As you descend the mooring line, the Bonnie Dundee comes into view as a dark patch on the light sand background. The mooring line leads to the stern where there is still a reasonable amount of structure projecting from the sand, including the steering column and the top of the rudder and one of the blades of the propeller. The driveshaft from the engine is burried beneath the sand.
The stern is the largest section of the vessel still intact. Thick algal growth, textured by rust, old barnacles and tubeworms, covers all metallic surfaces. There are a huge number of bigeye aggregating all over the wreck.
Moving forward, between 1 and 1.5 feet of hull remains above the sand, the rest having been buried. The boiler and engine sit proud of the sandy bottom ringed by just the very top of the hull and the distinct outline of the ship. The smokestack from the boiler is still the tallest point in the vessel.
The Bonnie Dundee had a primary boiler and, slightly further foward, a small donkey boiler. Her engine is a compound twin-cylinder engine. Next you reach the base of one of the king posts, now long gone. The bow rests sideways, having broken away from the rest of the ship and has itself become mostly buried.
The Bonnie Dundee is an excellent example of how a steel-hulled vessel survives after being wrecked. Initially, the area immediately behind the bow weakens causing the bow to separate from the rest of the vessel and usually fall to one side before sinking between halfway and two-thirds into the sand. The decking and bulkheads largely fall apart, leaving only the thicker skeletal beams. The rest of the vessel slowly sinks into the sand to roughly the point where it would have floated above the water.
The Bonnie Dundee left Sydney at 12:30pm on 10 March 1879 bound for the Manning River under the command of Captain J. Stewart with a crew of 21, including one female steward. There were at least three female passengers.
Shortly after 6pm, the Bonnie Dundee was heading North past Swansea with her running lights lit. Travelling in the opposite direction was the SS Barrabool, a much larger vessel at 68 meters length by 9 meters width and displacing 948 tons. The Barrabool was travelling from Newcastle to Melbourne under the command of Captain J. Clark. The Barrabool had previously collided with and sunk the SS Queensland off Wilson’s Promontory, Victoria.
At about 7:35pm, the Barrabool spotted the running lights of the Bonnie Dundee approximately 5.5km away. Even though the two ships were in sight for quite some time, at 8pm the Barrabool struck the Bonnie Dundee amidships on the starboard side, holeing her beneath the waterline.
The Bonnie Dundee sank within four minutes just south of Swansea.
While the vessels were still fused together, around six of the Bonnie Dundee’s crew jumped from the deck of the Bonnie Dundee up to the bow of the Barrabool. The 16-year-old deckhand also attempted the jump. He did not make it and fell back on the deck of the Bonnie Dundee. He became injured and eventually drowned when the Bonnie Dundee went under.
As the two ships pulled apart, once Captain Stewart of the Bonnie Dundee realised the vessel could not be saved, he ordered the remaining lifeboat lowered, at which time the remaining crew other than the Captain, three female passengers, a child and the female steward, jumped into the lifeboat and cut it loose. The stewardess threw the child into the lifeboat as it drifted away from the side of the Bonnie Dundee.
The Captain handed the four women lifejackets. The Captain would be the only one pulled from the water alive as the four women were sucked under as the Bonnie Dundee sank. Their bodies were not recovered.
The Barrabool would later sink a third ship, the Birksgate, in 1894 and earned the nickname ‘The Great Australian Ram’ and a reputation for steering so badly that other ships got out of her way when she approached.
Max Gleeson (2004) “Destination Never Reached”.