Sea Story - Miracle Off Long Reef : Survival of a River Boat

Sea Story about a River Boat

Below is a story as told to me by 96 year old Eric Mitchell, son of Captain Herbert Mitchell, former master of the Hawkesbury River Steamer, the SS Erringhi. Eric originally wrote this story, and it it is here re-written by me for oral storytelling. However, this is Eric’s story, and it remains so. My hope is to do it justice as I bring it to audiences in the years ahead.

11th August 1999

Here is a typical river steamer on the Hawkesbury River at the time.  Unable to obtain photo of SS Erringhi
Here is a typical river steamer on the Hawkesbury River at the time. Unable to obtain photo of SS Erringhi

Captain Mitchell had once been a farmer himself. He knew how desperate they were

The temperature that day had soared to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and it was plain to Captain Herbert Mitchell that he had to get his cargo of stone fruit and water melons to Sydney by tonight at latest, or they’d go off, rot, be useless and fit only for the tip. Captain Mitchell had once been a Hawkesbury River farmer himself. He knew how important it was to the fruit growers that their crops reached Sydney as early as possible after the picking. And so there could be no delay. With the weather being the way it’d been that December day, the farmers stood to lose all, if that crop did not reach port on time.

The General Gordon - Paddle Steamer

This is the General Gordon, the largest Hawkesbury River steamer in the 1920s and 193os
This is the General Gordon, the largest Hawkesbury River steamer in the 1920s and 193os

Sea Story - the lucky River Boat

All day long the loading had gone on. The little boats had come down the Colo and MacDonald Rivers crammed with fruit. At Ebeneezer the fruit, packed in wooden crates, or, in the case of the water melons, sometimes loose, were onloaded onto the SS Erringhi, a 100 tonner, the biggest ship operating on the Hawkesbury River at that time. Now, with her 115 foot length and 23 width crammed tight with perishable fruit, she made her way down river.

Old Photograph of Hawkesbury
Old Photograph of Hawkesbury

Passengers were off-loaded. It was just too risky

Here and there along the broad expanse of the ever-widening waterway Capt Mitchell would pull in. No farm could afford to be missed. It was inconvenient, but a fact of life, that all the fruit from so many orchards should ripen at the same time. And so by the time the SS Erringhi got to Brooklyn she was so heavy in the water that she could not proceed to the wharf. Those passengers wishing to proceed to Sydney by railway train had to be winched onto nearby rocks, to walk the distance to the station.

An old river wharf at Brooklyn. Last stop before steamers proceeded outside into the open sea
An old river wharf at Brooklyn. Last stop before steamers proceeded outside into the open sea

There'd been streaks on cirrus - a sign of a change

They’d started from Ebeneezer at 5.00am and it was now late the the evening. The sun had gone down in a blaze of glory across the mountains as Captain Mitchell with his eight-man crew proceeded towards the Hawkesbury River Heads. Lion Island stood against the fading backdrop of the sea, and the Captain noted that there was no sign of foam along the shoreline. Good! The sea was still calm. But would it hold. There’d been streaks of cirrus in that sunset.

Yes, that was the question, would the fine weather hold. The sea was oily smooth with just a low swell. But the little 950 tonner was so low in the water. The plimsoll line was so deep below it couldn’t be seen. Even the anchor chain ports had been blocked off with chaff bags, so that no water could splash in from the ship’s bow wave.

 

Wasn't much at Brooklyn in 1930, but they had a railway station

This hotel at Brooklyn would have been there at the time of this story
This hotel at Brooklyn would have been there at the time of this story

Sea Story of a River Boat. How could they face their farming friends if they didn't get that precious cargo to market?

They knew it was a risk. But it had to be taken. How could they face all their farming friends if they didn’t get that precious perishable cargo to the markets for tomorrow’s early morning sale. And so they pressed on, giving the boilers full steam and proceeding at about ten knots.

