Everyone has heard of the Dunbar shipwreck, and we’ve all seen the great sailing clipper’s anchor at the Dunbar memorial The Gap at Watsons Bay.

Now, in new book, The Shipwreck: The True Story of the Dunbar, the Disaster That Broke the Colony’s Heart and Forged a Nation’s Spirit, Sydney author Larry Writer dives deeper than anyone has before into the tragedy when, in a ferocious storm at midnight on August 20, 1857, Dunbar collided with the cliffs of outer South Head and 121 of the 122 passengers and crew perished.

Writer reveals why the ship crashed, who was to blame, and follows the personal stories of its crew, the passengers and the sole survivor, James Johnson, whose miracle rescue defies belief. The effect on the fledgling colony is movingly chronicled. More than a third of Sydney’s 57,000 population lined the streets as the funeral procession of the victims made its sad way to from Circular Quay to Camperdown Cemetery. The aftermath to the shipwreck saw enormous changes to Port Jackson navigation and maritime safety, including upgrading of the marine pilot service, the construction of a telegraph line from South Head to the city, and the building of Hornby lighthouse that still stands overlooking the Heads.

The news that the mighty Dunbar had been wrecked was a stab to the heart of Sydney town. Never had there been a calamity of this magnitude in the colony. The destruction of the clipper traumatised all of Australia because there had never been the loss of such a fine, seemingly unsinkable ship at the very entrance to Port Jackson. And, adding to the anguish, among the dead were prominent people whose success and hard work had transformed the desperate settlement of Arthur Phillip into a thriving city. The loss of Dunbar was a reminder of how gossamer-fragile was people’s hold on life in a fledgling nation so far across the sea from their family, friends and heritage.

Just when New South Wales and its citizens were prospering thanks to gold, wheat, wool, manufacturing and commerce, Dunbar’s demise rammed home that safe passenger and merchant seafaring to and from the Old Country could never be taken for granted. No matter how fast and strong the vessel, or how skilled her master and crew, those who went to sea in sailing ships in the 19th century were always at the mercy of fate and the elements.

The Shipwreck, wrote author Peter Fitzsimons, is ‘A staggering true story that haunts, wonderfully well told.’ Michael Veitch, author of Hell Ship, called The Shipwreck ‘’A brilliant true story from our maritime colonial past. I honestly felt I was on the pitching deck of that doomed vessel. This is what modern history writing should be like. I wish I’d written it myself!’

The Shipwreck: The True Story of the Dunbar, the Disaster That Broke the Colony’s Heart and Forged a Nation’s Spirit, by Larry Writer.

$35. Published by Allen & Unwin.

Available in good book stores.