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Monday, 30 May 2011
Page: 5205

Mr CHRISTENSEN (Dawson) (18:30): The SS Yongala had a proud history in a young Australia and continues to be a key player in the history of North Queensland. The Yongala steamed out of Mackay, at the southern end of my electorate of Dawson, on 23 March 1911, bound for Townsville, at the northern end of Dawson electorate. It was a journey the Yongala would never complete. She steamed into a cyclone and sank 12 nautical miles off the coast of Alva, in the Burdekin. All 122 passengers were lost.

One hundred years ago, steamships were a vital link between North Queensland settlements and the southern capital cities. Mackay's port, in those days, was a hive of activity as passengers and freight were arriving and departing with the tides. The Yongala was named after a small South Australian town because she was built in England, in Newcastle upon Tyne, for the Adelaide Steamship Company at a cost of £102,000. Originally working across the southern half of the continent, she linked Melbourne and Sydney in the east with the goldfields of the west. Having been launched in 1903, she was assigned the Brisbane to Fremantle route in 1906 and was the first ship to complete the then-record direct trip of 5,000 kilometres. In the quieter months, the Yongala was assigned to the east coast passage between Cairns and Melbourne.

In 1911, she set out on her 99th, and fatal, voyage. On departure from Mackay, carrying 49 passengers, 73 crew, and a racehorse called Moonshine, the Yongalawas still within sight of land when the cyclone warning came in. Unfortunately, it was too late to relay the message to the Yongala. Although wireless was available in some ships of the time, the Yongala's wireless was still in transit from England. The Yongala steamed ahead northward along the Coral Sea, oblivious to the mounting storm ahead. It was not until several days later that concerns were raised about the late arrival of the Yongala. Although wreckage was soon washed up on beaches from Bowen to Hinchinbrook, the actual wreck was not detected until 1943 and it was not until 1958 that two skin-divers dived the wreck and retrieved the ship's safe. The safe was positively identified, by serial number, in 1961.

Today, the wreck of the Yongala is considered one of the best diving attractions in Australia and plays a major role in the tourism industry of Townsville. This tragedy is strongly tied to North Queensland in more ways than through historical event alone. The passenger and freight ship is itself a reflection on the lifestyle of those families who built North Queensland in the early years. The North Queensland communities are intrinsically tied to the Coral Sea and are always aware of the prevalence and the dangers of tropical cyclones. No doubt a ship placed in a similar position would have a much greater chance of survival today. The modern equipment we use to monitor the weather and to maintain communication would provide enough warning for a ship like the Yongala to seek refuge from the impending storm. Sadly, for the friends and families of those on board, such equipment was not available in 1911. Those friends and families will forever have a connection with our North Queensland coastline, and their loved ones hold a special place in our memory and in this parliament's memory 100 years on.