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The Greycliffe-Tahiti Disaster of 1927

By James Donahue

Forty people, many of them school children, were killed when the Union Steamship Company’s mail steamship Tahiti rammed and sank the harbor ferry Greycliffe in Australia’s Sydney harbor on Nov. 3, 1927. The smaller ferry, carrying over 120 passengers, was sliced in two and sank.

Survivor Ken Horler said he was one of the school children catching what was a normal afternoon ferry ride home from Circular Quay to Watsons Bay. He and three friends were on deck, at the stern of the ferry, and watched the steamer Tahiti looming up from behind on the port side. The Tahiti had just left Sydney harbor with cargo and about 300 passengers on what was to have been a trip to New Zealand and the United States. At 460 feet in length, it the steamer was about three times the size of the Greycliffe.

The master of the Greycliffe that day was Captain William Barnes, 52. After leaving the dock and entering the open water Barnes said he looked through the rear port window of the wheelhouse and over the roof of the upper deck cabin before turning the wheel to port and ordering the engine room to increase speed. Barnes also said he was noticing a steering problem that afternoon, the vessel seemed to be pulling to port, and he was attempting to compensate.

During the hearing that followed, it was determined that the ferry’s design was flawed so that the wheelhouse window offered no clear view of ships approaching from behind. Thus when Captain Barnes looked back, the approaching steamer was in what contemporary automobile drivers call a “blind spot” between the rear view mirror and the side window. When the ferry was turned to port, it was turned directly into the path of the fast approaching Tahiti.

On the bridge of the steamer, Captain Basil Aldwell and the harbor pilot, Captain Thomas Carson were caught in an impossible situation. The Tahiti was running alongside the ferry, which was just off the starboard side. Just ahead and coming from the opposite direction was the ferry Woollahra, off the port bow. Carson was steering the big liner on parallel courses expecting to pass between the two ferries.

When the Greycliffe unexpectedly began turning to port, Carson ordered the helmsman, Roderick McLeon to change course and he signaled the engine room to reverse engines. But it was too late to avoid a collision. All Carson could do after that was pull the lanyard to the steamer’s whistle and signal a warning that the big steamer was coming.

Horler described what happened: “We saw the two vessels were on converging courses. Eventually the great bow of the Tahiti struck us amidships, cutting us in half. We were never warned. One moment we were sitting on the ferry, the next we were in the water being sucked down by the sinking ship.”

He said he swam to the surface and clung to some wreckage until rescued by one of the harbor vessels that witnessed the collision and gathered in the area to pick up survivors.

The survivors were mostly on the outside deck of the ferry at the moment of impact. Those inside the Greycliffe’s cabins or working in the engine room, and even Captain Barnes were unaware of the impending disaster until they heard the steamer’s whistle. By then the liner was within mere seconds of collision.

When the bow of the Tahiti hit the side of the wooden hulled ferry the smaller vessel wheeled around until it lay perpendicular to Tahiti’s course. The steamer pushed the ferry over and submerged its starboard rail. Then with a loud crunch, the sharp steel bow cut through the smaller wooden hull like an ax, splitting the ill-fated ferry in two.  They said the decks of Greycliffe collapsed and passengers were hurled in all directions. The big liner continued moving directly through the debris, literally running over the ferry and helping push it to the bottom of the bay.

As the cold water hit the heated boilers they imploded and there was a giant rush and cloud of steam that made the event even more spectacular.

It took days to find all of the bodies and get identification of all of the dead. Divers were sent down to the wreck which was in 20 meters of water. They had to cut their way into the wreckage to find the bodies trapped inside.

The Tahiti also found a watery grave in 1930. After service as a troop ship during World War I, itt was on a trans-Pacific passenger and mail service, still for the Union Steamship Company. When off Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, on route to San Francisco, the steamer lost its starboard propeller. That caused the propeller shaft to break and it punctured the ship’s hull.

The Tahiti wallowed for three days, giving other vessels time to remove the passengers and crew before the ship sank in the Pacific.


SS Tahiti