A fire is one of the worst situations to occur on board a ship at sea and even today is ‘one of the top three causes of loss for marine vessels’[i]
Two fires occurred on the Wimmera during her period of service –the first just little over a year after her arrival, in December 1905.
The Wimmera was at sea between Sydney and Wellington when a fire broke out in one of her holds. The particulars of the incident were recorded in the company’s ‘Casualties’ Book as follows.
Captain Wyllie reports from Sydney on 13th December, as follows:-
“Lat 38.45 Long 167.15 At sea on the night of 10th inst the Chief Officer reported something wrong in the after end of the ship. I went along and discovered a fire in the No 4 hold. Hoses were stretched out and the Donkey Engine started, and a hatch taken off to enable us to locate the fire. It was found to be in the bottom of the hold on the starboard side among bales of flax & tow. After an hours work with the hoses the fire was overcome & the burnt portions of the cargo hoisted on deck. One bale of flax and one bale of tow were thrown overboard, the remainder of the cargo in the hold was more or less damaged by the water. No damage was done to the ship. Very little fuss was made over this affair by the newspapers, but a big disaster was only averted by the promtitude & coolness of Capt Wyllie & his officers, & every praise is due to them.”
The incident was also reported in the press:
FIRE AT SEA.
ON THE STEAMER WIMMERA.
CONSIGNMENT OF FLAX ABLAZE.
THE RESULT OF SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION.
A quantity of charred flax lying about the decks of the Huddart-Parker liner Wimmera, which arrived yesterday morning from New Zealand, afforded ample evidence of a serious outbreak of fire, which occurred in the ship’s hold on the passage across the Tasman Sea.
The Wimmera came direct from Wellington and she left that port on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday night, when most of the passengers had turned-in, smoke was seen issuing from the after (No. 4) hatchway. The covers were immediately removed, and large volumes of smoke ascended from the hatchway. An examination showed that a quantity of flax in bales was on fire. Hoses were quickly connected, and soon a stream of water was playing on the flames. The officers of the ship took it in turns to go below and fight the fire, and in the course of an hour or so they had it under. The crew were afterwards sent down, and the charred flax was removed to the deck pending a survey.
The Wimmera was fortunate in escaping without damage. She had over 100 passengers on board, but all danger was over before many of them heard of the outbreak.
One of the passengers remarked yesterday that the early discovery of the fire, and the prompt measures taken by Captain Wyllie and his officers to deal with it, doubtless averted a serious disaster.
A survey made yesterday afternoon showed that the fire broke out in the bottom of the hold, on the starboard side, among some flax or tow. One bale of flax and another of tow were thrown overboard, and the remainder of the cargo damaged by fire was hoisted on deck. A quantity of the cargo in the hold was found to be damaged by water. The cargo stowed in the vicinity of the fire consisted of fungus, felt, paint, nails, hemp, peas, and seed.
The fire is attributed to spontaneous combustion amongst the flax or tow. Fires have previously occurred from a similar cause on the steamers carrying flax from New Zealand, one of the most serious being that on the San Francisco mail steamer Mariposa some years ago.
Messrs. Huddart, Parker, and Co. notify consignees that a general average on all cargo has been declared.
The Daily Telegraph, Thursday, December 14, 1905
It was nearly ten years later when a second fire occurred on board the Wimmera and which fortunately caused neither serious injury nor loss, apart from some cargo, and little or no disruption to her sailing schedule.
Another fire occurred nearly ten years later, on 3 October 1915. Again situated in the No. 4 hold this fire had occurred, in the opinion of Mr Jones, [the N.Z. manager], in the electric lighting.
FIRE ON THE WIMMERA.
SOME DAMAGE DONE.
An outbreak of fire, apparently of a very slight character, occurred on Sunday on Messrs. Huddart, Parker and Co’s steamer Wimmera, bound from Melbourne to Hobart. Leaving Melbourne at 6 p.m. on Saturday she had at 4.30 next morning reach a point about 11 miles south of Curtis Island, 20 miles west of the Kent Group, and about the same distance south of Wilson’s Promontory, when smoke was seen rising from No. 4 hold. The crew were turned out, and, a good supply of water being immediately brought into service, within an hour the fire apparently was completely extinguished. The cause of the outbreak is at present a mystery, and until the vessel discharges at Wellington it will not be possible to ascertain the precise amount of damage done, though it is said to be confined to some half-dozen packages of general merchandise.
In addition to the cargo damaged by fire, it will probably be found that a certain amount of loss has been done by the use of water.
The passengers, who were, of course, all below in their cabins at the time, were not awakened on account of the outbreak.
The Mercury, Tuesday, October 5, 1915
© Ralph L. Sanderson 2004-2021