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Australia’s biggest shipwreck

Volume 48, No. 7, May 04, 2006

Newcastle shipwreck the Sygna pictured in 1974 after running aground on Stockton Beach

Newcastle shipwreck the Sygna pictured in 1974 after running aground on Stockton Beach.

Sygna as she looks today more than 30 years later.

Sygna as she looks today more than 30 years later.

Photos courtesy The Newcastle Herald

THE waters off the east coast of Australia are renowned for their often sudden, unpredictable and violent storms.

Testimony to their power lies in the dozens of sunken ships that litter these waters, often in only a few metres.

Typical of these is the 53,000-tonne Norwegian bulk carrier Sygna.

During May 1974 the NSW coast was battered by storm-force winds and heavy seas. The ports of Sydney and Newcastle were closed and Newcastle reported swells of more than 17m at the entrance.

On May 26, Sygna, on her maiden voyage, was anchored four kilometres off Newcastle, waiting to enter port to load 50,000 tonnes of coal for Europe.

As she waited, the Bureau of Meteorology issued a storm warning.

All ships anchored off the ports were advised to head to sea. Seven of the 10 ships anchored off Newcastle immediately did so, but Sygna remained at anchor.

By 1am the following morning, the wind had increased in strength to 165km/h and, with the huge seas and a lee shore, the captain decided to sail. He weighed anchor and the ship got under way.

He was too late. Even with her engines full-ahead, Sygna was unable to make any headway and the force of the storm turned her parallel to the beach. Within 30 minutes she was aground on Stockton Beach.

Heavy seas broke over the stricken ship and her captain radioed a Mayday and ordered his crew to prepare to abandon ship.

Rescue authorities contacted RAAF Base Williamtown, which scrambled an Iroquois helicopter.

Its crew was FLTLT Gary McFarlane, CPL Geoff Smith, LAC Maurie Summers and Army CAPT Brian Hayden, who acted as a second observer. FLTLT McFarlane and CPL Smith had flown together previously with 9SQN in Vietnam.

As they approached the stricken ship, they realised they were facing a significant problem.

They would have to hover to rescue the crew and although the winds had dropped to about 50km/h, they faced a black night, total cloud cover with a base at only a few hundred feet, severe turbulence and a combination of driving rain and spray from the waves breaking over the ship driving 150m into the air, which severely reduced visibility.

To effect a safe rescue they would have to close to within just a few metres of the ship and remain as stationary as possible to operate the winch.

As the Iroquois approached Sygna, FLTLT McFarlane noticed that the crew was huddled in the aft section of the ship, where the accommodation was. The wind was blowing most of the spray clear of that area, so he decided to make his approach there.

This presented him further hazards from the superstructure, masts and other fixtures, any of which placed the chopper at risk if it struck them or they fouled the rotors.

For the next 75 minutes the crew winched the Sygna’s 28 men and two women from the deck in groups of two or three and flew them all without casualty some 200m to the safety of the nearby beach.

The storm passed and salvage operations began. However, after Sygna was swung round, the heavier stern section settled into deeper water and broke the ship’s back. The bow section was eventually recovered and taken to Japan but the stern remains, the largest shipwreck in Australia’s history.




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