THE MOOD OF THE OCEAN IS NOT ALWAYS LOVING

The cliff top grass dances to the tune of the whistling wind. Dark black clouds race across the sky like a pack of dogs and the waves are filled with the souls of those who went down with lost ships in the old days.

With its vast expanse the ocean has no apparent limit and seems to have been around for eternity. My mind has always lived in the ocean and so I decided to research to see if any wrecks might be in the area.

I discovered that in 1949 the Bombo disappeared off the coast of Wollongong.  There were two survivors, Thorvald Thomsen who was helped ashore at Bulli Beach and Michael Fitzsimmons who came ashore at Wonoona Beach.

The Bombo had left Kembla Harbour carrying 650 tones of blue metal and  when she encountered very rough seas, the load shifted. The Captain decided to return to Kembla Harbour but unfortunately she capsized without a trace for more than 30 years. The wreck now lays upside down and broken in half at a depth of 30 metres just outside Wollongong Harbour. 

Back then our daily paper, the Daily Telegraph featured a daily column called, “About ships and the men who know them”. This extract which I found on the site uniteddivers is wonderfully written and 60 years on still captures the unforgiving mood of the ocean. It is attributed as being based on extracts from “The Vanished Fleet of the Sydney Coastline” by Max Gleeson

The feature reported that: 

After an eight and a half-hour trip down from Blackwattle Bay in Sydney, the Bombo arrived at Kiama at 9.30 am on the morning of February 22nd, 1949. Loading began immediately, Captain Bell supervising the procedure. He was very particular about the loading of the cargo, always filling the number two hold to its capacity, then terminating the loading of the number one hold when the water level reached the vessel’s Plimsoll mark. Upon the completion of the loading, Bell’s intention was to move the vessel to the adjacent wharf, owned by the Illawarra Steamship Co, to pick up some machinery for Sydney. However, due to the wind the captain had difficulty bringing the vessel alongside the wharf and decided to leave the shipment until the return trip. 

 Shouting his intentions to those on the jetty, about the freight, Bell slowly eased the Bombo out of Kiama Harbour with another cargo of crushed blue metal for the Sydney road system. At 11.55 am, she passed through the tiny harbour entrance, leaving the quiet seaside town for the very last time. Ahead lay a fifty-five nautical mile voyage to Sydney Harbour which they were expected to complete at about eight o’clock that night.

The Bombo’s crew consisted of fourteen men, several being veterans who saw war service in the merchant navy. The rest of the hands were made up of men with much experience in the local coasters. Holding the position of Second Engineer was John Stevenson. The sixty-year-old had served in the Royal Navy in the First World War, followed by the Merchant Marine in the second conflict. In the years preceding the war he was employed as chief engineer on several of the United Nation vessel’s, which took relief supplies to war-torn China. Within a fortnight, Stevenson planned to resign his position on the Bombo, for a trip back to Scotland and no doubt was counting the days as the trip drew near. 

At twenty-seven years of age, able seamen Laurence Lucey was by far the youngest member of the Bombo’s crew. Lucey had joined the Merchant marine ten years earlier and had survived the Dunkirk campaign, ferrying solders back to England. He was also a crew member of the passenger ship, Macdhui when she was bombed and sunk by Japanese aircraft off Port Moresby in June 1942. 

Also on the vessel were the seasoned veteran and former crew member and survivor of the colliers Myola and Tuggerah, Thorvald Thomsen. The coming month of May would mark the thirtieth anniversary since the able seaman had escaped in a lifeboat from the foundering Tuggerah and with the other survivors rowed towards the safety of Port Hacking. Thomsen, born in Denmark, in 1891, was now fifty-seven years old and one could only surmise at the man’s thoughts in the many times he passed over the grave of the Tuggerah in the preceding years.

The Bombo made her way out to her usual northbound course to a point several miles off the coast. Sea conditions had changed for the worse since their voyage down the coast earlier that day. Shortly after passing the Five Islands off Port Kembla, weather conditions began to deteriorate even further as a result of a stronger south-easterly front passing up the coast. The clear skies prevalent at the start of the voyage had been replaced by dark skies matching the same colour of the rolling ocean. Heavy rain with strong wind squalls followed the ship up the coast, partly obliterating the outline of the Illawarra escarpment. With the seas striking the Bombo on the stem starboard quarter, the vessel became difficult to steer and a number of occasions broached into the white cap covered sea. 

