Back in the day

Denmark’s first shipping a drama

DENMARK‘S first shipping drama occurred three years after Millar Bros. established the town, when the SS Gertie stranded on the bar at the entrance to Wilson inlet in 1898.

The small, twin-screw steamship had left Port Natal, South Africa, in ballast, bound for Newcastle in New South Wales.

Shortly after sighting Cape Leeuwin the captain, Charles Graham, realised that the Gertie was almost out of coal, so he headed east along the coast and anchored outside the Nornalup Inlet.

Capt. Graham went ashore in search of fuel and food, as onboard provisions had also run out.

He found a calf but could not catch it, so returned to the ship and sent some of the crew ashore, who successfully killed the calf and brought it aboard.

The shoreline was too steep to safely load firewood, so Capt. Graham ordered the crew to strip what timber fittings they could from the ship for fuel.

A painting of the SS Gertie by Alan Green. Photo courtesy State Library of Victoria.

They steamed on until the substitute fuel ran out then limped, under sail, to the entrance to Wilson Inlet, where they anchored off the bar.

The next day Capt. Graham and a crewmember went ashore and made their way to the Denmark township, where Graham decided to continue on to Albany, to arrange shipping of coal and provisioning to the Gertie.

In Albany he engaged William Douglas, the captain of the tug Dunskey.

Meanwhile, a south-easterly gale had sprung up and the Gertie started to drag her anchor towards shore.

The crew ran out a second anchor but the Gertie was blown onto the bar, where she was left high and dry at low tide.

She appeared to be undamaged, so the crew got her off safely and made their way to Denmark, as there were no provisions on board.

When the Dunskey arrived next day with Capt. Graham on board he found his ship once again stuck fast on the bar.

The Dunskey’s captain was highly experienced in ship salvage, and Graham immediately made a deal to haul the Gertie off the sandbar – but the attempt broke both the cables he had available, so he returned to Albany to collect more appropriate salvage gear and extra crew.

On his return, Capt. Douglas paid Millar’s workmen from Denmark to dig a channel from the inlet to the Gertie, as the water level in the inlet was higher than the ocean and he believed that the flow of water from the inlet might help float the Gertie off.

Douglas also used low tide to reset the Gertie’s anchors and to get her steam up and, as the tide rose the Gertie’s own winches and anchors were used to pull her off the bar.

She was not leaking, so was towed to Albany for a full underwater survey, where both propellers were repaired so that she could continue her journey.

An official Court of Inquiry was held into the events surrounding the stranding, with the result that Capt. Graham was charged with incompetence and required to address the following points:
‘(a) You commenced a voyage from Natal to Newcastle, NSW, with insufficient coal;
(b) You were guilty of unreasonable delay in obtaining a further supply of coal after you arrived at Wilson’s Inlet;
(c) You were guilty of leaving your ship in an exposed and dangerous position for an unreasonable period without due regard to her safety or to her being properly provisioned.’

A Court of Investigation, comprising the sub-collector of customs, Mr E Troode, Mr JFT Hassell JP, and Captain Tait, nautical assessor, found that ‘(a) was not substantiated, (b) was not practicable and (c) everything that had been done that was reasonable after the vessel has been anchored in Wilson’s Inlet, but the Captain had committed an error in leaving his ship.’

After being repaired in Albany the Gertie set off for Newcastle with a new crew, but less than an hour and a half into the voyage a manhole in the boiler blew out, and she was once more towed to Albany – again by the Dunskey – for more repairs.

When she eventually arrived at Newcastle she was sold to shipping interests in New Zealand.

Ironically, the Dunskey, which played such an important role in the Gertie event, ran aground and broke up at the same spot in Wilson inlet in 1917, after being badly damaged during a storm.

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