90 years since the Greycliffe ferry disaster

The partially submerged remains of the ferry <em>Greycliffe</em>, following the collision with <em>Tahiti</em>. 40 lives were lost in the disaster. ANMM Collection 00036858, Samuel J Hood Studio.

The partially submerged remains of the ferry Greycliffe, following the collision with Tahiti. 40 lives were lost in the disaster. ANMM Collection 00036858, Samuel J Hood Studio.

The sinking of the Greycliffe ferry on 3 November 1927 remains the most significant accident on Sydney Harbour to date. Forty lives were lost when the ferry collided with the Union Steamship Company’s liner Tahiti. The tragedy had a marked impact on the city – many old Sydney families can still recount their personal connections to the disaster, particularly those associated with the suburbs around Vaucluse and Watsons Bay where many of the victims lived.  It inspired significant plot points in the novels Waterways by Eleanor Dark (1938) and Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott (1963).

Today, on the 90th anniversary of the disaster, we tell the story of Betty Sharp, the teenage girl who had a haunting impact on the recovery teams at the time of the accident and through subsequent retellings of the disaster.

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Australian pirate tales

‘Australian pirate tales’, by curator Dr Stephen Gapps. From Signals 97 (Dec 2011-Feb 2012).

We might not think of Australian history as having much to do with pirates. Yet from the infamous Batavia mutiny in 1629 to the 1998 seizure of the oil tanker Petro Ranger by pirates in the South China Sea, there have in fact been dozens of instances of piracy in Australian waters or on vessels travelling from these shores.

The Batavia Massacre

The Batavia Massacre

In 1806 the brig Venus was weather-bound for five weeks in Twofold Bay, on the south coast of New South Wales. Ill feeling had been building between its crew and Captain Chase who, fearing for his life, left to report to the authorities that he also feared the crew would take the ship – which they promptly did. The Sydney Gazette described the ‘band of ruffians’. First mate Benjamin Kelly was a ‘pockmarked’ American whaler. Second mate Richard Edwards had a ‘very remarkable scar or cut in one cheek’. Seaman Joseph Redmonds was a ‘mulatto’ who wore his hair in pigtails and had ‘holes in his ears, being accustomed to wear large earrings’. Their accomplices included a ‘Malay cook’, two convicts with ‘sallow complexions’ and a woman with a ‘hoarse voice’. They would have been at home in any pirate tale.

The incredible voyage of Mary Bryant and her convict companions from Sydney to Timor in an open boat in 1791 showed that escape by boat from the colonies was indeed possible. William Bligh’s epic open-boat voyage after the 1789 Bounty mutiny may also have inspired the many convict escape attempts that followed. Certainly, after the mutiny on the Bounty, ship captains in the Pacific were on their guard. The lure of stealing a ship and living in a tropical paradise in the South Seas was clear. Lieutenant George Tobin, on Bligh’s second breadfruit voyage in 1792, noted how ‘passing some months at a South Sea Island and in the full swing of indulgencies’ was good reason to keep a ‘vigilant eye upon the crew’.

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The ‘indescribable horror’

Photograph of an injured man

Unidentified injured man and policemen at Greycliffe disaster, 3 November 1927
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

On 3 November 1927, the Union Steamship Company’s RMS Tahiti collided with the Watsons Bay ferry Greycliffe off Bradley’s Head. It became known as Sydney’s worst maritime disaster and etched itself into the minds of those who witnessed scenes of ‘indescribable horror’ on the harbour on that sunny afternoon. Continue reading

The sinking of TAHITI – a disaster captured on film

Passengers peer through windows on the deck of the liner VENTURA and hang over the ship’s railings, completely engrossed in the scene in front of them. Some are still climbing ladders up the side of the vessel, while others wait in lifeboats below. Several hundred metres away a ship, their ship, RMS TAHITI is sinking before their very eyes – set to become a relic at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Passengers of the sunken liner TAHITI await transfer to VENTURA

Passengers of the sunken liner TAHITI await transfer to VENTURA. ANMS1122[018] ANMM Collection Gift from Shirley Eutrope

It is 18 August 1930 and the passenger liner TAHITI, two days after its starboard propeller shaft first fractured and then smashed through the side of the hull, is finally succumbing to the irreparable damage. Continue reading

The Transit of Venus

Venus in transit

Our arrival to the island was the culmination of over 24 hours of sailing. The initially projected time became possible thanks to the favorable winds. The captain had suggested 2:00 pm arrival time and at 1:53 pm we were crossing the north end of the island. It was soon clear that arriving to the area did not mean an easy transfer to land.

