HOLMGLENHOLMGLEN, motor vessel:
In a strong southerly wind and a moderate to rough seaconditions not so bad as to prevent smaller craft from responding to her distress signal-the Holmglen foundered at a point approximately 22 miles east-south-east of Timaru on the evening of November 24, 1959, with the loss of her crew of 15 men.
The vessel left Dunedin about 9 a.m. on Monday, November 23, with 300 tons of general cargo. Additional cargo was loaded at Oamaru on Tuesday, and at 3.45 p.m. the same day the Holmglen sailed from the North Otago port, bound for Wanganui via Wellington.
The first intimation of impending disaster came at 9.12 p.m. on the 24th, when the "Mayday" signal (International distress call) was heard at the Taiaroa Head Signal and Radio Station and the Wellington Radio Station. Over the radio telephone a voice, believed to be that of the master, identified the vessel calling as the Holmglen, and requested assistance. The ship's position was given as latitude 44 degrees 35 minutes south and longitude 171 degrees 37 minutes east. Further information given was, "Am heeling heavily to port .... accommodation awash .... preparing to launch boat". Taiaroa Head acknowledged the message, and was answered by another message from the Holmglen requesting the station to stand by for further signals. Despite repeated calls to her, nothing further was heard from the stricken vessel.
At 9.35 p.m. advice of the Holmglen's distress call was received by the Timaru harbour-master, Captain F. J. Callan, who directed the Search and Rescue operations. The first vessels to respond were the naval survey launches Tarapunga and Takapau which cleared harbour at 10.30 p.m., followed about an hour later by the fishing vessels Seafarer and Moray Rose. By early morning a further 17 fishing vessels had joined in the search. They were the Craigewan, Norseman, Kaio,
Heather, Kelvin, Margaret, Rimu, Rambler, Stella, Dauntless, Nella, Bar-K-Lyn, Souvenir, Miss Te Maru, Susan, Ajax and Sutton Mac. All shipping in the vicinity was advised by radio that the Holmglen was in distress and the motor vessel Holmburn, then off Akaroa en route to' Timaru, proceeded with all possible speed to the position given but owing to sea and weather conditions could not make better than seven knots. The overseas freighter Cape Ortegal received advice of the Holmglen's plight from Wellington Radio at 9.45 p.m. She was then 42 miles south of the sinking vessel's position and, turning about, reached the search area at 2 a.m. Early on the afternoon the freighter Korowai also joined the search. At daylight the search from the air began, three Devon aircraft of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, the South Canterbury Aero Club's Cessna 172 and two aircraft from the United States "Deep-freeze" squadrons based at Christchurch taking part.
The Tarapunga and Takapau reached the position given by the Holmglen at 00.30 a.m. on the 25th and began searching with the aid of searchlights. Green and white flares were fired in the hope of attracting the attention of possible survivors. At 1.50 a.m. the Takapau sighted a green Very light, distant approximately one to five miles, and altered course to investigate but nothing was seen. At 4.15 a.m. the Holmburn reached the search area and at 5.3Q a.m. those on board observed a large oil slick, extending about half a mile across. This was circled for over an hour when heavy oil was seen rising to the surface at the windward limit of the oil slick. Using her echo-sounder, the Holmburn made several runs to the southward and at 7.30 a.m. observed an irregularity on the seabed. This was verified by the fishing vessel Rambler's echo-sounder and the position of the sunken Holmglen was established and marked by a red anchor buoy. She lay in 30 fathoms of water, about 22 miles east-south-east of Timaru, and about six or seven miles north-east of the position indicated in the distress call.
At about 8.20 a.m. the Holmburn encountered floating wreckage, consisting of cargo baskets, fenders, drums, dunnage and what appeared to have been deck cargo. The rudder of the ill-fated vessel's starboard lifeboat was found and taken on board. At 9 a.m. a body supported by three lifebuoys lashed to a cargo tray, was sighted, and a quarter of an hour later a second body was found, kept afloat by a kapoc life-jacket. The bodies were recovered by the fishing vessels Nella and C raigewan and taken to Timaru. Later, at an inquest, they were identified as those of James McEwen and Sydney McKenzie.
