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Diving the City of Launceston shipwreck

Written by Agnes Milowka   
Tuesday, 01 February 2011 00:00

City of Launceston shipwreckThe SS City of Launceston is one of the most intact and well-preserved shipwreck sites in Victoria and is of tremendous historic and archaeological significance. It has been deemed so important that the shipwreck was given the highest level of legal protection by the government. A Protected Zone exists around the wreck and its 500m (1650ft) radius, which means divers and even boat traffic cannot access the site without a permit. I was one of the lucky few to dive this interesting and precious shipwreck.

Why all the fuss, the restrictions and the permits I hear you ask? Well, the remains of the City of Launceston lie fully intact in 22m (72ft) of water and everything on board, bar the mail that was recovered straight after the sinking, remains inside the hull of the sunken ship. The City of Launceston was rammed by the 500-tonne steamship SS Penola and sunk in just 45 minutes, leaving the passengers and crew no time to pick up belongings or to save anything of much value off the ship. In terms of artifact concentration and preservation, this shipwreck is one of a kind in Australian waters.

The SS City of Launceston was a special ship even before it sunk to its watery grave on the evening of the 19th of November 1865. She was the finest inter-colonial steamship in Australia; a splendid, sleek and luxurious vessel that attracted the admiration of all who worked and traveled aboard it. The steamship was the first regular shipping link between Northern Tasmania and the Australian mainland. For two years before that fateful collision she tirelessly ferried passengers, freight and mail across Bass Strait, the nastiest stretch of water in the world.

The story of her sinking was hard to believe then and to this day it is still difficult to come to terms with. The conditions out on the water that evening were perfect; the weather was fine, the night clear and starlit. The two ships saw each other approaching from three miles away. Yet somehow the two ships managed to crash into each other in the broad expanse of Port Phillip Bay. In fact, the collision was so powerful that the bow of the Penola remains firmly embedded into the starboard side of the sunken wreckage of the City of Launceston!

The inquiry that followed on the 22nd of November 1865 found the City of Launceston solely responsible for the collision. Captain William Nelson Thom of the SS City of Launceston assumed the SS Penola would pass him on the wrong side and rather than ensuring the two ships pass on the correct side, port to port, he maintained his course and cruising speed of about ten knots. By the time he realized the two ships were almost head on and a collision was imminent, it was too late.

While the loss of the ship was very costly for its owners and the passengers on board whose valuables perished, luckily, there was no loss of life. All passengers and crew just managed to escape before the bulkheads gave way and the vessel sunk to the bottom. The SS Penola, ironically enough, rescued the sixty-two survivors. The Penola was badly damaged and had lost its entire stem to within 2ft of the keel, however, an extra bulkhead forward saved it from sinking and it slowly made its way back to Melbourne.

After several unsuccessful salvage attempts the City of Launceston slipped into obscurity and lied largely undisturbed until its rediscovery 115 years later. After many months of searching a group of divers and amateur archaeologists from the Maritime Archaeologists Association of Victoria (MAAV) found the wreck in 1980. The iron hull was fully intact and sitting upright on the seabed. The silt had mounded against the hull providing protection to the integrity of the hull and the site conditions, namely low visibility, negligible current and the thick silt that covered everything, meant that even organic material were well preserved. Heritage Victoria recovered a wooden table, ceramics and even fabrics during an excavation in the late 90s. In fact over four hundred artifacts were recovered and cataloged and each has an interesting story to tell about life on board an inter-colonial passenger vessel in the mid 19th century.

The excavation was limited in scope and the majority of artifacts remain on board the ship, which is fabulous as you actually get a chance to see them in situ when diving on the wreck. Diving on this site was quite special and a little different. After extensive consultation with the public Heritage Victoria implemented a trail access program that allowed divers to visit the City of Launceston for the first time in over twenty years. The silt and the poor visibility on site meant that diving was restricted to advanced divers who would not interfere with the integrity of the site or accidentally damage the fragile remains. While marine life on the wreck is far from abundant and the visibility can be quite poor, diving this shipwreck was a terrific way to get a bit closer to the history and heritage of Victoria. Seeing artifacts such as bottles, pots and even a shoe exactly where they sunk all those years ago was definitely something special.