The ship’s cat from the RAN [Royal Australian Navy] tug ‘HMAS Waree’ used one of its nine lives when it escaped uninjured from the wreckage of the ship, which had floundered when attempting to cross the bar at the entrance of the Clarence River in October 1946.
The 95ft ship, which had been commissioned by the RAN from the Waratah Tug and Salvage Company in 1942, had been operating in northern Australian waters and Papua during the war.
The Waree sailed from Thursday Island on September 20, 1946, and was heading for Sydney with full bunkers and 31 tons of deck cargo.
This left her with just 18 inches of freeboard for the hazardous journey.
Her challenges were heightened when she encountered heavy seas during her passage south, having been designed and built to operate only as a harbour tug.
Warree’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Bill Boas, found maintaining headway almost impossible when sea water poured into the lower deck compartments through a wardroom skylight and the forepeak became flooded.
With the pumps operating continuously, the nose-down attitude of the ship became worse when the water mixed with ash from the flooded coal bunkers and completely clogged the pumps.
After radio contact was made with shore authorities on Thursday October 17, HMAS Macquarie was diverted to render aid but arrived too late.
A subsequent attempt to find a safe anchorage at Woody Head failed and the decision was taken to head for the Clarence.
Waree was making headway at only 2 knots and when she attempted to cross the bar at Clarence Head the south easterly swell swamped the ship and she ran aground, adjacent to the northern breakwater.
The ship’s lifeboat could not be used because of the mountainous seas and the crew of 21 were forced to swim 1.5 miles through the maelstrom to eventually land on Iluka beach.
After walking around the beach near the northern breakwater, the men were rescued by a Yamba launch manned by Mr Jack Ebeling and Mr Max Black.
Quoting from the Daily Examiner report of the next day:
They were taken in the launch to the Yamba lighthouse tug, ‘Henry Miles’, with the pilot Captain Grant in charge. The men were then landed at Yamba.
The men were given shelter by local residents, and assistance was rendered by members of the Red Cross and the Returned Soldiers’ League.
Two R.A.N frigates, ‘Murchison’ and ‘Macquarie’, are standing off Clarence Heads. An attempt will be made today to take the rescued men to the ‘Murchison’, which will take them to Sydney.
The Waree is being pounded by the seas as she lies stranded on the bar, and local residents believe she will become a total wreck.
The men had to leave all their belongings behind, and several of them came ashore unclad, the seas having washed off their clothing.
They had a herculean task to reach the beach after abandoning the ship because of the cross seas, and all were in an exhausted condition when they landed on the beach.
Lieut. Bethel, who with Sub-Lieut. Bethell and Chief Engine Room Artificer Wells, was quartered at the residence of the Yamba pilot, Captain Grant, last night showed the effect of the battering he had received.
Interviewed, Lieut. Boas said the Waree, which was a 233 ton tug boat, was on its way to Sydney to pay off. The vessel had been in the Darwin area for 18 months.
She was built at Cockatoo Island dockyard in 1939, and was placed in commission with the R.A.N. in 1942.
It was the intention after the vessel had been paid off to return her to the Adelaide Steamship Company.
Whilst crossing the bar, Waree became almost uncontrollable because of the water she had taken on board.
“After an attempt to turn the vessel and proceed out of the harbour had proved futile, and because the heavy seas had begun to pound the boat, it was decided to abandon ship,” the Captain reported.
“This was carried out in an orderly and seamanlike fashion,” said Lieut. Boas.
Lieut. Boas said the swim to the beach was a very hazardous undertaking. He commended Stoker Mansell and Telegraphist Haskell for their assistance to men who were in difficulties in the water.
He thanked the people of Yamba, and members of the Red Cross and R.S.L. for their assistance. He expressed his gratitude to Captain Grant.
Lieut. Boas left the ship at 12.40pm. Although last night he was unable to remember much about his experience, he was definite on the time because his watch stopped when he became submerged in the sea.
The ship’s cat came ashore on a soap box and the crew, although wearied and worn out by their swim, were glad to pick up the feline and carry her around to the beach.”
A subsequent court martial returned a guilty verdict against Lieut. Boas for “hazarding and stranding” his ship but he escaped with a reprimand. Warree’s bell, binnacle and helm were retrieved from the wreck and can be viewed at the Yamba Museum.
Chris Richards is an Iluka History Group member.