Subsequent to a loaded voyage from Houston, New Orleans, Beaumont, the vessel discharged in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, loaded a quantity of Copper ingots in Port Pirie for the UK, and completed discharge of the US cargo in Fremantle. On board for Washington Island was several slings of mail and around seventy tons of food products and drink to last the island for six months, all stowed in No 2 tween deck, across the forward end. Resident in the ships hospital was the relief supervisor for the contract labor on Washington Island
Thereafter proceeded to the Solomon Islands for Copra, in bulk, and Nukaloafa, Tonga. for similar, followed by Suva for Coconut Oil and Copra, then Apia, Western Samoa for copra. The vessel then proceeded to Washington and Xmas islands in the line islands for it’s final loadings of copra.
Resident on the island was one Australian, Bill Frew, representing Burns Philip & Co, and in charge of a hundred families, on a three year contract from southern kiribati.
A moderate wind and a long, high, heavy ground swell was present on arrival offshore Washington Island. the water depth was prohibitive for anchoring. The loading was to be effected by cargo service boats who transit the reef which almost completely surrounds the island .
A heavy hawser line reached from shore to a large buoy position about sixty metres beyond the reef. The cargo service boats were built with a heavy bow and stern post, each cut with a groove to house the hawser. The boats would then transit a very narrow channel (probably created by dynamite) by positioning the hawser through their grooves, and with small lashings from boat to hawser, holds the boat steady, then to make headway in or out, quickly release the lashings on the incoming swell or the fast moving ‘drag back’.
For several days the ‘Southbank’ drifted offshore, and each morning around 7 a.m. the Captain would pilot the vessel close to shore and check the weather situation with Bill Frew on vhf radio. On December 25th1964 the conditions remained ;unsuitable’ and the ‘Southbank’ was, again moved offshore.
Being Xmas day, a party was held on the Starboard Boat Deck and went into the morning hours. From later conversations I would estimate between 2 and 3 a.m.
If not already awake, all personnel were immediately roused by the vessel’ shuddering, broadside’ to port against the side of the reef. The time was approximately 7 a.m. From that time there appeared no further attempt to start the engines.
The majority of the Indian Crew went into ‘immediate panic’, gathering their belongings into blankets, including food items, cutlery and any other items they assumed of some value, then attended the lifeboat stations. Chief Mate Angus MCbain, proceeded to lower both port side lifeboats. The heavy swell, with each surge was slowly turning the stern of the vessel to starboard, and little by little the entire vessel further on to the reef. While there still remained calmer waters to port both lifeboats were filled with Indian Nationals and towed away over the swell by the local cargo service boats. Then south-westward to a second channel way, where they were landed on the beach. The service boats then returned to attend the vessel.
During the first disembarkation, Second Mate MCintosh was assigned by the Captain to rig No 2 hatch forward derrick, and remove sufficient hatch covers to hoist the islands mail up and over the rail, for landing into a lifeboat. MCintosh was then assigned two remaining AB’s to lower the starboard forward lifeboat, and in conjunction with the breaking of the swell, ride the wave enough to collect the mail, then quickly turn and get back over the next wave before it breaks.
When the attempt reached fruition the vessel was ‘dead straight’ onto the reef and had been pushed forward sufficient to allow the swell to break directly at the point of ‘the drop’.