Thursday, 02 August 2001 00:00

The Mystery of the Centaur

By Trevor Jackson - Esperance Star

When I was a young teenager at high school, there was a few bob to be made in the holidays working on the local fishing trawlers. At certain times during the year the prawns would be running fairly thick and more often than not it was easy to get a few trips if you could prove you were keen and hard working. My first job was on a beautiful little forty footer called "Penny J", she was the pride of the fleet, well maintained, classic lines, and the skipper was as salty an old salt as you would ever find. We used to work an area known colloquially as the "deep water", which was out to the east of Moreton Island in QLD, depths varied in the working area between 150m and 300m and it is as dangerous a job as you would find anywhere in the world.

Part 1

The bottom is scattered with the unlucky, literally dozens of vessels have gone to ground here, mostly trawlers that had snagged there nets on unseen obstructions, and succumbed to the forces of tidal run and waves. Virtually every skipper had a horror story to tell, the skipper of the "Penny J" had lost his first boat in this fashion, but the "Penny J" was a lucky ship and she still is, we "hooked up" often enough, but always managed to get out of trouble.

One afternoon the weather sprang up unannounced, the wind was gusting to 40 knots so we decided to take the night off and hide around the western side of Moreton Island in a nice little anchorage called Tangalooma wrecks. As so often happens when fishermen find themselves clustered together miles from nowhere, the drinks would flow, it was "all for rum and rum for all". As an innocent of only 16 I was merely a spectator of this age old ceremony, the crews of all the boats sheltered there that night gathered on our boat and soon the sea stories were running thick and tall. As I would hear for many years to come, the story of "the hospital ship" was high on the agenda".

On the morning of May 12, 1943, the Australian Hospital Ship "Centaur", left Sydney on its second trip to
Port Moresby to collect wounded from the New Guinea battlefields. Her journey was to take her via Cairns, but as she past Brisbane in the early hours of the 14th, despite being in a fully lit condition, and painted in white and green with red crosses, her immunity was ignored and she was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese Submarine. Of the 332 on board the stricken ship, scarcely 64, including only 1 female nurse, survived.

Trawlers had been snagging there nets on "the hospital ship" for decades, to my knowledge none had ever been sunk there, but many a tense hour had been spent trying to unhook nets, and many trawlers had retrieved pieces of the wreck once their nets had been brought back to the surface. All of the trawler crews on the "Penny J" that night had had some experience with the wreck, but the thought crossed my mind even way back then, how did they know it what it was? Was there any proof? Had anyone ever trawled up any definative artifact that could prove beyond doubt, that what we thought of as simply "hospital ship", was in fact the "Centaur"? After years and years of asking this question, it began to occur to me that the site that had always been thought of as the final resting place of the "Centaur", could in fact be the wreck of another unknown ship.

Why the speculation? Does it really matter which ship it is? Well perhaps a little more information here would be appropriate. You see there are quite a few people who would like to know where the Centaur actually did come to rest.It is also quite possible that there are plenty of people who would prefer her unfound forever. When the ship was sunk it should have had immunity from attack under the Hague Convention, and this fact was used to great effect as anti japanese propaganda, but since [and perhaps even during] the war, rumours had been rife that she was not complying to the Hague convention herself, that she was carrying troops and munitions, and that the Japanese had known this from the off. Surviving crewman have in the past hinted that guns had been found hidden on the ship. on its last journey. If this were the case, the Japanese were well within their rights to sink the ship and even after 60 years, Australian officialdom would be keen to maintain their high moral ground and leave the truth undiscovered.

In 1992 a Melbourne Computer Engineer Don Dennis, teamed up with some trawler operators in Mooloolaba to try and find and positively identify the wrecks location, using the trawlers GPS and a sophisticated robotic camera called an ROV. The camera got some great footage, and by comparing it to some old blueprints of the Centaur, they were able to ID the wreck, citing similarities between the footage of the wrecks stern and the original Centaur design The relevant historical societies were quick to declare the site an Historic Wreck, and media sources were gagging to declare, "Hospital Ship Found". On the current chart of the area the site is clearly marked as an historic wreck, and a 500 metre radius around the point S 26 59 45 and E 153 38 49, has been declared a no go zone. Everyone seemed happy.
Well bollocks to that!

To me the powers that be were a little too quick in making their declaration, based on some sketchy proof that seemed a little too easily swallowed.

At 4.00 am on the morning she sank, Gordon Rippon, officer of the watch aboard the Centaur, was about to go off duty. He ascertained the vessels position, and as was custom during times of war, took a copy of this position to the radio room and handed it straight to the operator. This ensured that if the vessel were to be attacked, the radio operator would always have the ships latest position and could give rescuers the best possible chance of success should the need arise. Rippons noted position was "23 miles due East of Point Lookout", with Cape Moreton Lighthouse a further 30 miles to the northwest. This position is 30 miles from the now declared site and as the ship was attacked and sunk before Rippon even made it to his bunkroom one has to wonder about the difference. Did Rippon, a man who went on to survive the shipwreck and become one of Australia"s most respected navigators, get it wrong?

