REMINISCENCES | AUSREP and the ill-fated Blythe Star

Blythe Star (Photo: Australian Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water)

Some years ago, my company was contracted to “look after” arrested Patagonian toothfish pirate vessels by the government. They were mostly converted Japanese or Taiwanese longliners with their best working days behind them. They had been modified for the deep Southern Ocean and the wild waters around Herd Island to plunder Patagonian toothfish from gazetted Australian waters. Once arrested, our job was to unload the catch, ship-keep the vessels, and provide ships’ watchmen up until they were disposed of. Some were scuttled as dive wrecks; some were just scrapped.

After unloading the catch from one such vessel, we found half-inch thick steel plates all over the bottom of the holds. This puzzled us until we started to unload them. The engineer in charge of the job called me and said the ship was flopping around from port to starboard and he couldn’t correct the list with ballast.

Then, the penny dropped. The ship had reached its “angle of loll”; that is, its righting lever to bring the ship upright again after heeling over was zero. It was in danger of capsizing. I immediately told the engineer to start loading the steel plates back onto the ship. We narrowly avoided the embarrassing spectacle of the ship rolling over in Fremantle Harbour. The “angle of loll ” is something most seafarers never experience in their working life.

Fifty years ago (this October) the loss of the coastal freighter Blythe Star made news around Australia. It sank without trace and the fate of those on board was a mystery. A massive air and sea search was mounted without success until a forestry worker found three of the crew on a remote track in Tasmania’s wilderness. Then the full story unfolded. The angle of loll was suspected to be the cause of the loss.

Many Australian seafarers lost their lives at sea over the years. There were the wartime tragedies of  Nimbin, Iron Chieftain, and Wollongbar, and of course the peacetime losses including Lake Illawarra and Noongah. But the one that was to be hauntingly remembered was Blythe Star when she went to her watery grave. The ship was tiny: 44 metres long drawing a shade over three metres. She was built in Norway as Tandik in 1955 and in 1960 it became Blythe Star. She traded around the Tasmanian coast until October 1973, nearly fifty years ago.

“No wreckage of the ship was found.”

What was it about these tiny Baltic-trader sized ships that they found their way to Tasmania and some of the roughest water in the world? Ships with famed names such as North Esk, South Esk, Nilpena, Noongah, and Ransdorp (Raindrop as she was affectionately known) traded there and admittedly Ransdorp didn’t sink until after she was sold to New Zealand.

Of the nine-man crew of Blythe Star, the second engineer died while abandoning ship. The lifeboat couldn’t be launched due to the list and the inflatable life raft was used. The chief officer and the chief engineer succumbed to exhaustion and exposure on the raft and were buried at sea. The raft was blown about in the rough seas and bailing out was continuous.

At times the life raft drifted out of sight of land but fortunately, currents carried it back within sight of the shore. The crew finally made landfall at Deep Glen Bay in the southern Tasmanian wilderness. The heavy life-raft radio had been left behind and EPIRBs weren’t mandatory in those days. In fact, they weren’t even invented yet.

Once ashore, the surviving crew made an immediate attempt to scale the cliffs at Deep Glen Bay. This was abandoned but later three crewmembers struck out on their own and somehow, they were picked up by the forestry worker on a rough track. A helicopter was finally sent out for the remaining crew.

The Blythe Star mystery left the public puzzled. She left Hobart for King Island, east about or west about, no-one knew. No mayday calls were received. The air search found nothing. No wreckage was found.

“Like all changes to maritime laws, the Australian Ship Reporting scheme was introduced after a major casualty.”

The surviving crewmembers described the ship lurching to starboard and then she sank by the stern.  The chief engineer had vainly tried to right the ship with ballast. Unfortunately, nothing could be done. The vessel was unstable.

But no passage plan was submitted, no stability calculations were done, no mayday call was made. Nothing out of the ordinary to other voyages was done. The sea at the time was described as calm with a light rolling swell. She was loaded with a cargo of bagged and palleted superphosphate and barrels of beer, but when she left Hobart, she was never seen again.

A Marine Court of Enquiry had very little to go on and the findings were inconclusive. With the benefit of our experience, we suspect the vessel had reached its angle of loll and the light swell caused the ship to roll over and finally sink.

The loss of Blythe Star was even discussed in parliament and various motions were made to improve safety. Ultimately the Australian Ship Reporting scheme (AUSREP) was introduced. But sadly, this occurred after the loss of life. Like all changes to maritime laws, this scheme was introduced after a major casualty.

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Kent Stewart

Founder of Maritime Engineers, a multi-region maritime consultancy with clients in the oil and gas industry, navy, commercial shipping and marine insurance, Kent Stewart is our resident expert on commercial shipping and the offshore industries.