Anchoring was not an option and it was the Marine Park Authority that came to pick Alex and myself up. One at the time, we were transferred to land. Four meter swells made sure that no object would remain dry in the short trip. After an adventurous entry through the break, coordinated from land, we arrived to a media welcome committee.

The preparations for the Transit of Venus happened without inconvenience, no last minute lost objects or major changes. We went to sleep ready for a great day to come. By the morning, the atmosphere was less positive. The 54 knot wind gusts and horizontal rain was threatening to prevent the observations of the highly demanded planet.

With the equipment already assembled, we reached our destination but it was impossible to setup due to the weather. Instead, we set up base camp at green café, only a hundred meters from the observation site.

By the time of the first contact, at 8:40 am Lord Howe Island time, no evidence of the sun could be seen, although conditions were changing. The wind turned southerly, and hope slowly approached the island. At 10:30 am, hope became fact and the first observations became possible by using solar glasses.

We ran to set up the main telescope on a corner where it would be protected from the wind. The great work of the IT team put us online within 5 minutes and we could finally start streaming over the satellite connection. Given the wind and the unstable weather conditions, the telescope needed to be moved constantly and stable live streaming only became possible over short periods.

By 11:30 am, the wind had calmed down. We were finally able to bring the second telescope into the field. More and more locals arrived in hopes of catching a glimpse of the transit.

The now famous Vu Vu Venus, a projecting device built by Sydney Observatory, made its Lord Howe Island debut shortly before midday. By allowing several viewers to observe the transit at the same time, it quickly turned to be the favorite target for our visitors’ cameras.

Vu Vu Venus in action

The observations continued throughout the day with partial cloud cover. A final shower invited us to break camp. By the time our hopes of capturing the last two contacts were gone, a small opening in the clouds allowed us to re-stage our equipment. We were lucky to observe the planet Venus transiting for the last time in our lives.

A clear calm day would have led to better technical measurements, but the adventures of the trip on board the HMB Endeavour replica and the storm in the morning of the transit served as a reminder of the challenges of scientific observations in history.

It has been an honour to be part of this enterprise; my next adventure will begin in a month when my first child will be born. There are plenty sleepless nights ahead, although that is not a big change for an astronomer.  Thanks to all our friends following. Until next time…

The way to the Transit of Venus – Day 6

It is the 6th day on the HMB Endeavour Replica and with two days separating us from the Transit of Venus expectations are growing fast. The weather is hinting at its power, tightening its patterns and reminding us of any object not tightly secured.  Watching the few unattended items drift across the tables is a practical example of the words of Dirk, the 1st officer, about the importance of securing every object.

With a rocking ship as the setting, my first lecture was presented. A brief history of astronomy from the first naïf attempts to marry the skies with our daily lives, to our current understanding of the universe with a focus on the Transit of Venus as part of this learning process.

Despite having a fairly tired audience, everyone was kind enough to try to stay awake and many of them even succeeded. It is my intention to share everything I can about this astronomical event and astronomy in general. Casual conversations about astronomy permeate our free daily hours, all two of them.

Because this is the first sailing experience of this magnitude for many of the crew members, including myself, there is a steep learning curve and great physical strain. As the days go by, emotions shift over an increasingly wide range. Routine starts to settle and people’s core personalities start to emerge. I see this as another part of the value of this trip, it encourages all of us to develop genuine relationships and take care of one another. This also reflects well on the skill of the professional crew and the challenges of working with new members. The more time we spend together, the more respect we gain for their work.

