Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Shipwrecks, Storms and Seamen of the NSW Coast
As I reached the 40 metre mark, the enormous outline of the wreck came into view. This was perhaps the best introduction anyone could possible be given to this famous NSW shipwreck. The water visibility was at least 30 metres and from the middle of the wreck it was possible to see from one end to the other. This was one of the most exciting wreck dives I had ever done. It was the SS Catterthun. The Catterthun is just one of the 11 shipwrecks that Sydney diver, Max Gleeson, has written about in his latest book, Shipwrecks, Storms & Seamen of the New South Wales Coast and the memory of this shipwreck came back into my mind as I read Max's latest tome.
Back in mid-1993 Max Gleeson released his second book, The Vanished Fleet of the Sydney Coastline. At the time I wrote about the book in glowing terms for DIVE Log. At the 1996 Sydney Scuba Expo, Max released his most recent book. The ships Max has covered in Shipwrecks, Storms & Seamen sank off the NSW coast over the period 1866 to 1928. The wrecks’ locations range from the Keilawarra, which sank off the Solitary Islands near Coffs Harbour, to the Bega which sank, well, near Bega on the South Coast. In size, the largest is the SS Satara at Seal Rocks (near the Catterthun) to the tiny TSS Wandra near Jervis Bay.
The majority of the wrecks in the book occurred in the section of coast from Newcastle to Forster (six wrecks), showing the importance of shipping to industry in Newcastle. Only one Sydney wreck is included, but it is probably the least known of the many shipwrecks in and around Australia’s largest city (the majority of the rest were covered in The Vanished Fleet). However, more about that wreck later.
The history, sinking and part salvage of the Catterthun is covered in 44 detailed pages. With a loss of life of 77, 55 or 31 lives (Max found three reported figures), the Catterthun is certainly a tragic wreck which continues to remind divers of what happened that fatal night in 1895. Using contemporary newspaper articles, inquest reports and other sources, Max has reconstructed the events leading up to the sinking of the ship, the actual sinking, the rescue of the 26 survivors and the partial salvage of the cargo of gold. The salvage of the gold is particularly good reading. The salvage work was, at the time, the deepest salvage ever carried out in the world. The divers, Briggs and May, worked in very arduous conditions but bought up at least 7,900 of the sovereigns (possibly 775 coins remain on the wreck, but recent salvage efforts turned up nought). The work of the two divers is both heroic and at the same time crazy. They did up to four dives a day (to 60 metres) for periods of up to 29 minutes at a time (including ascent and descent) and with a surface interval of as little as 50 minutes. No wonder the divers at the time complained of symptoms very similar to the bends.
The one Sydney wreck in the book is the Oakland, Macleay and Thordis. Because of the great detail Max has included about each ship, including interlinked events, the sinking of many other ships are also mentioned, some in quite detail.
The design of the book is almost identical to The Vanished Fleet and is a classy publication, with quality paper, printing and, more importantly, excellent writing. The simple and easy to follow text makes reading the stories of the ships, their crews and their wrecking extremely interesting. There is no "jargon" used and where a technical matter is discussed, it is explained for all to understand. However, the book is poorly proof read and there is probably at least one typographical or grammatical error each page. A book must be proof read by someone other than the author. (Note that after a particularly testy phone call from Max about the above sentence, I rechecked the book, concentrating on one chapter chosen at random. This review in fact showed more like three to five errors per page.)
As in my previous review, I can certainly recommend Shipwrecks, Storms & Seamen of the New South Wales Coast for not only divers, but for all persons interested in maritime heritage and the sea. Even persons from outside NSW will find the stories of the ships and their wrecking fascinating. Do yourself a favour, get a copy today.
Shipwrecks, Storms & Seamen of the New South Wales Coast by Max Gleeson, 1996, First Edition, published by Max Gleeson (ISBN 0 646 28019 8). Softcover, 168 pages, 17 full colour and dozens of black and white photographs. Available for $25 (postage paid) from Max Gleeson at 51 Northcote Avenue, Caringbah, NSW, 2229 (phone 61 2 9524 8077). Copies of The Vanished Fleet of the Sydney Coastline are also available for $20 postage paid from the same address.
Reviewed by Michael McFadyen