Wreck of the SS Gothenburg

She left Port Darwin for Melbourne on the 14th with 88 passengers and a crew of 38, reaching Somerset via Albany Pass, on the 19th.

The passengers went ashore and bought a lot of pearlshell. A strong wind arose, and the steamer lost two of her anchors. If she had not steam up, she would have gone ashore.

At half past six in the evening of the 24th, with full steam on, and forward topsail, and a running sea, the Gothenburg struck on the Barrier Reef east of Port Denison, near Holborne Island. The engines were kept going astern, until near daylight, when the boats were lowered during a heavy thunderstorm, when those on deck could only see those in the boats during a flash of lightning. The ship keeling over prevented any use of the starboard boats.

The Gothenburg travelled 900 miles from Palmerston to Somerset, on Cape York in three days. The weather was worsening as the ship took on ballast. Conditions deteriorated to a point where both anchor chains parted. She headed south into stormy weather.

On the evening of 24 February 1875 the ship was heading south in almost cyclonic conditions with fore, top and mainsails set and the engines running at full speed. Flooding rains lashed the entire Queensland coast and captain Pearce could not see land.

He altered course away from the coast and ran full tilt onto Old Reef at low tide.

By morning of the 25 February, only the masts were visible protruding from the water, with 14 people clinging to the rigging, where they remained for the next twenty four hours in cyclonic weather. At low tide, the Gothenburg ground and twisted and broke her back between the fore and main masts. However, the remaining starboard lifeboat which had also capsized, still held on by her painter and the rope attached by Cleland. At first light, on 26 February the weather eased and those survivors managed to right the boat, bailed it out, prepared a makeshift sail and paddled for the mainland. About seven hours later they realised they could not make mainland, so they altered course for an island that could be seen in the distance. When they arrived, they were met by 4 of the crew from one of the port lifeboats. Their lifeboat had been severely damaged on the rocks on the opposite side of the island while attempting to land there the day before.

The other port lifeboat, with four crew on board, was picked up by the steamer Leichhardt at an island at the entrance to Whitsunday passage two days after the disaster. The steamer immediately reversed course back towards the wreck, which she reached at approximately 3.30pm on Friday, 26 February. Gothenburg was a complete wreck, the funnel was gone and she had sunk to the eyes of the lower rigging. The Leichhardt Chief Officer and four hands went alongside, but nothing other than her masts could be seen above the water except for the body of a naked man floating nearby. They assumed the other victims had been taken by sharks.The Leichhardt searched for survivors until last light and then made way for Bowen where the alarm was raised.

At Holbourne Island, the other 18 survivors were living off raw bird's eggs and rain water that had pooled in the island rocks. Because rescue was uncertain, they engraved ship details and their names on the concave side of a large turtle shell, in the hope that it would be found in the future. On Sunday, 28 February, 15 of them set off in the starboard lifeboat for an island about 20 miles away to the south, which appeared to be closer to the main shipping lane. A rescue ship sent looking for survivors, picked up the group and took them safely to Bowen. Another rescue ship called the Bunyip from Townsville subsequently returned to Holbourne Island and rescued the three remaining survivors.