Sonar Science Uncovers Grim Wartime Secret
Researchers have discovered the rusty wreck of the City of Rayville the first US vessel lost during World War II almost 69 years after it sank off the coast of Cape Otway. Destroyed by a German mine on November 8, 1940, the exact resting place of the ship which was heading via Melbourne to New York with its cargo of lead, wool and copper had remained a mystery.
However, Deakin University researchers led by Daniel Ierodiaconou used multi-beam sonar imagery and remotely operated video equipment to locate the wreck about 14 kilometres south of Cape Otway Lighthouse and recorded the first detailed images of the ship in its watery grave, 70 metres below the surface. Dr Ierodiaconou said that although two sets of approximate co-ordinates for the wreck were established in 2002, sitting about 600 metres apart, the exact location had not been confirmed. "We weren't sure at first if it was a reef structure or a wreck at first but when we towed a camera over it, it was clear," he said. While the stars and stripes painted on both sides of its hull have long faded, the 6000-tonne vessel's outline is clear in the colour video footage
Using information gathered by sonar equipment, scientists created a 3D profile of the wreck and surrounding sea floor, which revealed the City of Rayville was sitting upright on its keel, although listing slightly. Damage to the vessel from the mine's explosion is evident by the missing hatch cover near the stern. Heritage Victoria maritime archaeologist Cassandra Philippou said the wreck, which is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register and the National Historic Shipwrecks Database, was historically important and confirming the wreck's location would allow authorities to monitor and manage the site. She said of the 700-odd shipwrecks off Victoria's coast, only about a third had been located. The Germans laid 100 mines in Bass Strait using the tanker Passat. The City of Rayville became the second ship destroyed in 24 hours, after the British steamer SS Cambridge hit a mine off Wilsons Promontory. "Most people now don't realise that we had mines off our coast, off Cape Otway near Lorne," Dr Ierodiaconou said.
But it was big news at the time. A story on the front page of The Ageon November 11, 1940 just below news of the death of former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain reported that Bass Strait had been closed to shipping while the navy swept the "mine field in Bass Strait". Several mines were located as a result, the report said. Of the Rayville's 38 crew, only one sailor died the first death of a US merchant seaman in World War II. The rest of the crew were rescued after the Cape Otway lightkeeper witnessed the night-time explosion and alerted the Apollo Bay rescue service, which dispatched three rescue boats. All 38 crew were found in lifeboats, but one man returned to the boat in search of personal items and drowned.
The wreck was located while Dr Ierodiaconou and a team of 30 researchers were mapping Victoria's underwater landscape. Working up to three nautical miles from the coast, the researchers have so far mapped about 12 per cent of the state's coastline. "We have found the most incredible sponge gardens which rival the Great Barrier Reef in terms of colour and complexity," he said. "We've got these incredible habitats at our doorstep." Also mapped are underwater features including volcanoes, river systems and laval flows that began near Mt Eccles in the state's west.
Article originally published in The Age.