Cairns Inlet Tragedy

A tragedy occurred in the Cairns Inlet on 13th April 1945, when the Adelaide Steamship Company’s tug “Uta” overturned and sank while assisting a U.S. ship away from No. 10 wharf and two men lost their lives.

The tug had towed the vessel into the channel and, when about to let go the rope, the tug floundered and two of the crew were drowned.



The two men who lost their lives were chief engineer, Martin English, and fireman, William Evans.



At the inquest into the accident the master of the “Uta”, Percy Holmes, said that it was the wash from the propellers of the U.S. ship and the ship going ahead that sunk the tug.  He said that the tug had towed the U.S. vessel away from the wharf, and was proceeding to straighten her up in accordance with a signal from the pilot, then the wash from the ship’s propellers and her sudden shooting ahead, first turned the tug round and then capsized it.



Holmes explained that the towline, which was about 150 feet long, was drawing the ship’s stern round, and the bow was at about 45 degrees from the wharf, when he received the message to straighten up, and was trying to work round to the other side of the ship to put her square on, when the accident occurred.  Holmes expressed the opinion that the order to straighten up was given too soon, and that the only way the tug could have been saved would have been by detaching the towline.  He said he ordered the deckhand to cut the towline, when the tug was brought broadside on and he was thrown off the deck.  It was all so sudden, he added, that he could not signal the engine-room where English and Evans were working.



The tug deckhand stated that with the fireman, Bill Evans, he had taken the towline out and had placed the line on to the hook which was set amidships of the tug.  He said that when the tug began towing the ship by its stern away from the wharf, it was not quite in line with the leads when the pilot gave a signal to go round to straighten the ship up.  They were crossing astern of the U.S. vessel, he said, when the big ship went ahead, and then by the wash from the propeller and since the tow line was so tight the tug was pulled broadside on to the big vessel and towed under.   The deckhand said that he tried to release the link by swinging the axe on it.  He had struck it twice when he found he was under water.  He told the inquest that he had frequently released the towline under his skipper’s instructions, but that he had never released it when it was as taut as on that morning in the channel.



An eye-witness to the disaster told the inquest that as the tug was coming round to the port side of the larger vessel, and when she was directly behind the stern of the big ship, the weight of the wash of the vessel against the tug’s side pulled her over.  He added that the tug was over at an angle of 70 degrees when it sounded the whistle as a warning to the larger vessel.  Then the tow rope gave way from the tug, which appeared to commence to right itself, but was so far under the water that she soon sank.

Click on the image below to enlarge the inquest evidence reported in the Cairns Post:



Evidence was also given by the police who had been sent to investigate the disaster.  The police stated that as a result of their investigations they were satisfied that there were no suspicious circumstances attending the deaths.  The inquest concluded that there was no evidence of criminal negligence on any person’s part.


This incident was reported far and wide.  The links below are to some of the Cairns Post articles:


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