On the far south eastern shore of Moreton Island, soldiers constructing a gun emplacement witnessed the destruction. An explosive orange fireball was seen far off to the East from below the horizon. A few miles further to the west, a radar station had witnessed on its screens the sudden disappearance of a large vessel, again to the East of Point Lookout. Residents at Point Lookout itself have since the war repeatedly stated that they witnessed the explosion below the horizon to the east from there homes.

A day and a half later however, a US Navy Destroyer began picking up survivors and siting wreckage 25 miles further north, to the east of Cape Moreton. As the prevailing ocean currents run almost exclusively towards the south throughout the year, the first seeds were sewn that the wreck must lie further to the north. "It stands to reason". Many years later trawlers began reporting [amongst themselves at least] that they had been hooking their nets on a giant wreck 8miles East North East of Cape Moreton, everyone assumed then as they do now, that this wreck was the Centaur.

Part 2

At a recent birthday party for a retired fisherman I gathered together a bunch of old timers and started drilling them on the subject. First question: Have any of you ever caught any items from the wreck that catagorically said to you that, "this wreck is the Centaur". The answer across the board was a resounding NO. The next question: Can anyone explain why, if the Centaur did in fact sink East of Point Lookout, how the survivors ended up so far north when the current always runs to the south. A grumpy old salt perked up from the back," thats bullshit, every one knows the current runs north in May". I raced home that night to check the sinking date again, 14 May. Now assuming ocean currents havent changed in the last 60 years [and they haven"t] even more suspicion could be cast upon the "official position". Another thing that always bugged me was the fact that Mr. Dennis"," similarity of the stern", could be taken for proof of anything. A quick flick through any old book depicting pre-war steamship design could lead you to match his footage with any of a thousand ships. But if the wreck at the official position isn"t the Centaur, what is it. And where is the Centaur.

On February 17, 1888, the iron ship "Eastminster" left Maryborough for Sydney and was never seen again. A study of the weather chart at the time would suggest that the conditions were absolutely shocking and the crew of the Eastminster were strongly warned to stay in port. They didn"t and the ship was lost. This could be our trawlermans hospital ship, and it could be Don Dennis" Centaur.

In all probability the real Centaur lies in 2500 metres of water to the East of Point Lookout on the northern end of Stradbroke Island. A few years after the war a hydrographic survey discovered what appeared to be the remains of a large ship lying in this area, another morsel conveniently ignored by modern authorities.

Of course all of this is speculation, for all I know the Eastminster lies further down the coast washed up on rocks and Gordon Rippon had more than coffee in his mug on the night of the Centaurs sinking. Its also possible that Don Dennis" footage was a lot more comprehensive than was ever aired in public. The only way to find out is to get down to the wreck and check it out in real terms, which is no small order.

At 175metres the dive would be a world record recreational ocean wreck dive, but it is do-able. It would require exceptional conditions; currents run in the area at speeds of usually 2 knots or more and divers would surely have to fluke a lull in these. Moreover there would be some major gas considerations. A 10 minute jaunt on the decks of the wreck using open circuit gear would require about 8, 100 cubic foot tanks. You could stage them on a line over a few days but if anything went wrong on the dive and you couldn"t get back up the line, you would be well and truly cactus. It would take a minimum of seven minutes to hit the bottom. At seventeen minutes you"d be surface bound. First stop would be at a whopping depth of 120 metres for 1 minute, continuing slowly and in steps up to 5 metres for an hour and a half on pure oxygen. Total dive time would be a shade under four and a half hours, and thats rushing it! Alternatively you could do the dive using a Closed Circuit Rebreather, or should I say two. One on the back and one on the front, just for backup. The run times would be similar and the questions left unanswered could be unveiled.

Will anyone ever attempt this dive? In all likelihood yes, some of the leading authorities on the wreck have begun to dispute the official position publicly. Many of the relatives of the lost are still with us would be keen to know for sure where their loved ones are laid to rest, and in the back of everyone"s mind will always hang the question of whether or not the wartime authorities lied to a bereaved Australian public regarding the Centaurs supposed immunity. Alternatively the dive could open up a whole new bag of worms. If the wreck proves to be the Eastminster or some other long forgotten ship, it will be back to square one on the Centaur front, and then we'll really have something to write about.

Before I go, an update on the SS Dorrigo. Last week we took the ES up to Noosa to check out anther lead. A fisher friend of mine had checked out a mark I gave him and reported back that he had solid readings over an area about 80 metres long and 20 wide. The site was about 7 miles north of the "Dolphin". Mouthpiece Max and I jumped in and upon reaching the anchor at 60 metres we saw nothing but sand. We began to see some juvenile Red Emperors swimming in at us from a certain direction and decided to head there way in the hope that it would lead to something. Out of the gloom a dark shape began to rise up and the heart was racing. It began to take on the form of what appeared to be the stern of a medium sized steamer, but the viz. was so bad it was difficult to say for sure. I clambered around to the right believing that would bring me around to the ships starboard rear quarter, alas twas not to be. The wreck was a small fishing boat about 40 feet long, identity unknown, but the area was so rammed with life it had given the impression on the sounder of being much larger. That old drawing board is becoming a familiar place.