The May Queen’s Long and Lucky Life

The May Queen is Australia’s oldest sail trading ketch. Photo C.J. Ison

Launched in 1867, the May Queen is Australia’s oldest sailing ketch still afloat.   During her century long working life she twice sank, survived several collisions and a myriad of other mishaps that could have been her demise.

The 36-ton May Queen was purpose built for carrying timber, but over her long career she transported all manner of cargos between Hobart and settlements along the Derwent River and Tasmania’s east coast.  But she was more than a simple workhorse.   She could sail and won her class in the annual Hobart Sailing regatta nine times over the years and placed in many more.

May Queen competing in the Annual Hobart Regatta.

One night in June 1883 the May Queen found herself becalmed off Cape Raoul with a load of timber from Port Arthur bound for Hobart.    Then, out of the dark they saw the Sydney bound steamer Esk bearing down on them.   As she got closer and showed no sign of deviating from her course the captain and crew yelled “LOOK OUT AHEAD” at the top of their lungs.   The steamer’s lookout only saw the stationary vessel when they were about 50 metres away.   The helmsman pulled the wheel over but it wasn’t quite enough and the steamer struck a glancing blow and took away the ketch’s bowsprit.   The May Queen was otherwise undamaged and limped into Hobart once a breeze picked up.  

Six weeks later while sailing off Bruny Island her mizzen mast snapped off at deck level during a powerful storm.   She came close to being driven ashore during another fierce gale the following year when her anchors started dragging.  Only the addition of a third anchor prevented disaster.   On a separate occasion, another vessel dragged its anchors and crashed into the May Queen punching a hole in her bulwark and caused other serious damage.

Trading Ketch May Queen. Photo C.J. Ison

Her worst accident happened on 4 February 1888 when she sank in the Huon River.   It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon and the May Queen had just taken on extra ballast in readiness for a deck cargo of long timber piles.   A squall blew out of nowhere.  The ketch heeled over.  The ballast in her hold shifted and she foundered in 16 fathoms (30 metres) of water.

That could have been the end of her for there was no air pump available that could get a salvage diver down to that depth.   HMS Egeria had diving equipment but it could only operate at half that depth.    Somehow, the May Queen’s owner managed to hook a line onto his vessel and dragged it into shallower water.  From there she was raised, pumped dry and towed back to Hobart where she received extensive repairs.

Then in 1940 she sank again, this time in Port Esperance south of Hobart.   While about to deliver a cargo of timber, the May Queen struck Dover Wharf and started taking on water.    At low tide her deck was awash but at high tide only her masts broke the surface.   

The ketch May Queen tied up at Constitution Dock, Hobart. Photo C.J. Ison.

She was again raised, repaired and continued working until she was finally retired in 1973.   So ended a working career spanning 106 years.   She was gifted to the Tasmanian Government and has since been maintained as a reminder of Tasmania’s maritime heritage.   As of 2022 she is 155 years old and can be seen tied up at Hobart’s Constitution Dock.

©Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

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