Local history, Local stories....The Foundering of the Inflexible
Sutherland Shire Libraries Wednesday, December 07, 2016
Just after midnight on the morning of Monday 26 August 1889, Charles Goard, master of the harbour steam tug, Inflexible, steered his ship out from Lavender Bay on a course towards Coalcliff in search of inward-bound sailing vessels requiring a tow.
All was well until 3:30am when the Inflexible, now 10 miles off the ‘Sisters Rocks’ to the south of Port Hacking, pitched in the lumpy sea and fell heavily into a trough with a hard jolt. Alarmed by the shock, Captain Goard, who had been lying below in his berth, jumped up on deck to ascertain the cause of the abrupt bump, but as the steamer hadn’t collided with anything obvious and appeared to have escaped unharmed, the captain soon returned to his bunk and the Inflexible continued on her passage.
Suddenly, at 5:30am a tremendous rush of steam and loud hissing from the engine room sent the fireman rushing to raise all hands. Water was streaming in towards the furnaces and heated boiler and, fearing a blow up, he tried to rake out the flames. This was no easy task and by the time the fireman had finished hauling out the last of the blaze, he was waist deep in water.
The Inflexible’s crew of six worked desperately at the donkey and hand pumps, but with the water gaining at the rate of 1ft every 15 minutes in a shallow vessel of just 8ft, there wasn’t a second to lose. After half an hour at the pumps Captain Goard saw no alternative but to order all to abandon the foundering ship.
For the next 45 minutes the crew stood by in the lifeboat and watched as the doomed Inflexible gradually sank, stern first, below the angry chopping waves. There was no time to save any effects other than the compass and glasses.
It was then that the crew noticed some large pieces of timber , some 60 – 70ft long , floating in the water and it was supposed that this may have been the wreckage the ship had fallen upon as it crashed in the waves causing the fateful crack in the bottom of the steamer directly under the foremast.
The Inflexible gone, the men now found themselves alone on the rough seas 12 miles from shore. They pulled in a north-westerly direction, trying to pick up with the collier, the Governor Blackall, but the dark and squally night prevented them being seen. There was nothing for it but to turn their dinghy and row towards shore. Finally, seven hours later and drenched to the skin with rain and saltwater, the crew pulled in safely to Port Hacking where they were met by Mr Springall, proprietor of the Oriental Hotel, who ensured that Captain Goard and his crew were ‘most hospitably entertained.’
This, however, was not quite the end of the story.
The following week, members of the Inflexible’s crew, which had included William Langstone (engineer), Thomas Halstead (the fireman – nephew to the owner), Duncan McDonald (fireman), Thomas Holmes (mate), Ralph Thompson (deck hand), and Charles Goard (master), were called up before the Marine Board for an inquiry into the foundering of the steam tug, the cause of which the insurance company believed was ‘enshrouded in mystery’. Not only had the amount covering the Inflexible been raised from £3000 to £6000 just three months prior to its sinking - with no special survey conducted of the vessel - but the owner, Mr James Halstead, had visited the Commercial Union Insurance Company several times in the preceding weeks in connection with the steam tug. Just three days before it sank, Mr Halstead had again visited the CUIC office to make enquiries into whether the company would cover the Inflexible on a projected trip to Melbourne. There were even allegations from a previous commander of the Inflexible, a William Jewell, that Mr Halstead had once instructed him to “take her outside and sink her.” The curiously named Dr Sly, who was appearing on behalf of the master and owner of the vessel, objected strongly to this evidence.
After deliberation, the Marine Board found the Inflexible had sunk after unaccountably springing a leak which caused her to founder, and there was no evidence with which they could charge the captain, Charles Goard, with default.