The trip from Brooklyn to the dockside at the foot of Market Street in Sydney -where they would tie up, right near Pyrmont Bridge- was three-and-a-half hours.

The Erringhi was a little over halfway across the dangerous open sea stretch between Barrenjoey and North Head when the ‘Southerly Buster’ struck.

Lion Island on a fine day
Lion Island on a fine day

The little Erringhi, staggered, lurched, vibrated. Deck cargo was being washed away

A pall of cool wind. On the sea, ripples. Then wavelets. Then waves. Soon the waves grew steep and deep. Now the little Eringhi staggered, lurched, vibrated, as the seas pounded her -right on the bow.

Because she was so heavily laden she did not rise easily to the swelling mountains of water which emerged out of the darkness to crash across her forecastle.

Water was coming aboard, and much of it was not draining away. With every pump aboard pumping water she was still taking more than she was able to rid herself of.

Within minutes, there was water in the stokehold and engine room compartments. The fireman, banking the fire-boxes, felt cold water up to his knees at times. And as the ship pitched and rolled water was lapping perilously close to the bottoms of those open furnace doors. If it got into those fires the ship, without steam-power, was doomed.

“Loosen the lifeboats and prepare to swing out.”

Sea Story - A River Boat and heavy seas are not a good mix

The seas were getting up
The seas were getting up

She was going to founder - no doubt about it

It had come to this. The ship couldn’t turn to run with the sea. If she were to attempt to turn and run with the wind she would surely founder as her whole length was exposed to the force of the gale. But she was going. The pumps weren’t coping. It was only a matter of time...maybe only minutes and the crew would be in the water.

That was when Captain Herbert Mitchell, a God-fearing man, made his silent plea to All Mighty God to save his ship, his men, and the precious cargo which meant so much to so many. His big, capable hands gripping the teak spokes of the ship’s wheel, he closed his eyes and prayed with all his heart.

 

Things looked very bleak
Things looked very bleak

It was eerie...the storm still raged but...

Suddenly, it seemed as if a miracle had occurred. The pitching immediately lessened. Yet all around the wind blew every bit as strongly as before.

Glory! They couldn’t belief it. In front of the ship the waves had flattened.

A man was sent forward, a life-line attached as he leaned out to see what was going on.

Porpoises! Goodness Gracious! Porpoises! Dozens, Scores- I don’t know how many, sir. They’re flattening the water.”

And sure enough God had answered Captain Mitchell’s prayer. The playful mammals jumped and splashed, frolicking around the ship’s bow, effectively flattening out the waves. Their squeaks and shrills of delight could be heard by all.

The beutiful Hawkesbury River, just North of Sydney Harbour

Arial view of the Lower Hawkesbury.
Arial view of the Lower Hawkesbury.

As suddenly as they came they were gone

On and on they went, swimming, diving, escorting the little SS Erringhi right up to and into the shelter of the Sydney Heads. The Erringhi was safe. Now under the lee of South Head the sea smoothed out. And mysteriously the splashes from the blow ceased. As suddenly as the porpoises came, they were gone.

But in the hearts and minds of those aboard the SS Erringhi the crew knew to a man- a miracle had occurred. Yes, a miracle.

And from thereon out there was not a man aboard who was ever quite the same again.

I hope you enjoyed Sea Story : Miracle Off Long Reef  - Survival of a River Boat.

Keep smiling.

Tom.

2 comments

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida

Lovely story -- porpoises flattening waves -- uh-huh.


Tusitala Tom profile image

Tusitala Tom 6 years ago from Sydney, Australia Author

Can understand you're cynicism here, Lynda. But if you've ever seen - as I have - porpoises schooling in their hundreds, as I did off the South Australian Coast in 1955 (thousands of sea birds, lots of sharks, and underneath, a huge school of blue-fin tuna, all on feeding spree as they surrounded and attempted to eat a million or so much smaller bate-fish, you might not be quite as surprised at what a lot of threshing on the water can do to a sea's waves.

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