THE KOOMBANA SINKING
By W. J. WALKERDEN
WTHEN the schooner Alto bumped against a jetty and disclosed some faulty timbers, a Port Hedland dealer was forced into a decision which was to provide the only evidence of the spot where the Koombana went down with all bands. The Alto was a softwood schooner, a relic of the boom days of big pearling fleets, when a number of luggers operated from a mother ship. After several years of inactivity she had been bought by an enter- prising mariner who intended sailing her to Fremantle with a payload of mixed cargo, includ- ing several thousands of empty bottles which a dealer had gathered and was shipping south. When the dealer saw
Lightly loaded and with her ballast tanks emptied to clear the bar, the Koombana left Port Hedland to steam into one of the worst cyclones the North has experienced.
the condition of the Alto's hull he refused to entrust his valu- able cargo to such a fragile craft; and "Leech's Fortune," as the huge stack of empties had become known, was transferred as deck cargo to the Koombana, Meanwhile, out on the pearling beds, Japanese divers were sur- facing and reporting heavy ground swell, an infallible in- dication of an approaching storm; lugger owners were rais- ing anchors and preparing to make for port or run before the wind. On March 19, 1912, the Koombana, lightly loaded, and with her ballast tanks emptied to clear the bar, left Port Hed- land to steam into one of the worst cyclones the North has
experienced. She was never seen again. The captain's decision to leave port was criticised after the tragedy, but the facts vindicated his action. In the open sea the ship should have been cap- able of riding the storm. The tide was receding; had he re- mained in port another day, at least a week would have elapsed before another high tide enabled him to leave port. In maritime phrase, he would have been neaped. As it was, to clear the bar he had to empty his water ballast tanks. This was probably the main cause of the disaster. The ship, naturally top-heavy, was made more so by the light cargo and lack of ballast. Be- fore she could regain ballast the blow struck her. Officially, the spot where she sank is unknown. A cabin door and part of a grating was all the identifiable wreckage found. But about 60 miles from Hed- land some searchers found a large patch of straw. Perhaps a quarter of an acre in ex- tent, it was composed of straw envelopes in which bottles are packed--all that remained of "Leech's Fortune." That was where the Koombana sank. Her resting place may be for ever a secret. Our north- ern waters are deep, and the playground of uncharted cur- rents. She may have drifted far before she found rest in the lee of some coral island, or the frozen seas of the Antarctic.