Find of the Month: The Dangers of Stranding September 2015

The Wreck Reports for Lloyd’s Register are detailed and enlightening. They cover a multitude of causes of ship loss, from war-time hostilities to collisions and groundings.

The S.S. Orungal was a mail, passenger and cargo steamship built in Glasgow in February 1923 by Stephen & Sons Ltd. Her original name was S.S. Fezara and she was first owned by the Khedivial Mail Steamship and Graving Dock Company.

By 1940, when she ran aground off the coast of Australia some 50 miles from Melbourne, S.S. Orungal was owned by Australian United Steam Navigation Company Ltd. She was travelling from Sydney to Melbourne, carrying passengers and general cargo. On the night of 21st November 1940 she encountered a heavy gale off Barwon Head, Victoria, ran onto rocks and was stranded.

Orungal, View of ship
S.S. Orungal

News reports from the time tell of the passengers, asleep in their cabins, suddenly awakened by the collision. Luckily the ship survived the impact intact, and, reassured, the passengers gathered in the music room to await rescue. “There they sang and danced for several hours. The ship’s orchestra played merrily, and amateur performers among the passengers and crew clowned, danced and sang to keep the laughter going.”

A local life-boat crew braved “mountainous seas” to rescue the passengers and crew from the ship, and were named “Heroes of the rescue” by the local press.[1]

The accident was reported to Lloyd’s Register, who sent a surveyor (P.A. McIntyre) to look at the damage. McIntyre reported that “[t]he Owners proposed to discharge cargo into lighters and deliver it at Melbourne, this being considered the most economical and practical arrangement.”

Orungal, Surveyor Signature

The operation was made more difficult as “Barwon Heads is a holiday resort and has a small jetty inside the mouth of the Barwon River. No facilities were available for handling weights of any magnitude and the jetty is only accessible to craft of light draught, as fishing boats or ship’s life-boats, and then only on certain tides.” McIntyre recommended “that salvage operations be continued, subject to a further examination of the vessel’s structure before refloating.”

With this plan in place, the salvage crew proceeded to start work. Unfortunately, the S.S. Orungal’s troubles were not over yet. According to the Lloyd’s Register Casualty Report, “[w]hile salvage operations were proceeding an explosion occurred in the boiler room on the 13th December. [The] vessel became ablaze fore and aft and was completely gutted, decks collapsed, all compartments flooded and salvage operations were abandoned.”

Orungal, View of boat deck
View of the fire-gutted deck

The Exchange Telegraph Company (which distributed financial and business information to its subscribers) reported on the incident. “Hopes of refloating the inter-state steamer Orungal, which went aground recently during a heavy gale off Port Phillip Heads, have been shattered by fire breaking out on board the vessel.” Even worse, “The cargo of 2000 tons has not been salved.” This was an especial blow given that war was restricting the quantity of supplies available in the first place.

Orungal, Wreck Report
Lloyd’s Register Casualty Report, with newspaper clippings attached

The problem was that when the ship hit land, “the forward boilers were displaced, causing the body of a steam equalizing valve on [the] forward starboard boiler to fracture”, which later caused the boiler explosions. The situation shows that war-time losses were not only the result of enemy activity. The weather and the seas were, as ever, a significant threat, and any damage or weakness could be further exacerbated.

At Lloyd’s Register’s request, McIntyre re-examined the vessel after the fire which it suffered. He reported the sequence of events.

  • At 2.15 a.m. on the 13th inst., nothing unusual was noticed in the boiler room.
  • At 2.30 a.m. the engineer on watch, who was attending the emergency generator engine on the boat deck, heard several muffled explosions and saw sparks emerging from the funnel.
  • Access to the boiler room was immediately attempted but found impossible on account of fire, although the engine room was usable for a time until smoke forced the crew to withdraw.
  • Simultaneously, it was found that the accommodation spaces amidships were afire and the vessel had to be abandoned at about 4.00 a.m.
  • Hand chemical fire extinguishers were the only available fire fighting appliances.
  • No further contact with the vessel was possible until the 19th inst.

McIntyre boarded the next morning, “and found that the vessel had been gutted by fire from stem to stern, the only unburnt wood work sighted being a small area of deck sheathing on the forecastle head forward of the windlass.” His report also touches obliquely on the war efforts when he noted that the “naval gun on the poop appeared to be undamaged.”

All of the photographs submitted by P.A. McIntyre in his report
All of the photographs submitted by P.A. McIntyre in his report

So although the story ended well for the passengers and crew of S.S. Orungal, the ship itself was not so lucky. In the end, due to the extent of the initial stranding damage, the subsequent damage to the vessel by fire, the expense of refloating the hulk, and the expense necessary to restore the vessel, McIntyre concluded that the vessel was a “Constructive Total Loss”.

[1] “All Rescued From Orungal”, The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.: 1848-1957), 23 Nov 1940, p. 5. Accessed 7 Sep 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article11303949

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