The day tragedy struck off South Australia’s south-east coast …

On this day 161 years ago, 6 August 1859, the 209-ton iron-hulled SS Admella struck a then uncharted reef, Carpenters Reef, about 30 km north-west of Cape Northumberland. Within 15 minutes the ship had broken into three sections.

During the week-long rescue attempts, in mid-winter, at the mercy of the elements, for those on board it was the beginning of a horrific experience. They clung to the wreck while pounding surf washed over them, and many slipped to their death from cold and exhaustion. With lifeboats swamped and washed away, they could see the shore but could not reach it. The turbulence of the Southern Ocean was unrelenting.

From a total complement of 113 passengers and crew, only 25 survived. With the loss of 89 lives, including many women and children, and one of the rescuers, it was the colony’s worst maritime disaster.

The SS Admella had departed Port Adelaide at 5.30 am the previous day, under command of Captain Hugh McEwan, an experienced master who had taken this route many tines before. The newly-built ship had arrived in Adelaide on its maiden voyage only the previous year, and was described by shipping reporters of the day as ‘a beautiful specimen of naval architecture’.

Reef of Despair: the wreck of the SS Admella is a comprehensive account of the steamship, from her launch in Glasgow, her maiden voyage under sail to South Australia, to her tragic demise. The book is in its final stage of completion and will be available before the end of 2020.

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