Loch Vennachar was a three-masted iron sailing ship (clipper) that operated between Great Britain and Australia between the late 19th century and 1905. The name was drawn from Loch Venachar, a lake which lies to the south-west of the burgh of Callander, in the Stirling region of Scotland. It is understood to mean "most beautiful lady" in Scottish Gaelic.
In September 1905, she sank without trace and with all hands, leaving a spray of wreckage scattered along the south coast of Kangaroo Island. In 1976, her extensively damaged remains were discovered in an average depth of 12 metres (40 ft) of water near West Bay, Kangaroo Island in South Australia (SA) by the Society for Underwater Historical Research (SUHR).
Loch Vennachar was built in 1875 by Thomson's on the Clyde for the Glasgow Shipping Company. She was one of a fleet of iron wool clippers of the well-known Loch Line. Her registered tonnage and dimensions were: 1,552 tons gross, 1,485 tons net; length, 250 feet 1 inch; breadth, 38 feet 3 inches; depth of hold, 22 feet 4 inches. Her usual cargo was usually about 5,500 bales of wool. She was first rigged with fidded royal masts, but this proved to interfere with her stability as there was too much weight aloft. She was then given topgallant and royal masts in one with crossed royal yards over double-topgallants. Loch Vennachar was always in the wool trade to Adelaide and Melbourne, but when an out wool clipper, she also carried passengers and other cargo.
On her maiden voyage, she was commanded by Captain Francis Wagstaff, leaving Inishtrahull on 6 September 1875. In early 1876, Wagstaff was replaced by Captain William Robertson, who died in 1878 after only making two voyages on the vessel. The command was then given to her first officer, James S. Ozanne, but in 1884, Captain Ozanne handed over command to Captain William H. Bennett. Following Bennett's retirement in 1904, Captain William S. Hawkins took command until her final voyage in 1905.
Loch Vennachar was considered an unlucky ship narrowly surviving a cyclone in the Indian Ocean in June 1892. Around 8 pm on 3 June, the barometer began to fall ominously and the sail was promptly shortened. At approximately 5.00 am as darkness lifted it showed terrific head seas that swept down upon the vessel, lashed by the North-East gale. Two large waves approached the ship. Loch Vennachar rode the first wave and sank into the trough at the other side. While in this position, the second wave came on and broke on deck with such force that it broke the foremast, mainmast and the mizzen topmast. Without her masts to steady her, the Loch Vennachar rolled dangerously in heavy seas. After 9 days, the weather eased and the crew were able to rig a spar forward and sail on the damaged mizzen. After 5 weeks of sailing, she arrived at Port Louis, Mauritius. Although her stay lasted 5 months while new spars were sent from England, repairs only took 10 days to complete. Captain Bennett was awarded the Lloyd's Medal for his leadership and bravery at sea.
Loch Vennachar suffered another serious accident on 12 November 1901, after a collision with the SS Cato, in the Thames Estuary. After arriving in the Thames, she anchored off the Mucking Light. Just before dawn, she was cut down and holed on the starboard bow by Cato, with one hand being seriously injured. She rapidly sank in 40 feet of water, but all hands, along with the parrot and cat, got clear safely. She rested on the bottom of the Thames for a month before being raised and repaired at considerable cost, and again put back into service in the Adelaide and Melbourne trade.
Despite her unlucky reputation, she sailed between Great Britain and Australia for 30 years without further incident, until her final voyage.
Under the command of Captain W.S. Hawkins, Loch Vennachar departed Glasgow in late June 1905 on a routine voyage to Adelaide. She was laden with general cargo including a consignment of 20,000 bricks. On 6 September 1905, Loch Vennachar was overtaken by SS Yongala about 160 miles west of the Neptune Islands and the captains exchanged "all's well" signals. The Captain of the Yongala recorded that Loch Vennachar presented a pretty sight with her sails in full standing, she sped along with every apparent prospect of reaching her port safely. It was the last known sighting of Loch Vennachar.
On 29 September, the ketch Annie Watt arrived in Adelaide and her captain reported picking up a reel of blue printing paper 18 miles North-West of Kangaroo Island. The paper was identified as part of Loch Vennachar's cargo. Three weeks later, the sea began delivering scraps of her cargo to the jagged coast of Kangaroo Island which confirmed the disaster. The steamer Governor Musgrave was sent on two separate occasions to search for the wreck and any survivors. Weeks of searching by government and local fishing boats produced only flotsam and the body of a young seaman, who was never identified. He was buried in the sand hills of West Bay. The search was eventually abandoned on 12 October.
At the time, it was incorrectly concluded that Loch Vennachar was wrecked on Young Rocks, a granite outcrop about 20 miles S.S.W. of Cape Gantheaume, trying to make the Backstairs Passage.
