by Gregory Blaxell*
The SS Bombo was a single-screw, steam-powered, steel, cargo vessel. She was built by H. Robb Limited in Leith Scotland and launched in December 1929. She sailed out from Scotland and arrived in Sydney in April 1930 and for the next ten years, carried blue metal from Kiama to Sydney for her owners, State Metal Quarries until 1935 and then Quarries Limited.
Bombo was taken over by the Royal Australian Navy in 1940 and was not returned to its owners until July 1947. After that date, it continued on with its normal workload.
In January 1949, the ship completed a general overhaul, inspection and survey and complied with Lloyds’ full requirements and the Maritime Service Board’s requirements for life saving equipment. However, previous to that survey, the ship was subject to halfyearly dockings where the hull was scraped and repainted.
The Chairman of Directors of Quarries P/L, Harold Wenham Robinson, gave this evidence to the Inquiry in March 1949. He stated: “The Bombo cleared Sydney Heads about 2.00am on the 22nd February 1949 in charge of Captain Arthur Robert Bell and a full complement of fourteen including the Captain …
“The ship was bound for Kiama in her normal course to load blue metal and return for discharge at Blackwattle Bay, Pyrmont. Our records show that the vessel arrived and berthed at Kiama at approximately 9.40am. She was then loaded with a normal cargo of approximately 380 (sic) tons of line metal and she left Kiama at about 11.30am bound for Sydney.
“At about 5pm … a wireless message was received from the Master … stating ‘Cancel Gang tonight [a reference to the unloading crew in Sydney]. Hove to, OK. Master’…
“No further communication of any kind was received from the ship by the Company. Captain Arthur Bell, the Master of SS Bombo has held that position during the whole of the time that the ship has been in service with our Company.
“To the best of my knowledge, Captain Bell has held a Master’s Ticket and operated on the blue metal trading from Kiama to Sydney for about the past 25 years. The Company considered him to be a very efficient and most capable Master in the interests of his employers and the men under him.
He was a man of sober habits and extremely reliable. I am unable to form any opinion as to what caused the ship to list …
“On 23rd February during the morning, our Company … received [the news] that SS Bombo had foundered off Wollongong.”
Other evidence from that Inquiry stated that both holds were properly loaded and trimmed and the hatch covers were secured and covered with tarpaulins and battened down. One attendant at the hoppers commented: “I cannot suggest anything which might have been done to make it safer. It was a normal loading.”
Some 380 tons of 1/2 inch metal were loaded in to the aft hatch and 260 tons of ¾ inch metal in the forward hatch.
The ship then put out to sea. At the time, the harbour was calm and a slight southerly was blowing. The southerly became much stronger shortly after departure.
One of the survivors, Michael Fitzsimons, one of the ship’s three fireman, described the sea conditions.
“After leaving Kiama, there was a very heavy swell and southeast wind. These conditions stayed throughout the day. About 4.00pm the ship was about four miles north of Stanwell Park and then I noticed that the ship was listing to port (due to the heavy seas) at about a 5-degree list.
“I was at the top of the engine room then. The telegraph rang and I went to the engine room and one of the able seamen came down with a message from the Captain …
“The message was to say turn the ship around and go slowly. There was no reason given for the turning of the ship.
The ship was turned about then. The ship steamed in a southerly direction at about 3kn and continued south and at about 9.30pm was about three miles north of Wollongong lighthouse and about 4-5 miles east of the coast line.”
Things appeared to be going normally, with the ship proceeding towards Port Kembla where the skipper intended to anchor. Suddenly the list increased to about 30 degrees and the captain ordered “All hands on deck and lower that starboard life boat.”
Before the boat could be lowered the list increased and everyone that could dived into the sea, grabbing any available lifebuoys. From the water, the men saw the list continue to increase and eventually the ship turned over on her back and went down. There were 10 of the crew of 14 in the water. They were about five miles from Prot Kembla and about three miles from shore.
Two of those overboard decided they could swim to shore and struck out. They were never seen again. Eight of the crew remained in the water, most of whom had secured a lifebelt or a lifebuoy. One was hanging onto a hatch plank.
After a couple of hours, although the group tried to stay together, one suddenly disappeared. By about five the next morning, the seven remaining sighted a beach and a jetty that they recognised as Bulli Jetty. By this time the Captain and the Second Engineer were dead.
Those who were able, made for the shore but only two, able seaman Thorvaeld Thomsen [or Thorvald Thomson] and fireman Michael Fitzsimons made it. Here is Fitzsimons’ account of reaching the beach.
“We all commenced to paddle then. One chap [Taff] said, ‘If we are going to make the beach boys, split up and don’t have those planks with you or someone is liable to get hurt.’
It was then broad daylight. Taff left us and made for shore. He did not have a lifebelt on.
“Shortly Thomsen had a go … He had a lifebuoy on. About 20 minutes later, I left the planks and commenced to swim towards the shore. On the way I passed Thomsen. He appeared to be going all right and was dogpaddling.
“About half an hour later I passed Taff. He was swimming strongly. I did not see the fellows on the planks after that and did not see Taff or Thomsen. I continued to swim and float around and saw a wharf which I tried to reach. After trying a while I could not make it. I had a rest and looked round and saw a beach. I thought to myself that I would give it a go.
“It was about a mile away … [and] eventually made it. I think it would be about 10.20am when I got to the beach. After I got out of the water, I took my lifebuoy off and commenced to walk to look for a house. I saw a man on a baker’s cart. He bought me to the Police Station after giving me an overcoat to put on. It was a quarter to eleven when I got to the Bulli Police Station.”
When Thomson reached the shore break, he was helped by two men who dragged him out of the surf. The ambulance and the police, who were on the beach looking for survivors, took him to Bulli Hospital where he was admitted.
The bodies of Captain Bell, the Mate, Henry Stringer, were also later recovered.
Both rescued crew members testified that the capsize of the Bombo happened so quickly that nothing more could have been done but both attributed the initial list and then the catastrophic events that saw the demise of the ship, to the cargo shifting.
Both praised the efforts of the Captain for his actions to protect the ship when it took its initial list, his behaviour as the ship foundered and his encouragement and leadership when the remaining crew were in the water.
Both survivors were confident that the ship, even in those very rough seas, was in no immediate danger until it healed over and suddenly went down.
In 1982, two divers, Don Morrison and Bruce Hammond, came across the wreck of SS Bombo by chance. It was located further south than expected; just off the steelworks, almost in the shipping channel for Port Kembla Harbour. They reported their find in the BHP Review of March of that year. In that report, Morrison noted that the wreck was, “laying upside down, the bow badly crumpled as if she had dived nose first, hit the bottom and then turned over, crushing the bridge section and breaking in two.”
The wreck is in 40m of water and at this depth, exploration is difficult. The loss of the Bombo was widely reported in all the local and national papers. Rumours were rife but these were generally scotched by the findings of the Inquiry. However, what caused the cargo to shift so dramatically, even taking into account the rough sea conditions, remains a mystery that will probably now never be solved.
*Gregory Blaxell is an historian and author. He has been boating offshore and in the harbour for more than 25 years. His latest book is The River: Sydney Cove to Parramatta.