By the time Bombo had reached the point abeam of Stanwell Park, the ship was under onslaught from the elements, her decks constantly awash from the huge seas. In spite of the conditions, the vessel was behaving reasonably well. Captain Bell and “his” ship had faced similar conditions on many occasions throughout the years without incident, nevertheless he was concerned at the strong buffeting the vessel was receiving. 

In the next hour the gale began to intensify. The Bombo plodded on, her speed being greatly reduced by the circumstances. At 4.00 PM, when five miles north of Stanwell Park, the vessel was struck by a huge wave which crashed right over the ship, causing her to list heavily to port. As she did, the blue metal in the holds dislodged and shifted with the list to the port side of the holds. The crew braced themselves as tons of water streamed its way off the deck and the vessel slowly began to right itself. Gradually the Bombo corrected, leaning over to starboard at first and then resuming a slight list to port.  

Realising the ship may be swamped if another wave struck the vessel; Captain Bell immediately turned her nose into the swell and sent word to the engine room to reduce speed. Bell sent a man up forward to inspect the hatches and minutes later the seaman reaffirmed the captain’s fears about the shifting cargo. In these circumstances, Bell was not going to take any chances, deciding to continue the south course, hopefully to the shelter of Port Kembla Harbour. There they planned to square the cargo up and after staying the night, leave for Sydney the following morning. 

Resting in his bunk, Thorvald Thomsen felt the ship turn around. He went up on deck to find out what had taken place and was told by another crew member they were heading back to Port Kembla to tidy up the cargo. Thomsen estimated the list to be approximately 5 degrees and was quite surprised the captain had elected to turn the ship about. Thomsen’s mind went back to a similar incident several months earlier, when the Bombo was under the command of a relief skipper, as Captain Bell was on vacation. 

When the vessel developed a comparable list to the present one, the captain turned the ship into the sea and sent the crew up forward to detach the hatches and trim the cargo. On this occasion the manoeuvre was successful, however in the present sea conditions, Thomsen was well aware, that to remove the hatch covers would be fatal.

Against the gale, with her engines just turning over, the crippled Bombo began the eighteen nautical mile voyage back to Port Kembla Harbour.  

Initially the incident was looked upon by the crew as an inconvenience more than anything. An hour after the incident the list had remained stable. At 5.00 PM, Captain Bell sent a message via the radio station at La Perouse, to the foreman of the Bombo’s discharge gang at Blackwattle Bay in Sydney Harbour. It read: “Cancel gang tonight. hove to. OK master”. 

Ever so slowly the ship forged her way towards the sheltered waters of the harbour. There was no thought among the crew of the vessel of not reaching Port Kembla. Almost five hours had passed since the Bombo had swung about and still there was little change in the degree of the list. At around 9.00 PM when the ship was approximately five miles from her destination, fireman Michael Fitzsimmons went down to the boiler room to take his turn stoking the fires. The fireman had three fires to attend and in the next fifty-five minutes, Fitzsimmons carried out his work, replenishing the first fire and then the second. 

Meanwhile, on duty at the Maritime Services Board signal station at Port Kembla was Arthur Treble. At 9.30 PM, Treble sighted a vessel north east of his station and began to signal her with Aldis lamp. The Bombo answered the signalman’s call; however, owing to the apparent rolling of the vessel it proved impossible to read. Treble continued to keep the mystery vessel under observation with his binoculars until she came about three miles north of Port Kembla.  

The time was exactly 10 minutes to 10.00 PM. In less than ten minutes the Bombo would be on the ocean floor. Treble again signalled the vessel in the darkness, asking for her identification. “Bombo” came the reply, “sheltering”. Treble signalled, “message received” and the Bombo acknowledged. The signalman then turned his attention briefly away from the sea and recorded the incident in his log. 

