HOME OF THE LADY DENMAN - Local history isn't always about the big story - the everyday story of life in the early development of the region can be a fascinating, entertaining and educational journey.

8 April 2015

W.D Atlas founders off Jervis Bay.

‘It was a case of every man for himself”

The terrible loss of life associated with the self propelled bucket dredge off Jervis Bay in on the 20th May 1966.
The Atlas had sailed from Whyalla in South Australia bound for Sydney,  a destination it never reached.
13 men drowned in huge seas aboard a vessel designed for river use and not the open sea.
With her high superstructure she was known to roll alarmingly even in moderate seas.
All went well until she reached the coast off Jervis Bay, where she ran into heavy seas accompanied by gale force winds.
By 10pm and hove-to of Point Perpendicular the dredge listed badly.
Conditions had deteriorated so bad they put a may day call out.
The captain had called ‘stand by the lifeboats”  but the ship sank by the head so fast only one boat was able to be launched.
Jumping into the pitch black the men could not see a thing, screams and shouts were mixed with the sounds of the driving rains and gale force winds, ‘it was every man for himself”

Gordon Fairbairn, fireman-greaser owes his life to one of his drowned companions.
Floundering in the icy seas for 10 hours he managed to keep afloat at one stage by clinging to the body of a drowned shipmate.

Sam De Vries, a 25 years-old seaman of Whyalla threw the raft over the side and was able to swim to it and pull into it by his hair his companion,  25 year-old seaman Jeffery Mulder of Victoria. From there they drifted about 10 miles north before being rescued more than 10 hours later.

Two other seaman, Gordon Fairbairn, 30,  and Richard Macrae, 30, were rescued by helicopter.

By the 23rd May the massive air and sea search for the missing crew members was officially called off.

image The Canberra Times, Monday 23 May 1966


image The rescues were carried out under extreme conditions, two 723 Squadron Iroquois helicopters from HMAS Albatross were scrambled in 45 knot winds to search for survivors,    they hovered a few meters above 10 meter waves and winched 4 exhausted survivors from the wreckage.

VendettaHMAS Vendetta responded to the signal and battled her way through
the mountainous seas to the search area. As the ship steamed towards the dredge, rising seas and high winds made conditions extremely difficult in her boiler rooms.
During the early hours of Saturday 21 May, the ship was struck by a huge wave, and sea water poured into "B" Boiler Room and Engine Room, resulting in flooded bilges, damage, and power failure. In addition, the weather conditions made it impossible to relieve the watchkeepers in the boiler room for some time.

Following the mercy dash, the Naval Board approved the immediate promotion of Leading Engineer Mechanic WJ Robinson to Acting Petty Officer,
as a result of his presence of mind and devotion to duty under arduous circumstances whilst in charge of Vendetta's "B" Boiler Room

W.D.Atlas – 747 ton twin screw bucket dredge.
Length 197.2ft;  Beam 41.2ft;
Built 1949.



I found this song about the loss of the W.D.Atlas.

The ‘W. D. ATLAS’
Lyrics and Music Harry Robertson
Arranged by Evan Mathieson

The ‘Atlas’ was a dredge that sailed from Whyalla town,
And set a course for Sydney, with its hatches battened down.
It sailed into a cyclone out on Jervis Bay
The waves they tossed, the ship was lost, that 20th of May.

Dark and stormy was the night and the sea was cold.
Did the cargo start to shift in her rusty hold?

A seaman to his Mother wrote, and in the letter said,
“This ship is like a coffin, Mum, there’s a dirty trip ahead,
And while we need the money, my mind is filled with doubt,
But the clearance papers are aboard and we are shipping out.”


Since the ‘Atlas’ made that trip, enquiries have been made.
Were the men who manned her seamen to their trade?
Did her doors and hatches fit ’til they were watertight?
Was the ‘Atlas’ overloaded?Was her engine room alright?


Was her steering faulty before that fateful night?
Did water stop the boiler fires from burning clear and bright?
Did heavy bucket tumblers roll the decks beneath the waves
’Fore the ‘Atlas’ sank and carried thirteen seamen to their graves?


Who will ask the questions?Who will tell the lies?
How many seamen will be drowned before we realise
That a dredge that’s built for river use, should not be sent to sea’
Til she’s put in first class order,with a safety guarantee?


© HarryRobertsonand subsequently ©1995 Mrs Rita Robertson, Brisbane, AUSTRALIA.
Registered with APRA/AMCOS www.apra-amcos.com.a


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