· Constructed 1881 in Sunderland, United Kingdom.
· Twin screw steamer, iron construction, compound engines.
· Tonnage 1428.56 (metric), length 92.13 meters, width 3.39 meters, draft 2.2 meters.
· Wrecked 8 August 1895 off Seal Rocks, on a voyage from Sydney to China.
The Catterthun is a big wreck about 3 km north east of Seal Rocks and is plagued by currents. Visibility is highly variable, from brail to crystal clear and rarely in between. The machinery is huge. Two giant boilers feed the giant compound steam engine, itself large enough to penetrate.
The Catterthun is blanketed by red sponge, gorgonian fans and black coral, which add to its beauty. There are nearly always sharks of some type on the wreck along with schools of kingfish, jewfish and snapper. It is common to see bronze whalers and hammerheads here.
There are loads of artefacts to discover but please don’t damage or remove any. Of particular interest are horse bones in the bow, passenger jewellery, and three missing boxes of gold sovereigns. The horses were intended as cavalry reinforcements.
The biggest hazard for a dive on the Catterthun is the strong current. With a long decompression time a diver who loses the anchor line can surface kilometers away from the boat. All divers must have at least one surface marker buoy (SMB) with a 50 meter line for subsurface deployment. Divers should also carry a jon line to fix to the anchor line, and two forms of signalling device such as a whistle and a mirror.
The boat crew must be fully briefed on procedures on seeing an SMB. Common practice is to tie a float to the anchor line for any remaining divers, before cutting away to follow the SMB and watching for any other SMBs. On closing with an SMB the boat should cut power and drift with it. When the errant divers have been recovered, the boat can return to the dive site, where any divers who ascended the anchor line should be waiting impatiently at the surface.
Water temperature at the Catterthun ranges from 14 to 24 degrees, while visibility is usually pretty good, and can be up to a clear 30 meters.
The Catterthun was intended to expand the Eastern and Australian Steamship Company's trade lines between Australia and China. She sailed between Shanghai and Adelaide, via Japan, and the East Coast cities of Australia. The risk of pirate attacks in South East Asian waters meant the Catterthun carried small arms and was designed with two small cannon as armament.
On her final voyage, the Catterthun left Sydney at 4.30 pm on 7 August 1895, carrying mail, passengers, general cargo, horses, and 8,915 gold sovereigns. The gold sovereigns were in ten boxes, placed in a large iron tank known as a specie chamber which could only be entered by a small manhole located on the chartroom floor.
Around 2.00 am the Catterthun was four miles south of Sugarloaf Point. Captain Shannon had set a course of N 30 E at 11 knots. Second Officer Lanfear became concerned about how close the Catterthun was to the shore, and raised this issue with the Captain who in turn gave orders to adjust the course to N 40 E. Captain Shannon then returned to the chart room.
As the Catterthun came round to the new course, Lanfear saw water breaking over the Big Seal Rock ahead of the ship. Without consulting with Captain Shannon, Lanfear ordered the course changed to N 80 E, which took the Catterthun on a collision course with a reef on the south east corner of the Little Seal Rock.
At 2:30 am, the Catterthun struck the reef at full speed. Water poured into her hull.
Captain Shannon gave orders to head at full steam for Seal Rocks Bay and not to launch boats as they were going to "beach her".
A crashing wave swept the Captain, the First Officer, and Torres Strait pilot Fawkes from the bridge into the ocean, leaving the Catterthun without a command staff.
The Catterthun sank within 15 minutes, at 2.45 am.
The only lifeboat successfully launched collected 26 survivors and headed north to the more sheltered beach at Cape Hawke. At around 9.00am the lifeboat came uncross the Olga, a fishing vessel, anchored just north of Charlotte Head. The Olga collected the survivors and headed for Forster.
With nearly 9,000 gold sovereigns aboard when she sank, the insurers had a lot of motivation to salvage the Catterthun wreck.
The Sydney Underwriters Association had been formed in 1876 as a risk mitigation measure and consisted of Captain Hall and his two divers Arthur Briggs and William May. Together, at the direction of insurers, they had conducted salvage operations on 70 ships between 1876 and 1889, mostly in the protected and shallow waters of rivers and harbours.
The wreck of the Catterthun, lying in 55 meter of water and subject to fierce offshore currents was to severely test Captain Hall's team.
The Catterthun was located using a sweep consisting of "one hundred and thirty fathoms of three and a half inch wire hawser, to which was attached one hundred fathoms of four inch manilla rope". The ends of the rope were tied to the two steamers, the Sterling and the Mermaid, which dragged the wire hawser along the seabed.
On 23 August 1985, the wire hawser caught on the Catterthun and the two divers were sent to investigate. On the first attempt, Arthur Briggs was caught by the current and completely missed the ship. On the second attempt, William May also missed the ship. The third attempt was successful, and Arthur Briggs sighted the Catterthun.
The team decided that they could not conduct salvage operations using the equipment available to them at the time. The insurers were informed that they would require the best diving suits Heinke's in the UK could produce. The new suits were ordered, and arrived in early 1896.
The first attempt at salvage started on 4 May 1896 when the steamers Sophia Ann and Mermaid left Sydney for Seal Rocks. They spent 9 unsuccessful days waiting for favourable weather conditions before returning to Sydney.
On 30 May 1896 the steamers again left Sydney for the second salvage attempt. This attempt was also unsuccessful due to bad weather conditions, and on 8 June 1896 the steamers left Seal Rocks to return to Sydney.
On 29 June 1896 the steamers left Sydney for the third salvage attempt. They would remain at Seal Rocks for two months while bad weather and equipment problems plagued the expedition.
Eventually between 17 and 20 August 1896, the divers would recover 7 out of 10 boxes containing 7900 gold sovereigns, and pronounced the remainder unsalvageable.
There are rumours that more gold sovereigns had been recovered, and were shared amount the salvage team, although this has not been substantiated.
The next salvage operation would not be until 1990, when despite spending 6 weeks on the wreck no further gold was recovered.
The possibility that 775 gold sovereigns, the contents of the three remaining boxes, remain on the wreck only serves to increase the attraction for scuba divers.
The Catterthun is well worth pushing through despite many inevitable cancelations due to weather, currents or other reasons. Dive trips to the Catterthun are cancelled so often that a superstition has grown about it.
Divers planning a trip to the Catterthun should never mention they are going to dive her until the day of the planned dive, instead you should say you are "going to dive the Satara with a 60m mix", or that you are going to "dive a wreck near the Satara". Whatever you do, just don't say the name of the wreck.
Max Gleeson (1996) “Shipwrecks, Storms and Seamen”. [This book can be purchased at http://maxgleeson.com].
Australian Government - Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities; "Australian National Shipwreck Database", available at <https://apps5a.ris.environment.gov.au/shipwreck/public/initiate-mch-search.do?mchTypeCode=MCT_SHWR>.
State Library of Victoria, "Loss of the Catterthun" (1985) available at <http://www.slv.vic.gov.au>.
South Australian Register, "The Wreck of the Catterthun" (Adelaide, SA : 1839 - 1900), Monday 26 August 1895, page 6, available at National Library of Australia <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article54572337>.
Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW : 1889 - 1915), Tuesday 13 August 1895, page 4, available at National Library of Australia <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article61272437>.
State Library of Queensland, "Catterthun (ship)", available at <http://bishop.slq.qld.gov.au>.