Wreck Of The Barque Holyhead

By James Donahue

The fine new barque Holyhead was on its maiden voyage from Liverpool to Victoria, Australia, when an error in navigation drove the ship to disaster on Point Lonsdale Reef on Feb. 12, 1890. Thus this ship joined a fleet of sunken vessels that still lie in the area where sport divers now go to play.

The Holyhead was an iron hulled vessel, especially constructed in the renowned shipyard of R. J. Evans and Co. in Liverpool for W. Thomas and Co.. She had two decks and a watertight bulkhead separating portions of the hull, and a poop deck, a raised aft deck typical of larger sailing ships of that day.

At 294 feet, the Holyhead was not a large vessel in comparison to the monsters that traverse the high seas today, but in her day, she was considered a “crack vessel” and given a high class 100 A1 rating.

She sailed from Liverpool on Nov. 23, 1889, with a crew of 32 and a cargo of mostly iron railing for railroad construction, as well as slate, spirits, chemicals and crockery, all valued at 60,000 pounds.

The Holyhead proved to be a fast ship. She was off Cape Otway on Feb. 11 and was but two days of her destination. But events were building that led to the disaster that befell this ship.

On Feb. 12 a squall blew up from the southwest and there was a mist that made it difficult for the crew to get accurate bearings. Nevertheless, Captain Williams kept all sails hoisted and the ship was traveling at a good speed of seven knots. That was the master’s first mistake.

His second error was deciding to retire to his cabin was the Holyhead was approaching the Heads, and leaving the first mate in charge of the ship. The Holyhead signaled for a pilot from port and waited three hours, without a response. Instead of waiting, the made continued to sail closer to what he reasoned was the natural harbor entrance. He was relying on compass readings to find his way, apparently not realizing that he was on an iron ship, filled with an iron cargo, which was affecting the accuracy of his compass.

The mate had never sailed in Victorian waters and was unaware that the Point Lonsdale reef extended some 100 meters into the sea, all of it hidden just under the surface of the water. Thus he was sailing at full sail right into disaster.

Meanwhile, in Victoria, the Officer-in-charge of the Signals Office saw the impending disaster and hoisted the danger signal in an attempt to divert what was about to happen. There were no radio communications in 1890 and flag signals were the best communication methods they had. Unfortunately the warning flag was not seen by the crew of the Holyhead.

Moments before the crash the ship’s watchman sounded a warning that there were “breakers ahead.” The mate ordered crew members into the ropes in a last-ditch effort to tack back out into deep water, but it was too late. He also ordered the anchors dropped in a final effort to slow the speed of the ship. They failed to get a good grip and the Holyhead struck with a violent crash, coming to a stop on top of the reef. Seven feet of water filled the main hold so it was clear the ship’s hull was breached.

Soon the pilot schooner Rip came alongside the stricken vessel. The waves by then were slamming the wreck hard against the rocks and it was clear that the ship was in great danger. All 32 members of the crew were safely removed by a lifeboat from Queenscliff.

Within a few days, when the weather was calmer, salvagers managed to unload the cargo, but attempts to pull the Holyhead free ended in failure. The ship was sold for salvaging, and that summer, salvage work began. But before it could be completed, a fierce storm caused the Holyhead to break up and sink.


Great And Lost Ships Of The World