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A History of the Loch Ard Shipwreck

The Loch Ard is arguably Victoria’s best known shipwreck and remains a source of fascination for many travellers who take a Great Ocean Road tour. This ship, which sailed between 1873 and 1878, has an interesting history and, today, many people love to relive and learn about the final voyage of the Loch Ard.

What is known about the final voyage of the Loch Ard?

On March 2, 1878, the Loch Ard departed England destined for Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne. The ship was under the command of 29-year-old Captain Gibbs and was full to its capacity of 17 passengers, 37 crew and cargo when it collided with a rocky reef close to Mutton Bird Island, near Port Campbell. Tragically, only two of the people on board survived the accident: one of the ship’s apprentices named Tom Pearce and a young female passenger named Eva Carmichael.

During the journey (on June 1, 1878), there was much excitement aboard the Loch Ard as the Captain and passengers were expecting to see land — the coast of Victoria. However, the ship had sailed into a dense fog and, when this lifted at 4am, Captain Gibbs discovered that the ship was much closer to the cliffs of Victoria’s west coast than anticipated. Ordering as much sail to be set as possible, he desperately tried to turn the ship out to sea but the ship soon lost momentum, with its sails falling limp and its bow swinging back. The anchors were dropped but failed to hold and the Loch Ard was tossed and pulled. Despite the frantic efforts of the Captain and the crew, the Loch Ard connected with a reef connected to Mutton Bird Island.

Tragically, efforts to successfully launch lifeboats were thwarted by treacherous conditions and many passengers and crew drowned. Tom Pearce had attempted to launch the first lifeboat and was able to hold on to its overturned hull and use it for shelter. He drifted out to sea and came into what is now known as Loch Ard Gorge. Despite being bruised and dazed, he swam to shore and sheltered in a cave.

Shortly before being swept off the ship by an enormous wave, Eva Carmichael had encountered Captain Gibbs who said, “If you are saved Eva, let my dear wife know that I died like a sailor.” Eventually, being carried into Loch Ard Gorge after five hours in the water, Eva attracted the attention of Tom Pearce who swam to her rescue and brought her to shore. Eva was unconscious, but a case of brandy that had washed onto the beach helped to revive her.

Two men from the nearby Glenample Station eventually assisted Tom and Eva. Tom received a hero’s welcome in Melbourne and, after six weeks, Eva returned to Ireland. Members of the public had been intrigued with the story and were upset when the two went their separate ways.

The trip to Australia in 1878 was the fifth and final voyage of the Loch Ard, which had previously made three trips from England to Australia and one to Calcutta.

Cargo aboard the Loch Ard

The cargo carried by the Loch Ard reveals much about the affluence of Melbourne in the era (further insight into the city in the 19th century can be acquired through a Melbourne tour). Items such as perfumes, pianos, clocks, linen, candles, confectionery, umbrellas and straw hats were on board together with heavier, more industrial items such as railway irons, lead, cement and copper.

The shipwreck of the Loch Ard still lies near Mutton Bird Island and much of its cargo has been salvaged. The Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum in Warrnambool keeps a collection of artefacts and the Port Campbell Visitor Information Centre also features relics and an interesting display about the ship and its history.

Victorian shipwrecks

Since 1797, approximately 800 ships have been shipwrecked along the coast of Victoria and less than 200 of these have been discovered.

On March 11, 1982, the Loch Ard was protected as a Historic Shipwreck.

The Loch Ard today

The Loch Ard is a significant part of Victoria’s Underwater Shipwreck Discovery Trail. While some dives are suitable for people with limited diving experience, other dives along the trail require divers to be more skilled and experienced.

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