Missing ship looms large

Julie ArifNorth West Telegraph

One of the worst civilian maritime disasters in Australian history was the loss of the SS Koombana just off the coast of Port Hedland

In March of 1912 the North West and Australia was shocked to read the news that the steamship SS Koombana had failed to arrive at its destination of Broome after sailing from Port Hedland.

The ship

The pride of the Adelaide Steamship Company fleet referred to by passengers as “the luxury ship of the north”, the Koombana was a 3700-tonne passenger and cargo vessel.

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Built and launched in Glasgow, the Koombana was used as a primary source of transport between Fremantle and Geraldton, Wyndham, Port Hedland and Broome.

The ship was designed to be able to manoeuvre over the sandbar at the entrance to Port Hedland and some would say she was top heavy.

The Koombana had an inherited and permanent lean to one side that was the result of an earlier incident when the vessel ran aground.

The Koombana was berthed at Port Hedland with another ship, the Bullara, when the captains noticed the storm was brewing and decided to set sail and ride out the storm at sea — a practice still common today.

According to locals, generally a vessel departing the port would remain visible from shore for about 35 minutes, but on that occasion the Koombana could be seen for more than two hours as she was already battling strong winds and heavy seas of the approaching storm.

The Koombana was never seen again.

The passengers and crew

Upon leaving Fremantle the Koombana had 147 souls aboard, however the real number of passengers at the time of her doom may really never be known, as the Koombana was like a bus with passengers hopping on and off as she moved up the coast.

The tragedy shook the small towns of Port Hedland, Broome and Derby to the core, as many of the passengers were local families and business people. It was a huge loss for so many to be lost at sea.

The passengers and crew have never been laid to rest because no bodies were found and there were no witnesses to prove they were actually dead

The searches

Immediately after the Koombana was reported overdue in Broome, the search for her began, with a large number of vessels mobilised or diverted to look for her.

Flotsam was reported across a distance of 100 nautical miles, but there was nothing substantial or any bodies found.

Two weeks after the departure of the Kooombana from Port Hedland, another search vessel, theUna, found a stateroom door and cushion, believed to belong to the ship, near Bedout Island, about 25 miles north of Port Hedland.

The Master reported the presence of sharks at that location and concluded that the wreck must lie in that general area.

An inquiry was held during 1912 into her loss but no positive conclusions were drawn.

The final sentence of the report reads, “after the Koombana sailed from Port Hedland, her fate passes beyond human knowledge and remains a mystery of the sea”.

Since then, many searches have been launched to find the Koombana. The Port Hedland Maritime Historical Society was formed in 1985 and searched with state-of-the-art equipment but found nothing.

In the 1990s an American P3 Orion conducted four search missions for the steel hull of the Koombana using magnetic detection equipment normally used for locating submarines.

They found it very difficult because of the presence of a large undersea iron ore deposit that interfered with the readings.

An enquiry was held during 1912 into her loss but no positive conclusions were drawn. The final sentence of the report reads :

“After the Koombana sailed from Port Hedland, her fate passes beyond human knowledge and remains a mystery of the sea.”

The pearl

Abraham De val Davis, a pearl buyer from Broome, was on board the ill-fated Koombana and was reported to have in his possession a large and beautiful rose-coloured pearl named the Roseate Pearl. The pearl was thought to be cursed, as its previous owners had met with untimely deaths.


The Port Hedland historical Society has the Loss of the Koombana exhibit at the rear of the Dalgety House Museum in the Workers Cottage, which is open daily from 11am.

There is also a library of books for sale, including Annie Boyd’s Koombana Days, which contains stories about the ship’s passengers.

On Monday, March 20, a BYO picnic sundowner to commemorate the loss of the Koombana and its passengers and crew will be held at Koombana Lookout in Port Hedland.

The sundowner begins at 5.30pm, and a member of the Historical Society will give a short talk about the ship. There will also be a minute of silence to remember the souls on board.

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