As anyone knows who has ventured across to K’Gari (formerly Fraser Island) the wreck of the old luxury passenger liner SS Maheno makes an imposing presence on the long sandy beach which serves as the island’s main highway.
Swept ashore during a cyclone in 1935 on her way to a Japanese scrapyard, the Maheno was once one of the fastest luxury liners on the trans-Tasman run.
The SS Maheno was built at William Denny and Brothers shipyards on the Clyde River in 1905 for the New Zealand-owned Union Steam Ship Company. She measured 122m in length and was 5,300tons gross. She was fitted with powerful steam turbine engines that were revolutionary for the time. They could push her along at an impressive top speed of nearly 20 knots (36kms/h).
For much of her career she carried cargo and passengers between Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart in Australia and Wellington, Auckland and Dunedin in New Zealand. She was also occasionally called to carry passengers across the Pacific to San Francisco. The Maheno once made the passage from Sydney to Wellington in just under three days, a record that would remain unbeaten for the next 25 years.
She was not only fast, she was luxurious. The Maheno could accommodate 120 passengers in her sumptuous first-class cabins, 120 in second-class and 60 more passengers in third-class. The saloons, dining rooms and other common areas were beautifully appointed harking back to a bygone era. In short, she was a magnificent example of turn-of-the-century ship-building at its finest.
During the First World War, she served as a hospital ship seeing service during the Gallipoli Campaign ferrying casualties from ANZAC Cove to Malta. She then transported wounded New Zealanders home before returning to Europe. Over the next several years, she made several trips back to New Zealand returning wounded Kiwi soldiers. She also carried thousands more sick and wounded men from the Western Front across the English Channel to receive treatment in England.
After the war, she returned to her regular duties crossing the waters between New Zealand and Australia. As she aged, newer ships took over her routes. However, she remained on the Melbourne – New Zealand run until the beginning of 1935 when she was finally retired. In all her 30 years of service, she never had a serious accident, a testament to the ship and the captains who commanded her. But on her final voyage, that was about to change.
In July 1935 the Maheno left Sydney under tow by the Oonah, another aging vessel destined to be broken up in Japan. “Like a minnow towing a whale, the little Oonah set out to tow the Maheno, which towered above her like a giant,” is how the Daily Telegraph described the scene as they made their way down Sydney Harbour.
The first few days were relatively uneventful but by the time they were off the Queensland coast, the weather had turned foul. A powerful storm lashed the two ships with huge swells and gale-force winds. Then on 7 July, the Oonah suffered steering problems and the tow cable parted. The two vessels were about 80kms off K’Gari when the Maheno was lost from sight.
The Oonah would be rescued without further incident. The Maheno, on the other hand, was now at the mercy of the storm without any means of propulsion. There were grave fears for the eight Japanese sailors on board. But they rode out the maelstrom as best they could and eventually the Maheno gently made landfall.
The former luxury liner was driven broadside onto the island’s long sandy beach about 30kms south of Indian Head. The crew got ashore safely on 10 July, but the ship was stuck solidly in the sand.
Thoughts of refloating the ship were soon abandoned and she remains there to this day, perhaps the most prominent and accessible shipwreck on the Australian coast.
© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.
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