Early Tourism, Shipwrecks & Lighthouse


Photo of Buster


The Buster, a steamer of 198 tons was driven ashore and became a total wreck at the mouth of Woolgoolga Lake on March 8, 1893, but no lives were lost. As seen in the above photo the wreckage can still be visited today. The skipper of Buster, George John Robertson, died in 1920, aged 60. He is buried in the Waverley Cemetery in Sydney.

On June 12, 1893, the Saucy Jack, a schooner of 156 tons, was driven ashore and lost about two miles south of Coffs Harbour but all of the crew were picked up.


Divers revisit the Keilawarra wreck

Coffs Coast Advocate | Matt Deans | 21st May 2012

It stands encrusted in marine life, as a stark reminder of the lives lost at sea in one of Australia's greatest maritime disaster.

For 126-years the telegraph of The Keilawarra, the 61-metre iron steam ship that sank near North Solitary Island has risen from the ocean floor suspended in the full astern position.

For photographer Mark Spencer, who revisited the 19th century shipwreck again at the weekend, the telegraph along with the ship's stern offers a haunting insight into the ill-fated voyage.

"The propeller shots I took also show the stern has dropped down over the propeller, such that the prop is now inside the stern," Mark said.

"This is an emotive area of the wreck because it was the area where people clung when the ship was sinking Titanic-like with the stern out of the water."

The Keilawarra was bound for Brisbane when it impacted with a smaller steamer, The Helen Nicoll on the night of December 8, 1886. 

Historical accounts say "smoke from the funnels had partly obscured the view ahead, as both vessels maintained full steam." In scenes later echoed by the sinking of the Titanic, the Keilawarra plunged into the depths just seven minutes after impact. It took with it some 40 people, while the badly damaged Helen Nicoll limped back to shore.

The Keilawarra last made headlines in February 2010, after Mark Spencer revealed the ship's safe had been plundered by thieves, thought to be professional shipwreck salvagers.

Rediscovered in 73-metres off the coast of Arrawarra in 2000, the wreck was studied for 30 minutes by this latest dive team before their arduous two-and-a-half hour decompression ascent.

Shipwrecks at Solitary Islands

Solitary Islands: 14 Shipwrecks

According to the South Solitary Island website 14 ships have been lost near the Solitary Islands.

‘The most serious wreck in this area was the loss of the steamer, Keilawarra (964 tons) on December 8, 1886 while bound from Sydney to Brisbane. It collided with the Helen Nicoll between North and South Solitary Islands and sank in seven minutes with the loss of forty-eight lives. The Helen Nicoll was badly damaged but no lives were lost.

During World War Two, many ships were lost along our coast after being attacked by Japanese submarines.

The Wollongbar was torpedoed and sunk on April 29, 1942, six miles off Crescent Head. Only five survived of a crew of thirty-seven.

On December 5, 1940, the M.V. Nimbin (1052 tons) struck a mine while steaming down the coast from Coffs Harbour and sank almost immediately. Seven of her crew were lost.

On April 12, 1943 the Ormiston (5832 tons) was torpedoed in convoy from Sydney to Brisbane but the vessel reached Coffs Harbour with no casualties. An American vessel was torpedoed near Coffs Harbour, and eighty-seven survivors were landed safely at Coffs Harbour Jetty, where they were cared for by local residents.

On May 5, 1943 the Fingal (2137 tons) was torpedoed off Solitary Island, twelve seamen losing their lives, while the Portmar (5551 tons) was also torpedoed off Coffs Harbour on June 16, 1943 with a loss of two lives.

One wonders why South Solitary Lighthouse was not destroyed by the Japanese - apparently, it was a valuable guide for them.’

Visit the site for more information and photos.

You might also like to visit the Solitary Island Shipwreck Survey - Conservation Management Plan 2000 at the NSW Environment & Heritage website.

Aerial view of the South Solitary Lighthouse (Photograph: Winsome Bonham)

Mr Jim (Mick) Duncan inside lens, South Solitary 1946 ([Photograph: Beryl Royal)

Lighthouse on South Solitary Island

As early as 1856 it had been suggested that a lighthouse be established on either North of South Solitary Islands, near Coffs Harbour.

When asked, ships masters favoured South Solitary over North Solitary for the location of a light by 3 to 1.

South Solitary Lighthouse was designed by James Barnet and first exhibited in 1880.

The tower was built of mass concrete using cement and sand conveyed to the island and broken stone from the conglomerate rock of the island.

Three large stone cottages were erected for the keepers. Owing to the exposed positions they are surrounded by high stone walls. A wall also runs from the cottages to the lighthouse.

Conditions for the builders of the new light were most unfavourable as stated in From Dusk Till Dawn:

"The weather was often so bad that several times steamers attempting to land materials and supplies had to slip their cables and run for shelter. A small crane erected on the landing was twice washed away during construction; since then three others have been washed away. Once during construction a hurricane drove the sea over the centre of the island (twenty-seven metres elevation but not the highest point of the island)."

From Lighthouses of Australia Inc website.