A NOMINATION FOR THE SS COWEAMBAH
SOME NOTES BY DAVID BENSON
Shipwreck – Coweambah
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Shipwreck Id number: 442
Vessel name: Coweambah
Type of vessel: Screw steamer
Sailing rig type:
Gross tonnage (imperial tons): 76.0
Year wrecked: 1945
Jurisdiction: New South Wales
Region: NSW – Mid North Coast
General History: The Coweambah was driven ashore and wrecked at Trial Bay on the 11/06/1945. The owner at the time was G & A Engel and Sons and the Master was J N Hanson. One crew member lost their life. The Coweambah was a 76-ton wooden screw steamer built by G A Engel and Sons at Tea Gardens Port Stephens in 1919. The vessel had a length of 25.2 metres and a beam of 6.8 metres.
Historic Images Australasian Underwater Cultural Heritage Database
The S.S. Coweambah (“Cowie”)
Adolph Engel decided to build a seaworthy vessel at Tea Gardens to carry freight and passengers between Tea Gardens and Newcastle.He planned to use it to establish a supply chain for the firm, the roads of the time being totally inadequate for this purpose. His eldest son, Henry Melvin Engel, supervised the construction of the wooden hulled S.S. Coweambah on Witt’s Island and she was launched in 1919. The Cowie had a coal fired boiler and a two cylinder compound steam engine for propulsion. She was described as “a wooden vessel, gross tonnage 76, length 82 ft 7 in, breadth 22 ft 4 in, depth 5 ft 5 in, horsepower 14, constructed in Port Stephens 1919”.
This remarkable little weather-beaten ship proved more seaworthy than most had expected, despite the navigational hazards at the entrance to Port Stephens. She became a vital link for the firm and her requisition in World War II (1943) was a major blow to the Company. The Cowie was decked out in her “jungle greens” and sent to New Guinea where she ferried stores from the U.S. Liberty ships into the bays and inlets of the region. In June 1945, her war service over, she was wrecked on the return journey during a cyclone in Trial Bay near South West Rocks.
The Engel Family Book Brian Engel (p.6)
Photographs from The Engel Family Book Brian Engel
THE END OF THE COWEAMBAH
As Japanese forces advanced in the South Pacific in 1942, the US Army recognised the need for small shallow drafted craft to navigate the dangerous coastline of New Guinea. A flotilla of small craft, mainly from Australia, was assembled under the US Army Small Ships Section in which many Australians served.
One of these small boats was S-96 Coweambah, originally built as a lake steamer in 1919 at Tea Gardens. On a stormy night in June 1945, S-96 Coweambah was being towed from New Guinea to Sydney by a US Naval ship when they ran into a fierce storm off the Mid North Coast. They anchored near South West Rocks but the storm grew in intensity until the hawser connecting them to the larger ship broke and the anchors failed to hold. A South West Rocks correspondent for the Macleay Argus described the storm as the worst in many years, with winds of seventy miles (116 kilometers) an hour and driving rain.
The escorting vessel was unable to assist as the 100 ton (90 tonnes) steamer was buffeted around the bay for several hours until it was hit by a large wave, and rolled then sank about half a kilometre off the river entrance. Six of the crew managed to get clear of the vessel, however a seventh member disappeared and was never seen again. The survivors were eventually washed up on the sands of the northern side of the river where local fishermen and other locals rowed across the swollen river to their rescue.
The survivors were made comfortable with blankets and cigarettes and then rowed back across the river where an ambulance had arrived to take them back to Kempsey and the Macleay Hospital. Whilst there, the Kempsey Ambulance driver, Mervyn Duke, found a folding chair from the wreck which he salvaged and later used as his office chair at the Ambulance Station.
The wreck of the Coweambah off the coast of South West Rocks, 1945; Phil Lee, Macleay River Historical Society
Origin of the name Coweambah.
For many years, the area known now as Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest was known as Coweambah.
In the mid 1820’s the Australian Agricultural Company was granted 1 million acres to the north of Port Stephens the first AA Company Commissioner was Robert Dawson and he established the policy of naming places by the names given by the local Aboriginal inhabitants. AA Company surveyor, John Armstrong followed this policy religiously while undertaking the early surveys of the company’s territory.
1824 Map of Part of Port Stephens for the AA Company by John Armstrong
The most likely origin of the name is that it came from the mispronunciation of Kawalinbah shown on the map above as being in the area. European pronunciations of Aboriginal names were phonetic approximations and this may well have resulted in Coweambah being adopted throughout the area because it would likely have been the landing place for boats carrying AA Company staff up the beach going north.
There can be no stronger claimant to the honour of having a wharf named after her than the Coweambah. Not only was she named for the Tea Gardens area using the area’s original and Aboriginal name, she was built here! In addition she was built and owned by one of the earliest European settler families, the Engels. She saw service during World War 2 in New Guinea and was finally wrecked while she was being towed near Seal Rocks. She sank within 40 miles of where she had been built, having nearly reached home.
Many locals have stories of their relationship to this wonderful ship. Here’s mine:
My father Bill Benson was living with his parents at Stockton during the early 1930’s when the Depression hit. Dad was unemployed and about 20 years old when he had to face the fact that he would have to support himself somehow. He caught the Coweambah up to Tea Gardens and spent six months camped on the oval at Tea Gardens and says the best job he could get up here was helping the Motums pull in their fishing nets. Every fortnight Nanna Benson would pack a food hamper for Dad and send it up on the Coweambah. Dad went on to become the Chief Mechanical Engineer for all NSW BHP coal mines.
The Myall Coast Historical Association