Forgotten sinking of the Fred Moore

Terry Cook recounts pilot launch sinking in the Bass Strait

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BOATWRECK: Terry Cook was the engine driver of the Fred Moore when it foundered and sank in the Bass Strait. Picture: Paul Scambler.

BOATWRECK: Terry Cook was the engine driver of the Fred Moore when it foundered and sank in the Bass Strait. Picture: Paul Scambler.

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Back in the summer of 1967-1968 a ship sunk in the Bass Strait.

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Back in the summer of 1967-1968, Terry Cook was working for the Launceston Port Authority at the Pilot Station in Low Head in northern Tasmania. He was living with his wife just south of the lighthouse in a house on the Pilot Station Precinct.

Mr Cook - along with the other boatmen at the station - would work three weeks on-call, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ferrying pilots out to ships in the Bass Strait so they could then navigate back through the narrow Tamar Estuary.

On the day in question, at around 8am, Mr Cook was one of three men tasked with transporting Captain Cosgrove to a large coastal trader, so he could then direct the ship through to Bell Bay.

The usual pilot launch - the boat used by the station to ferry individuals to ships - had been taken up the Tamar for survey, meaning the crew were left to use the relief launch: the Fred Moore (pictured). Despite being old, the Fred Moore had been considered a reliable back-up launch, until the day in question. According to Mr Cook - who believes he may be the last person alive with a first-hand account of the sinking of the Fred Moore - conditions that morning were choppy but not exceedingly rough.

The Fred Moore. Picture: Supplied

The Fred Moore. Picture: Supplied

The Fred Moore was cresting waves and coming down steadily as it made its way out to the coastal trader. The pilot launch had just left the mouth of the Tamar and was passing by Hebe Reef in the Bass Strait - not far from the coastal trader - when the bow of the bow came down hard on the surface of the water and he and the crew heard a "crunch". One crew member went below deck and Mr Cook heard him yell out, "The whole side has gone!"

Rushing below deck himself, Mr Cook discovered that the impact on the water had peeled back two or three of the planks running lengthwise along the boat, exposing the lower deck completely.

"I'll never forget the sight of it. The water came up but it hadn't broken yet. It came through the gap and if you could slice through it, it would have been mushroom shaped," he said.

"It was clear and green, and I could see straight through the bottom of the boat. Then, the whole thing exploded and white water was racing everywhere."

In the maelstrom that resulted below deck, Mr Cook rushed to the mechanical pump to start ejecting water from the boat. When that seemed insufficient he then began working the manual pump, but it soon became obvious that the water was flooding in too quickly to abate. Once the crew realised this, they threw on life jackets, climbed up to where the life raft was stowed and prepared to abandon ship, though according to Mr Cook, it was more like the ship abandoned them.

"In the end, we didn't have to abandon ship, the whole thing went down by the bow and we just sort of floated off," he said.

With the three crewmen and the captain now treading water in the Bass Strait, their next challenge was to get themselves safely into the life raft - which proved difficult as no one had been trained in the procedure. With the Fred Moore now destroyed and sinking, the life raft was floating free in the water - but it was upside down. After some effort and multiple tries, Mr Cook and the crew managed to correct the raft and haul themselves inside. There they found ration supplies and unlabeled cans of what - according to Mr Cook - they'd hoped was beer but turned out to be clean drinking water.

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Laughing about their ordeal thus far, Mr Cook and the crew floated in place waiting to be rescued. A sea anchor attached to the life raft ensured they didn't drift too far in the choppy waters. Looking further out across the strait, however, Mr Cook soon realised that the coastal trader- who's captain didn't know the sea anchor was holding the raft in place - was racing toward them at an alarming rate.

"The joke was over then. We were really starting to get a bit scared because it [the ship] was coming straight towards us," he said.

The ship, which Mr Cook estimates was about 300-foot long, was hitting the waves at an angle, causing its hull to come down hard on the water after each wave. Those in the life raft realised they were directly in the path of the falling hull and so they made the decision to abandon the raft and leap into the water for a second time that day. Realising his mistake, the captain of the coastal trader cut the engine so those floating in the water wouldn't be caught up in the propellers.

Once it was deemed safe, Mr Cook and the rest of the crew clambered back into the life raft, and with the aid of a more gentle approach, the coastal trader was able to drift up alongside the men in the water, allowing them to climb aboard to safety.

By that point, the men had been in the water for about an hour. Once they were returned safely to shore, the men were sent home with a half day's "survivors' leave", before they returned to work the next day.

According to Mr Cook, little else was said about the sinking of the Fred Moore that day. The event wasn't recorded in The Examiner that week, or in subsequent weeks and until now, Mr Cook believes the tale has gone untold.

Consequently, some details from the day's events remain unclear and the Pilot Station Maritime Museum, which is now housed in the same precinct that Mr Cook lived on at the time, has few records relating to the event. With that in mind, if anyone in the public has any information about the sinking of the Fred Moore please email joshua.peach@austcommunitymedia.com.au

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