As we approach the final opportunity for our generation to view the Transit, final preparations are commencing. The Australian National Maritime Museum and the Sydney Observatory are holding observation sessions and live streaming to give the public a chance to see this historic event. If you are going to observe it independently, make sure you do it safely. Looking at the sun without protection can be damaging for your eyes. Information about safe viewing, supervised observation sessions and live streaming can be found on either website.

As usual, it will be Dr. Alex Cook updating us on the new developments on this trip next time. I will return on the 5th of June on our arrival at Lord Howe Island. Until then …

The way to the Transit of Venus – Day 4

Dr. Alex Cook and Mr. Carlos Bacigalupo on the HMB Endeavour

The Transit of Venus is an astronomical event that happens in pairs, eight years apart and then more than 100 years of interlude until the next occurrence. In only four days, the second transit of the pair will perform for us, and it will be the last time anyone alive today will see a transit of Venus from Earth. The next one will be in the year 2117.

I am currently writing from the HMB Endeavour replica as the astronomer on the ship on its way to Lord Howe Island where we will set up an observing station for the Transit of Venus.  The last transit of the previous pair, in 1882, was observed from this island. The place was Transit Hill, a beautiful landmark that looks east, easily accessible if you are up for a hike.

It is a humbling experience to be part of an expedition that resembles the great voyages of the eighteenth century.  It quickly becomes clear that a ship of this nature needs to work as a single entity. It is an organic behaviour where men and ship act in perfect synchronicity moving towards a destiny. Every man has a task, and every place a reason to be. It is only the experience of the professional crew that enables the rest of us to be part of this adventure.

Our setting on the island will be a short distance north from Transit Hill, at the location of the old meteorological station.  We will stream live over a satellite connection for the Australian National Maritime Museum. For visitors to the site we will install two other instruments: a telescope for direct observation and a projection screen where the image of the Sun will be visible to a wider number of viewers.

Other activities are planned for the school and the Lord Howe Island Museum. I will be sharing the astronomical details of the event.  Dr. Alex Cook will hold a series of talks throughout  the day at the Museum. It will be Alex himself writing tomorrow and updating you with the latest news from our trip. I will be back in two days, until then.

The way to the Transit of Venus

There are many ways to start a day. You can wake up, take the train and do your daily routine and that can be a great day. Alternatively, you can do what I did today.  After sleeping in a hammock, I woke up to a now-familiar voice, coming from a PA system.  By the time I was fully awake I had a harness on and was ready to climb 20 meters. It was not part of a dream; I spent the morning sailing on HMB Endeavour.  I am Carlos Bacigalupo and I’m the astronomer on the ship.

It was time to climb the rigging and our destiny was the fore mast.  An exciting, yet challenging, climb later I was leaning on the yard arm unfurling a sail, with an unforgettable view of Sydney Harbour. My two team-mates and I could not stop smiling at each other.  Several television helicopters circled us, recording our crossing though the heads for the news.

This adventure is only a small part of an expedition to observe the Transit of Venus on Lord Howe Island, the last time the planet Venus will cross the disk of the Sun for over a hundred years. The next transit will be in the year 2117. To embrace this opportunity we will stream live over the internet this June 6th, 2012.

It is our second day on the ship and we are heading to Lord Howe Island. It is an expedition undertaken in commemoration of Captain James Cook’s original voyage in the ship upon which this vessel is modelled – a voyage to observe the Transit of Venus in Tahiti.  As an astronomer, it is a privilege to be part of such an expedition. Dr. Alex Cook, the historian on the ship, and I are bringing together the two sides of this unique adventure that combines a rare astronomical event with a major historical one.

Learning how to sail a traditional tall ship is an amazing experience.  It is only when you are unfurling the sails from the top of the mast that you become really aware what it means to sail a traditional vessel, and how much skill and work it takes to keep her sailing.

The 18th-century flavour of the trip, and the excitement of observing the Transit of Venus, permeates every moment and I am looking forward to the next chapter.  It will be Dr. Cook sharing his side of this experience tomorrow.  Bye for now, Carlos Bacigalupo