"Liner Ashore" the Malabar by Alan Lucas

As far as can be ascertained, Malabar struck Boora Point, Long Bay (shown here), six miles south of the latitude of Sydney. If, as is often stated, she hit six miles south of the Sydney Harbour entrance, she would have been closer to Coogee.For insider information on this totally unnecessary calamity, there is no better description than that found in Captain Brett Hilder’s little 1961-book Navigator in the South Seas. The late Captain Hilder was well known for his long sea career as well as for his sketches, paintings and very intelligent re-appraisal of Torres’s route through the Torres Strait in his 1980s book, The Voyage of Torres. Relevant to the wreck of the Malabar, he was closely involved, being a young cadet waiting in Sydney to rejoin her on the day of her loss.
Possibly on her regular run between Melbourne and Singapore, deeply laden Malabar steams at her full speed of around 13 knots. The site of Malabar’s death was probably on Boora Point. The Sydney suburb of Malabar was named after her.After a year as a cadet in Burns Philp’s ship Marella, Hilder was transferred to the Malabar where he completed his studies for Second Mate (foreign-going) but had to wait a year until he finished his apprenticeship because he was one year ahead of the syllabus.
He also joined the Naval Reserve as Midshipman, gaining a valuable understanding of its discipline and methods. His high regard for the navy makes his observations about the Malabar disaster very pertinent, the difference between helm orders in the merchant marine and the navy playing a big part in the destruction of the ship he so loved.
At the end of a brief furlough in 1931, Hilder went down to Sydney Harbour to rejoin Malabar, unaware that the newspaper billboards sighted along the way crying ‘LINER ASHORE’ referred to his ship.
By the time he reached Long Bay, she was well and truly stuck on the rocks where she had been successfully evacuated without loss of life. The cause of her plight had nothing to with mechanical failure or rumbustious weather it was entirely due to a misunderstanding between captain and helmsman during a heavy fog.
Sketched from a video, Malabar hit the coast north of Botany Bay at 0700 hours, 2 April 1931, and started breaking up as the wind rose to gale-force that evening. She was a much-loved ship by all who knew her.Malabar’s regular captain was on leave and had been relieved on the Melbourne to Sydney leg by 71-year-old retired Sydney Harbour Pilot, Captain Leslie. On the Melbourne-Singapore run, Malayan was often the language used on the bridge when giving helm orders to Malayan quartermasters. Not speaking the language, Captain Leslie gave orders in English, a minor hurdle exacerbated by an era when the merchant marine was changing from the old to the new way of issuing course-change orders.
For three centuries prior to the 1930s, helm orders referred to tiller movement, not the direction in which a ship was supposed to turn. Thus an order, “Starboard the helm” meant that the tiller should be turned to starboard so that the rudder and ship would turn to port: and vice versa.
So quickly did she break up that this was all that was left of Malabar after just two days on the rocks. During three centuries of whip staff, then wheel steering, the British persisted in using these orders that were the reverse of today’s more logical system – a logical system that was being introduced during the early 1930s. It was a period of near misses and collisions around the world, Malabar being Australia’s most spectacular victim.
Not just a fuzzy photograph, the fog that played a part in Malabar’s death is obvious in this pic as passengers are lowered away. Malabar was steaming up the coast when she ran into a fog bank south of Botany Bay, its density exacerbated by smoke from Bunnerong Power Station. Captain Leslie ordered “Port five degrees” – using the old but still current method of calling for a starboard course change. It was obviously his intention to haul off the coast to gain sea room, but there followed more complications in this rapidly unfolding drama.
Unnoticed by a captain probably concentrating on penetrating the fog with aging eyes, the Malay quartermaster not only turned the ship to port in the literal, modern sense of the word but he then held five degrees on the wheel, navy-fashion, instead of levelling off at five degrees, merchantman fashion.
Thus Malabar had turned fully 35 degrees by the time her suicidal path to destruction put her on a rocky coast in thick fog. Captain Leslie was the only officer on the bridge, having sent his Chief Officer and Brett Hilder’s cousin (also a cadet) down to clean up for their arrival in Sydney. When the ship hit the coast at 0700 hours, 2 April 1931, she was doing 13 knots.
At the time the tide was full and the ship pierced her bottom as she settled onto the rocks. Full astern was applied and a steam-tug soon rendered assistance, but to no avail. Brett Hilder, now in company with his cousin ashore, tried to reach the wreck in a local fishing boat to recover their belongings, but failed and returned to shore by which time wind and sea were building until by evening a full gale blew. This proved to be the death knell for Malabar …  she broke up rapidly.
Malabar in happier days, anchored probably in the Indonesian Chain and being serviced by lighters.
As for Bunnerong Power House; the smoke it generated was legend and the constant power black-outs associated with it were the brunt of many a joke. Perhaps the most famous line came from comedian Harry Van Der Sluice, better know as Roy Rene, or ‘Mo McKacky’, who said, “Bunnerong is where they bung her on and bung her off”.
Power failures aside, Bunnerong certainly played a part in bunging a near new, much admired ship on the rocks.
Captain Leslie lost his ticket. He may well have had a fair hearing and it might be argued that he deserved a severe penalty, but I’d bet my sea boots that no allowance was made for the confusion reigning in the maritime world at the time.
As near as I can discover, America had avoided such madness long before by moving to ‘left’ and ‘right’ rudder, her abandoning of ‘port’ and ‘starboard’ irking many traditionalists but nevertheless being unmistakeably definitive in their meaning.
Under pressure from local residents, desirous of honouring the loss of a favourite ship, their suburb was gazetted as ‘Malabar’ on 29 September 1933. Previously the area was known as either Brand or Long Bay while the word ‘Malabar’ was either an Indonesian place name or it referred to The Malabar Coast on the southwest of India.
Despite the excellent detail contained in Captain Hilder’s book, there remains some doubt as to the precise spot where Malabar hit the coast. I have always presumed it to be Boora Point, the northern headland to Long Bay, but Captain Hilder refers to it as being “six miles south of Sydney”.
Six miles south of the latitude of Sydney is indeed where Boora Point lies, but six miles south of Sydney Heads places it much further north. If any reader can categorically define the exact site, it would be most appreciated.