SS
Munmorah

Bellambi Reef’s Last Victim 


by
Neil Bramsen* 

T
he infamous Bellambi reef north of Wollongong has claimed many victims over the years due both to bad weather and captain error. While records vary, around twelve vessels are known to have been lost in, or around, the reef. 
  The last vessel to be claimed by this ship’s graveyard was the collier SS
Munmorah in the evening of May 17, 1949. 
  The
Munmorah of 1,273 tonnes was built in Leith, Scotland in 1934 and was owned by the Wallarah Coal Co Ltd. It was Wallarah’s regular ship on the Newcastle to Catherine Hill Bay run. With the usual south coast vessel, the SS Bellambi in Cockatoo Dock being overhauled, the Munmorah under Captain K. Knutsen along with eighteen crew was seconded to pick up a 1,450 tonne load of coal from the now long gone South Bulli jetty at Bellambi. 
  On nearing Bellambi at around 7pm and in good visibility and smooth seas, the ship failed to sight the occulting light on Bellambi jetty and went aground on low tide in 10ft water on Marjorie or Inner Reef shortly after. 
  The next day on trying to free herself under her own steam local papers reported that “the propeller shaft buckled, the blades were broken, the rudder was smashed and an engine was damaged”. 
  The continual pounding of the waves weakened the hull and she was soon “riddled with jagged holes” while her pumps worked hard to empty the water. 
  The tug
St Giles arrived from Sydney but, with the large seas, had to stand two miles out and was unable to assist. Earlier the tug Warang from Port Kembla had also tried to shift the Munmorah on the high tide but had snapped four 10-inch tow ropes and a steel hawser. 
  The next day with the ship showing signs of breaking up, sixteen of the crew were rescued by a local fisherman in his 14ft launch while the captain and chief officer remained onboard. The grounding of the ship caused huge interest and thousands of onlookers poured onto the beach and point to witness the event. 
  The ship, with a then replacement value of £200,000 could not be freed and was later sold for scrap. 
  A Marine Court of Inquiry found that the master, Captain Knutsen committed an error of judgement in not reducing speed when trying to pick up the occulting light from the jetty. However, the court also found that it was inconclusive as to whether the light was properly attended to and working at the time, and recommended that no further action was taken against the master. 
  Today, wreckage from some of the many ships to ground on the reef is still visible on the floor, and for anyone walking the shoreline at low tide, the lone stark rusting boiler of the SS
Munmorah remains visible, a memento to the many colliers who plied the coast with their cargos of coal and to those that were lost in the process. 

*Neil Bramsen is a teacher and writer from Jervis Bay, his family grew up at Bellambi and his grandfather and great-grandfather were both employed at the old jetty.