The wreck of the SS Admella in the early hours of August 6th 1859 was only the beginning of a horrific week for survivors who remained on board, in sight of land, while authorities struggled to rescue them from the stricken steamer. The loss of 89 lives, mostly due to cold and exposure, makes the wreck one of the worst maritime disasters in Australian history.
It was the first major rescue incident that involved the cooperation of a large number of organisations and individuals across the newly formed colonies of Victoria and South Australia. In many ways it was the basis of joining together these isolated communities into a regional group, and was the beginning of many ongoing organizations across the south east of Australia.
The Admella was sailing from Adelaide to Melbourne when it struck Carpenters Reef on the Southern Coastline of South Australia. A design fault in its iron hull caused the ship to break into three after only 15 minutes, leaving passengers and crew clinging to the wreckage with minimal water and food.
Early attempts to reach land were fruitless; people were swept out to sea or drowned in the boiling surf. It was nearly two days later when two seamen, Knapmann and Leach, made it to shore and made a 20-mile walk to Cape Northumberland lighthouse to raise the alarm.
The lighthouse was without telegraph and so lighthouse keeper Mr Germain, whose own horse had died a few days earlier, had to trek to a nearby farm to borrow a horse in order to reach Mount Gambier and to inform authorities in Adelaide 450km north east and Portland 150km west. The Corio left from Adelaide and the Ladybird from Portland but, due to poor information, both rescue boats had difficulty locating the now desperate Admella.
Meanwhile the wreck was battered by the heavy swell. Captain McEwan shared out what little food remained and had to prevent survivors from drinking salt water, which had begun to take the lives of those who drank it. Others, exhausted by their ordeal, simply slipped into the sea to their death. In the words of one lifeboat captain they were "...more like statues than human beings; their eyes fixed, their lips black, for want of water, and their limbs bleached white and swollen through exposure to the relentless surf..."
In Adelaide, the news of the disaster brought hundreds of people to the telegraph office to hear the story as it unfolded, and both Houses of Parliament adjourned.
On Wednesday 10th, it was reported that the Corio was beside the wreck and that around 20 survivors were still on board. Those on shore lit fires to help the vessel stay near the wreck site.
Over the next few days, several rescue attempts were made by the Corio and Ladybird rescue boats. Rockets were fired to try to get lines aboard but mountainous seas and severe storms continually drove the rescuers back and lives were lost as the lifeboats were swamped. Ffurther attempts were made to launch one of Admella's own lifeboats, which had washed ashore and patched with soap and canvas, but it too was unsuccessful.
By Saturday, eight days after the wreck, the Admella's lifeboat and the Corio's boat were launched from the beach and managed to crash through the surf and reach the wreck. Eventually three people made it to shore in one boat, but the second boat capsized, drowning a man saved from the wreck.
The lifeboat Portland, which had been towed to the scene by the Lady Bird had made an earlier attempt to reach the wreck but was driven back by the raging seas. Now it was finally successful in coming alongside the wreck and the remaining 19 survivors jumped and fell into the boat. They were transferred to the Lady Bird which returned to Portland. The lifeboat is now housed in the Portland Maritime Museum.
Following the commission of inquiry into the wreck of the Admella, the loss was attributed to the effects of a current which pushed the vessel off course, although investigations were also held into a magnetic disturbance in the area of Cape Northumberland which may have affected the compasses on iron hulled ships. The inquest also resulted in the installation of the telegraph at the Cape Northumberland lighthouse.
One further story was that of the horses on board. Hurtle Fisher was transporting racehorses on the Admella and both he and his champion horse, The Barber, miraculously survived and went on to race in Melbourne, but never won again.
In an unusual turn of events, another ship called Corio sank in exactly the same location in the 1950s.
Today the Admella Dunes and nearby Admella Flats stand in memory of the fated steamer and the 89 aboard who perished.
The regional links that this event established continue today through groups such as the South East Local Government Association, Green Triangle Association and many regional emergency services networks that are working in a cross border sense of cooperation.