The Bombo was now less than a quarter of an hours steaming from the safety of Port Kembla. With the shovel in his hand, Fitzsimmons moved to the third fire, however, there was’ no doubt in the fireman’s mind the list was increasing and increasing dramatically. Fitzsimmons would later comment to the press about his last few moments in the boiler room: “I didn’t wait to finish that fire, but dropped the shovel and said to myself. ‘Mike, it’s time for you to go. The Fireman scampered up the boiler room ladder to the deck just in time to hear the captain yell, all hands on deck and man the starboard lifeboat”.  

Together with five other crew members, Fitzsimmons tried to lower the lifeboat, however they were unsuccessful due to the extreme angle of the deck. All knew the end was very near. It was then Fitzsimmons realised he wasn’t wearing a life jacket. Together with able seaman Charlie Barhen, he jumped to the lower deck to secure their life jackets and were shortly joined by another five crew members. All seven men lined the high starboard handrail, awaiting the inevitable. Charlie Barhen turned to his mate and said, “are you ready Mick?” “Yes, let’s go”, replied Fitzsimmons. Their jump triggered off a chain reaction as the rest of the crew followed their shipmates into the black ocean.  

The men endeavoured to put as much distance between then and the sinking ship. Swimming to a safe distance, Fitzsimmons turned around, just in time to see Captain Bell jump from the bridge at the last moment, as the Bombo rolled over and began to sink bottom up. Within two minutes the steamer was gone. 

The captain made his way over to the rest of the crew, which were now clinging to two planks that had floated off the ship. “Keep together boys”, he shouted as he regained his breath. A count of heads revealed ten men out of fourteen had escaped from the vessel, the survivors believing the others had gone down with the ship. Resting on the planks the men discussed their chances of survival and their best course of action under the circumstances. Fitzsimmons asked Captain Bell if he managed to get a message away? “Unfortunately no,” replied Bell, just a few minutes previously, I had morse with the station that we were alright and proceeding to anchor”.  

The survivors then knew there was no chance of any immediate help. It was every man for himself. 

Signalman Treble finished his written report in the log and once again looked towards the open sea with his binoculars to see if the vessel was going to enter Port Kembla Harbour. However, he saw no sight of the Bombo and tragically assumed she had taken shelter in Wollongong harbour. 

Together with the wind and currents the survivors began to be carried north. After a short space of time, the Chief Officer, Henry Stringer, decided to make an attempt to reach the shore. Stringer, a strong swimmer could see a red light in the direction of Bulli, however the distance was far greater than it appeared. Telling the captain to keep the men together, he set off towards the shore, hoping to bring back a launch to rescue his shipmates. Charles Barhen also followed him. Stringer’s body would be washed ashore at Corrimal beach at 11.00 am the next morning and Barhen’s body would never be recovered. 

Throughout the night, under atrocious conditions, the remaining members of the Bombo’s crew grasped the vessel’s broken woodwork and prayed their chief officer had made the safety of the shore. As the hours passed, gradually the conversation stopped as each mans respiratory rate was slowed by the cold water. With the loss of heat from their bodies, came the uncontrollable shivering, loss of co-ordination and numbness. 

Around 5.00 am the first streaks of daylight appeared over the grey horizon. Captain Bell and Bill Cunningham had slowly succumbed to the cold during the night; their bodies still supported by their life jackets could be seen floating nearby. Those crew still alive, included Emie Norris, John Stevenson, Laurence Lucy, Edward Nagle, Mick Fittsimmons and Thorvald Thomsen. 

Through the sea mist, Emic Norris sighted the dim outline of a beach several miles away. He suggested it was time to make a move and “every man strike out for himself towards the shore”. Fitzsimmons, later stated to the press: We decided to split up, as we were afraid we might claw one another if we started to drown”. All agreed, as one by one at intervals of fifteen minutes the men left the planks which had supported them throughout the long night. Fitzsimmons, a suntanned, thick heavyset man of forty-nine years was the third man off after Nagle and Thomsen. By his own admission, he was not a good swimmer, but by swimming the breaststroke he was able to keep steadily going towards the beach.  

One hour after striking out, Fitzsimmons passed the two crew members who had left the floating debris before him. With little or no strength left, the two men were completely exhausted after their eight-hour ordeal in the sea. There were a few words of encouragement to each other and little else. This was survival of the fittest in its rawest form. 