At 10 a.m. Captain Callan ordered the fishing vessels back to port because of rising seas, the last two, the Norseman and Seafarer reaching harbour at 2.30 p.m. Because of poor visibility the search from the air was abandoned at 2.30 p.m. and as a result of the The Court of Inquiry was unable to find the cause of the sinking of the Holmglen. The report of the court's finding stated, "The Court is deeply conscious of the fact that, if the cause of the casualty could have been ascertained, losses of life and ships might be avoided in the future." It found that the cause of the tragedy arose with great rapidity and the vessel foundered with great rapidity. It did not arise through an engine explosion, the opening of plates, a collision or wreck such as striking rocks. The hold cargo appeared to have been properly stowed and, in the court's opinion, was unlikely to have materially shifted. It considered the ship was not overloaded but very close to her marks.
It concluded that the weather experienced by the Holmglen at the time it foundered would be no more than force 8 wind, with a tendency to squalls, occasional light rain, and cloudy with clear periods.
There was nothing in the evidence to disclose a condition of exceptional severity such as might result from hurricane or typhoon condition. Apart from an affidavit by Captain Mallett, of the ship Cape Ortegal, all evidence before the court waa to the effect that the weather and sea conditions were not such as to give rise for apprehension about the Holmglen's fate.
"This conclusion does not imply that the Holmglen did not experience unusually higher than average seas which might have caused some damage to her", the court added.
Evidence of the state of weather and sea did not justify the conclusion that the ship foundered as the result of these alone-even if some damage to the vessel was accepted as being the result of these. The court felt that if the ship's condition had been caused by any known cause such as weather, sea or cargo shifting, the Holmglen's "mayday" message-heeling hard to port, accommodation awash-would have said so.
A heavy heeling could have been caused by her shipping water through her openings, her deck cargo moving, the weight of water in the poop deck as a result of a following sea, or instability. The court accepted the evidence of those who sailed in the Holmglen that she was a bad steering ship and that her sail was used to prevent her yawing and keep her steady on her course and to steady her from rolling.
The court said the need for inflatable life rafts, in addition to one or both of the Holmglen's boats, became apparent throughout the hearing. The court said lives might have been saved if these type of rafts had been carried, and recom
mended to the Minister of Marine that the shipping life-saving appliances rules should be amended to provide that inflatable life rafts be made compulsory for cargo vessels.
The Holmglen, No. 187,358, was a steel, motor vessel of 485 tons gross and 219 tons net register, built at Martenshoeck, Hoogezand, Holland, in 1956 by Bodewed Scheepswerven and her dimensions were : length 148.5 ft., beam 28.3 ft., depth 10 ft. Her foul-cylinder oil engine was built in 1954 by M.A.K., of Kiel, Germany, and gave her a service speed of about nine knots. She was owned by the Holm Shipping Company, Ltd., and was commanded by Captain E. J. E. Regnaud. The other members of her crew were : Chief Officer, K. D. Billinghurst; Second Officer, K. L. Barker; Chief Engineer, R. A. McC. Foster; Second Engineer, A. J. Wolgast; Third Engineer, W. H. Harding; Able Seamen S. McKenzie, J. Cleary, D. Wharlow, H. Weasterley, A. Pemberton; Ordinary Seaman G. J. Boyce; Cook, J. Anson; Steward, A. S. McClellan; Wiper, J. McEwan. (See plate 120.)
weather and visibility deteriorating the search was abandoned and the Holmburn and Korowai were recalled.
Despite the fatigue of their crews, the fishing vessels continued the search on the days succeeding the foundering but nothing further was found until about 7.30 p.m. on Friday, November 27, the motor vessel Karu, which had left Timaru at 4 p.m. for Wellington, picked up the overturned lifeboat from the Holmglen, 26 miles north-east of Timaru. There were no occupants in the lifeboat and after searching the area for some time, the Karu returned to Timaru with the lifeboat.
On Saturday, following the finding of the lifeboat, the Minister of Marine ordered a full-scale air-sea search which covered 1,200 square miles of sea off the Canterbury coast. The search was abandoned at 4.30 p.m. and an hour later, when returning to port, the fishing vessel Norseman found a body about four miles south-east of where the lifeboat was found by the Karu. This was later identified at that of Wilfred Henry Harding.
Subsequently, an examination of the sunken Holmglen was made by divers of the Royal New Zealand Navy and by underwater television camera. The vessel was found to be on an even keel, but nothing was seen that would give any indication as to the cause of the disaster, despite an examination as thorough as possible, considering the restricted visibility which prevailed throughout.
(New Zealand Shipwrecks, Beckett Books Ltd, 1990)
Article reprints or information email DiveNZ@divenewzealand.co.nz