The first list of persons likely to be on the ship at the time of her loss appeared in the news media in late September 1905. This list which contained 23 names of individuals who could be either crew or passengers was compiled from letters waiting for collection by the ship at the offices of George Wills & Co., the ship's agent in Adelaide. A subsequent newspaper article advised that apprentices S.C. Brown and Robert Andrews had respectively transferred from Loch Vennachar to Loch Garry and Loch Torridon despite their names being included on the previously published list. In late November 1905, the following list was published in a number of newspapers in Australia and in papers in both New Zealand and Scotland. This list which 'was received at Fremantle by the English mail' indicates that there were no passengers on the last voyage.
In the above list, the abbreviations A.B. and O.S. refer respectively to Able seaman and Ordinary seaman.
The passing of Thomas Pearce received attention in the Australian press due to his father, Tom Pearce, being well known as one of the two survivors of the Loch Ard wrecking in 1878, and as his grandfather, James Pearce, was the captain of SS Gothenburg at the time of her loss in 1875.
The loss of both Loch Vennachar and Loch Sloy convinced the Marine Board of South Australia to argue for the bringing forward of a plan that it recommended in 1902 to build a lighthouse at Cape du Couedic. Its view was that the loss of both ships could have been avoided if a lighthouse had been operating at Cape du Couedic. Construction commenced in 1907 and the light was officially lit on 27 June 1909. The northern headland of West Bay was named Vennachar Point in the memory of the ship in 1908.
In February 1976, the SUHR conducted a search for the wreck along the west coast of Kangaroo Island. On 24 February, as conditions were unsuitable for underwater searching, a terrestrial search was conducted along the base of the 30 m (100 ft) high cliffs immediately north of West Bay. During this search, a brick with the letters ‘GLAS…OW’ on one of its faces was found. When conditions had improved on 26 February, SUHR divers Brian Marfleet, Doug Seton and Terry Smith joined by Kangaroo Island divers Chris and Robert Beckwith climbed down the cliff to enter the water at the location where the brick was found and later found the wreck site after 40 minutes of diving. An inspection of the wreck site revealed that all of the anchors were still in place on the ship suggesting that no attempt had been made to prevent the ship's collision with the cliff. After the discovery, the SUHR resolved to return to carry out a more comprehensive study of the wreck site.
Between January and May 2011, South Australian diver Steve 'Savy' Saville discovered significant wreckage North of the SUHR find. In May 2011 Steve Saville, along with Luke Baade videoed and photographed the new find, and as well, parts of the SUHR discovery.
After lobbying by the SUHR, the SA Premier, Don Dunstan, announced on 11 December 1976 that the SUHR would be mounting an expedition in February 1977 to study the site and that the government will providing the following support – deployment of 10 police divers, special leave for government employees involved with the expedition and concessional fares on the government-owned ferry, MV Troubridge. Dunstan also announced the declaration of the area around the wreck site as a historic reserve under the SA Aboriginal and Historic Relics Preservation Act 1965.
In February 1977, a party of 34 people arrived in 2 major movements at a camp site set up at West Bay for a stay of 2 weeks. Due to unsuitable diving conditions, the first week was spent diving the Fides shipwreck on the north coast of Kangaroo Island. The second week was spent at the Loch Vennachar wreck site where the SUHR was able to achieve the following outcomes – the location of the wreck site in respect to the land, a survey of the wreck's bow section including locating the major anchors, completion of a photographic site record and recovery of a selection of artefacts for conservation. The expedition was funded by member contributions along with the donation of services, goods and cash from 4 government agencies, 35 private businesses and numerous individuals.
In 1979, as recommended in the Expedition's report, the opportunity to conserve one of the bower anchors was realised when grant funding became available. The SUHR collaborated with the SA Government and the Kangaroo Island Scuba Club to carry out the recovery. Assistance to the project was also provided by another 23 government agencies, private organisations and individuals. On 31 March 1980, an anchor shank was recovered from the wreck site followed by its stock on 1 April. Both parts were temporarily stored in the waters of West Bay for eventual collection and transfer by the fishing vessel, Lady Buick, to Kingscote respectively during April and May 1980. The shank and the stock were then respectively conveyed to Port Adelaide on MV Troubridge and on HMAS Banks. Conservation was carried out by Amdel in Adelaide. The conserved anchor was returned to Kangaroo Island where it was placed on display at the Flinders Chase Homestead in the Flinders Chase National Park, following a formal ceremony on 26 March 1982 attended by David Wotton, the SA Minister of Environment and Planning.
The wreck site has been protected by the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 since October 1980 when it replaced the statutory protection provided by the SA Aboriginal and Historic Relics Preservation Act 1965. Its location is officially recorded as 35°52′48″S 136°31′12″E. The grave of the unidentified seaman can still be seen to this day at West Bay, however with a replica wooden cross as the original cross made from rigging spars from the wreckage was destroyed by vandals during the 1970s. The bower anchor which was previously located at the Flinders Chase Homestead was moved to a site adjoining the visitors car park on the south side of West Bay prior to 2006.