. Though we do, of course, meet children on our travels, we don’t often have the opportunity to interact with them in depth. Now we were bombarded, in the best possible way. One girl, stopping before a sextant in a case, explained to me how it worked; she had seen one in a museum before and retained the information. A boy pointed to a tiny human figure on a model and eagerly suggested other places we could add human figures—including pirates—to show people at work on ships. Another boy told Robert that one cause of shipwrecks might be “mechanical difficulties.” These are second-graders, remember. Their intelligence and imagination blew us away.

Our next assignments include developing a program on lighthouses and expanding the museum’s marketing efforts. Can’t wait! Meanwhile, you can visit the museum online at