ss Merimbula (1909-1928)
Today, the remains of s.s. Merimbula, a large twin screw steamship, lie below Whale Point on Beecroft Peninsula, north of Jervis Bay. The vessel ran its bows onto the point on the night of 27 March, 1928, later breaking up on the steeply shelving reef.
Bow of the Merimbula. Photo by: David Nutley
The steamer was ordered by the Illawarra and South Coast Steam Navigation Company, following the loss of the Bega which hit a submerged object and sank off Tathra on 5 April, 1908.
Built by the Ailsa Shipbuilding Company of Troon, Scotland, the Merimbula was launched in 1909. The steamer was the largest vessel ever ordered by the company, having a length of 209' 6", (63.86m) breadth of 32' 2" (9.8m) and depth of 21' 1" (6.43m). A fast speed of 14 knots was achieved through twin triple expansion engines, also built by Ailsa. Accommodation was provided for 96 first class and 10 second class passengers.
On 20 October, 1909, the new vessel sailed from the Clyde to Sydney and was immediately put into service in the New South Wales trade. The normal run took in the ports of Sydney, Bermagui, Tathra, Merimbula and Eden. The Merimbula usually managed two runs a week. The vessel, however, was found to be unstable in some sea conditions. To increase stability, a large number of cast iron blocks were placed in the hold.
The steamer remained in the South Coast trade throughout World War I. In 1917, the Merimbula helped refloat the Cumberland which had run aground on Gabo Island after being mined on August 12.
Occasionally, the Merimbula was chartered and undertook voyages from Hobart, Sydney and Brisbane.
New regulations concerning award conditions for seamen, led to the conversion of the second class accommodation to crew space in 1921. The 1920's was a period of decline for the Merimbula in the face of competition from the railways and roads. The Merimbula carried fewer passengers and found it increasingly difficult to find cargoes.
The Merimbula left on a return trip from Sydney to Eden on 25 March 1928, under the command of Captain O'Connor. The steamer steadily ran into worsening weather to the south.
At 1 a.m. on the morning of 27 March, the 13 passengers were awoken by the grinding impact of the vessel driving onto Beecroft Peninsula.
In heavy rain, the engines were stopped and everybody arrived on deck. The crew battled to free the lifeboats which had become stuck. Rescue rockets were fired but failed to attract attention. The Captain believed the vessel was in no immediate danger and sent the passengers back to the lounge, still with their lifejackets on. There they spent the remainder of the night drinking coffee and eating sandwiches.
Rain continued the following morning as the lifeboats were lowered. The passengers were rowed across to the mouth of Currarong Creek where they found shelter in a fisherman's hut.
Captain O'Connor walked across Beecroft Peninsula to the lighthouse at Point Perpendicular. He then telephoned the Illawarra and South Coast Steam Navigation Company in Sydney to advise them of the grounding. Marine assessors arrived at the wreck site on 28 March and concluded that there was a remote chance of refloating the Merimbula. A salvage vessel was chartered for the operation, however, the Merimbula began to sink on the following day and the attempt was cancelled. The remains eventually slid completely into the sea, only the bow section remaining up on the rocks.
The loss of the Merimbula marked the termination of the Illawarra and South Coast Steam Navigation Company's passenger services, and subsequent to 1928, they confined their activities only to cargo services.
A diver records details of the starboard boiler Photo by: David Nutley
Wreckage within the hull remains Photo by: David Nutley
Merimbula wreck location map
The remains are located adjacent to the north side of the reef which extends from Whale Point, Beecroft Peninsula. Wreckage can be located in 4 meters of water and extends out from the reef to a depth of approximately 13 meters.
Periodically subjected to heavy swell and sea conditions due to the exposed nature of Beecroft Peninsula, the area is especially dangerous when north-east swells are running. Most of the remains lie amongst boulders on reef, the stern lying on sand. The exposed bow section is located approximately 300 meters to the south-west of the main deposit. Access to the submerged remains can be made directly from the exposed reef in suitable conditions, via the NPWS walking track.
Wreck site sketch plan
Merimbula wreck site plan
Wreck site condition
Substantial sections of the lower hull plating, engines, boilers, an anchor, winches, propeller shafts and counter stern (separated), can be found. The hull lays out from the reef for approximately 55 meters, with the boilers lying to either side.
A winch outside the hull remains to port Photo by: David Nutley
The importance of the Merimbula
The Merimbula wreck site and its associated relics are representative of the well appointed passenger services which linked the communities of the New South Wales south coast in the early part of the century. A site which, due to its integrity and accessibility has considerable importance as a recreational dive site.
The Merimbula is a gazetted Historic Shipwreck, under Section 5 of the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. The listing applies to the shipwreck and all relics associated with the shipwreck.
- Heritage Office, NSW Shipwreck database, accessable through the Australian National Shipwreck Database
- Nutley, D & Smith, T, 1992, Merimbula (1909-1928): Wreck Inspection Report, Heritage Branch, Department of Planning, Sydney, NSW, Australia
- Wolfe,A., 1990, The New South Wales Historic Shipwreck Study. New South Wales Department of Planning
- Vickeridge, G., 1988, Wreck of the Merimbula. The Shoalhaven Chronograph, Vol.18(5):1.
- Sydney Morning Herald 28 and 29 March 1928
- Sunday Times 16 March 1913 Register of British Shipping
Page last updated: 31 August 2012