The Loss of Carpentaria Lightship CLS3

The rusting remains of Carpentaria Lightship CLS3 which was washed ashore at Vrylia Point on Cape York in January 1979 during Cyclone Greta. Photo C.J. Ison.

With an estimated 8,000 or more shipwrecks in Australian waters you could be mistaken for thinking the country’s foreshores would be littered with the remains of long-lost vessels standing silent testament to the dangerous waters they sailed.    In fact, there are surprisingly few recognisable shipwreck remains dotting Australia’s coastline.   

One I had the opportunity to visit a few years ago was the old unmanned Carpentaria Lightship CLS3 which was driven ashore on the remote west coast of Cape York.

Three Carpentaria Lightships moored in the Brisbane River near Peters Slip, Kangaroo Point circa 1924. Photo courtesy State Library of Queensland.

The Carpentaria Lightship CLS3 was one of four built at the Cockatoo Island Dockyard in Sydney between 1916 and 1918.  

They were designed by the Scottish naval architects Charles and David Stevenson, and measured 22 metres in length, 7.8 metres breadth and 2.7 metres draft and displaced 164 tonnes.     The hull was constructed of riveted steel plates.  

An acetylene powered gas light sat atop a mast amidships and was visible 18.5 kilometres (10nm) away.   The vessels carried sufficient acetylene to keep the light burning for six months so there was no requirement for them to be manned.  

There were also mechanisms to switch the light off during the day and for them to flash their distinctive codes when operating.   The lightships were also fitted with a bell which rang as the ship rolled to warn nearby vessels of impending danger.

They were the first lightships to be built in Australia and most of their long careers were spent in Queensland waters.  

Two were always on station, one in the Gulf of Carpentaria and the other at Breaksea Spit north of Fraser Island.   The other two were held in reserve undergoing maintenance and ready to be rotated with those at sea.  One of the Carpentaria Lightships, CLS4 was later used in Bass Strait before being retired in 1985.

Carpentaria Lightship CLS4 at the National Australian Maritime Museum in Sydney, New South Wales. Photo C.J. Ison

The Carpentaria CLS3 was moored at Carpentaria Shoal off the north west coast of Cape York when in January 1979 Cyclone Greta struck. The lightship broke free and was driven south-east towards Cape York beaching a little north of Vrilya Point about 65 kilometres south of Thursday Island. Attempts to haul the vessel off the beach failed and she has remained there rusting away ever since.

Carpentaria Lightships CLS2 and CLS4 can now be seen at the Queensland Maritime Museum in Brisbane and the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney.

© Copyright C.J. Ison/Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2020.

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