A cross appears first in the blue murk, the foremast of a ship submerged for half a century. The wreck, the remains of a 44-metre vessel, comes into clearer view, surrounded by fur seals, crayfish and schools of fish.
After 50 years, and a 38-day research voyage, investigators at the CSIRO have located the MV Blythe Star, a ship whose sinking on 13 October 1973 sparked the largest maritime search ever conducted in Australia at the time.
Sign up for a weekly email featuring our best reads
The wreck lies 150 metres under water, about 10.5km west of Tasmania’s South West Cape. In footage captured by the CSIRO, the word “STAR” is faintly visible on the bow of the ship.
Mick Doleman, 68, the Blythe Star’s last living survivor, was “absolutely gobsmacked” when he was told of the ship’s discovery. Doleman, then 18, was the youngest crew member.
“I never knew anyone was even looking for it,” he says. “The last time I [saw] it, it was sinking stern first in southern Tasmania.”
The discovery of the Blythe Star’s final resting place brings closure to a 50-year-old shipwrecking – an event that led to a remarkable story of survival, and changed Australian maritime laws for good.
The crew flees the sinking ship
The Blythe Star set sail from Hobart on 12 October 1973, bound for King Island with a cargo of fertiliser and beer kegs.
The ship was recorded passing Maatsuyker Island, off Tasmania’s south coast, by a lighthouse keeper at 5.15am on the 13th. From there, it turned to starboard to begin its journey up the west coast.
Doleman was woken by the ship tilting. “The ship took a really strong starboard list, which threw me out of my bunk. It then sort of righted itself, and then went over again on the starboard side.”
In the alleyway of his cabin, water was gushing in from a porthole. By the time he was above deck, the ship was listing almost at a 90-degree angle, Doleman recalls. “There was no way this ship wasn’t going to the bottom.”
The ship’s bosun managed to release a life raft, which the 10 crew members clambered into. “The only clothing I had on was a pair of jockettes,” Doleman says.
“I think we got about 10 or 20 metres [away], not much more, when the ship just lifted its bow up into the sky and the stern just slipped away,” he says. “It was an unbelievable sight.”
The Blythe Star went down about 8.30am. “There was no wreckage … nothing on the surface to indicate that a ship had just sunk.”
Why the ship capsized was the focus of a subsequent Court of Marine Inquiry.
Michael Stoddart is a researcher at the Maritime Museum of Tasmania and the author of The Blythe Star Tragedy.
“All the evidence said the ship was overloaded,” he says.
A similar incident had occurred on the Blythe Star six months before it sank, Stoddart says. The ship, as it was turning, had heeled over to the starboard side, listing to about 35 degrees, and righted itself only after the captain gave the order to fill the ballast tanks.
“That information was reported back to Hobart with the recommendation that deck cargo should be kept to no more than 25 or maybe 30 tonnes,” Stoddart says. “On this final voyage, they had 54 tonnes.”
The search is called off
The life raft carrying the 10 men measured only 2.5m in diameter when inflated. A mayday signal had not been sent before the Blythe Star went down and there was no portable radio aboard the raft.
“No one knew where we were, which way we were going,” Doleman says.
Equipped with emergency supplies of glucose powder, biscuits, metal cans of water and flares, the men drifted for eight days, bitterly cold and “smashing into each other” in complete darkness for hours when the weather was rough.
“They were very sensible to dish the water out in tiny amounts. Everybody got about an eggcup full a day … except when it rained and they were able to harvest water off the outside of the life raft,” Stoddart says.
“The cans were always a worry,” Doleman says. “Anything sharp could cut the raft and we would be in terrible strife,” so the crew had strict rules about the use of a can opener and pocketknife.
The second engineer, John Sloan, without the drugs he needed to treat a medical condition, died and was buried at sea.
The raft had two oars, which the men used to keep clear of rocks. At one point, they came within 5km of the jetty on Tasman Island. One of the crew, Malcolm McCarroll, wanted to swim ashore, but was discouraged by the others because of his famished state and the possibility of sharks.
When the Blythe Star failed to arrive at King Island on 14 October, and still had not materialised the next day – which it would have if it had taken the eastern passage instead of up the west coast – authorities became concerned.
A huge maritime search began, involving 14 aircraft.
“At the time it was by far and away the biggest air search ever undertaken in Australia,” Stoddart says.
“They were all the time looking for a 44-metre-long steel-sided ship,” he says. “None of them were able to spot this life raft,” which had no metal parts and was undetectable by radar.
The crew kept aluminium foil from the biscuits and the metal cans to act as radar reflectors. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, and the search was called off after a week.
Eight days after the shipwreck, the life raft came ashore at Deep Glen Bay, a rocky inlet fringed by high cliffs on the wild coast of the Forestier peninsula, not far from the narrow strip of land called Eaglehawk Neck that leads to the historic convict site at Port Arthur.
“We jumped in the water and walked the raft up on to the rocks,” Doleman recalls. “What we realised is we couldn’t stand up, we couldn’t use our legs” – their muscles unaccustomed to walking after so many days cramped at sea.
In the first good fortune the men had encountered in more than week, a freshwater stream flowed down the mountains to the foreshore.
But two more men, John Eagles and Kenneth Jones, died at Deep Glen Bay.
“That was really the crunch point,” Doleman says. Prompted by their deaths, he, McCarroll and Alfred Simpson scaled the cliffs, climbing through thick scrub to seek help. One night they slept in a hollow log, covering themselves with ferns for warmth.
Three days later they stumbled across a road, heard the sound of a truck, and eventually encountered a logger, Rod Smith.
“I said, ‘We’re off the Blythe Star’. And he said, ‘No, no, you can’t be. They’re all dead. They’ve pulled the search off.’”
Smith drove the three men to Dunalley, where a helicopter was dispatched to collect the other four crew members from Deep Glen Bay. None of them had eaten in four days. “We ate all his Minties in the car,” Doleman recalls.
The Blythe Star’s sinking eventually led to changes in Australian maritime law. Every ship in Australian waters must now report its position once a day, and lodge voyage plans before it sets off. Emergency position-indicating radiobeacons (Epirbs) must be carried on all life rafts, and canvas life rafts must now have canopies made of a material that reflects radar.
The loss of the Blythe Star led to the development of modern maritime operating principles, Stoddart says. “This is something which I know is very comforting to the families of the men who died – that they didn’t die in vain.”
The discovery of the ship has also lifted the spirits of survivors’ families, Doleman says, and may have brought closure to some.
“But for me – I can never, never forget it.”