Thorvald Thomsen continued his journey to the shore. He also passed a shipmate on the way. The crewman was donkeyman Edward Nagle, who had set out just before him and was not wearing a life jacket. Thomsen sighted him clinging to a hatch cover, however, a little while later he noticed the cover floating without him.

At approximately 10.00 am, twelve hours after the sinking, Thomsen was sighted just outside the breaker line off Bulli Beach. Paddling a surf ski, the beach inspector, Percy Ford had rushed a reel to nearby Shark Bay and against mountainous seas, battled his way out to the Bombo’s survivor. Thomsen was picked up by several huge waves, turned over and almost lost his life jacket. He later stated to the press: “It was not until I struck the breakers that I feared I would not live to reach the beach”.

Thomsen was in danger of being swept upon rocks when Ford reached him. The lifesaver was unable to drag Thomsen aboard, but he had sufficient strength to hold on to the end of the ski while Ford paddled in the direction of the beach. Thomsen was carried to the Bulli Kiosk, where he was then conveyed to Bulli Hospital suffering from shock and exposure. 

At approximately the same time, Michael Fitzsimmons stumbled ashore, unseen at Woonona Beach and made his way up to a nearby road. There he saw a baker’s truck passing and after flagging it down, said to the driver: “Mate, I’ve just been shipwrecked”. 

Once news of the shipwreck became known the search for any more survivors triggered into full swing. Two R.A.A.F Catalinas departed from Rathmines and began an extensive examination of the coastline from Port Kembla to Port Hacking. Conditions for flying were atrocious. An object, which was thought to be a body was, sighted a mile east of Stanwell Park and a marker was dropped, however, when the aircraft turned around for another sweep, neither the object nor the marker could be seen. Shortly after the pilot radioed and was granted permission to return, reporting: “Coastal search impossible, heavy rain, low cloud along the cliffs, big seas and visibility almost nil”. 

Despite the swiftness in which the airforce had joined in the search for the missing men, the Bombo’s owners where sluggish in organising suitable vessels to scan the ocean for any survivors. It was not until the midafternoon that the first vessels got underway. The tug Warung left Port Kembla Harbour to join in the search, but it was Albert Bamett, Skipper of the trawler City Gull, which came across the first corpse. Bamett left the trawler’s wheel and lowered himself over the side to hitch grappling irons to the body. A pair of binoculars on the unfortunate man indicated it was Captain Bell. He was still wearing his cap and his wristwatch had stopped at 10. 15. More bodies were sighted by the City Gull, but their closeness to shore made it far to risky to take the trawler in to recover them.  

Two ambulances and about fifty people, including relatives of some of the missing men, waited in the rain at Wollongong Harbour for the City Gull to return. There were distressing scenes on the dock, as the vessels return marked the end of any hope of finding more of the Bombo’s crew alive. A further search was carried out the following day, but the bodies of the ten missing men were never recovered.

The southeast winds are easing. Soon there will be no wind, no waves and no current to push the ships on to the shore. The sailboats will be at rest on the ocean as will be the many souls of those who have perished in yesteryear.

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3 thoughts on “THE MOOD OF THE OCEAN IS NOT ALWAYS LOVING

  1. Thanks Sean for giving air to this story. Does some honor to the memories too I think. And well, we like to think “friendly”, but yes, the ocean’s love is like gravity, just that intense and unequivocal. It is a world not ours, so always a dangerous place.

    Literally, like if we’d want to travel to another planet, another world – it’s right here at our doorstep. From beauty and exhilaration, like for young Jessica’s recent circumnavigation, to a story like the one you’ve told here. Amazing enough that little beings like we are, can travel so far as we do!

  2. Very interesting Sean.

    When young, I was inspired by sea after reading “Seven Minutes on Sea”. It was a real story about our coastal defence ship Ilmarinen went down in seven minutes after hitting to a mine. 271 died and 132 were rescued.

  3. My paternal grandfather was Bill (William Cunningham) on board the Bombo that evening, I never got to meet him, and yet it was quite emotional reading this. The night that he went out on that ship he wanted to take two of his children with him, but my grandmother would not allow it, an inner sense or just caution saved their lives.
    Thank you for keeping this story alive
    Billie Cunningham

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