HMAS Wyatt Earp 19471948

Wyatt Earp at Elizabeth Street pier, Hobart 1947
Wyatt Earp at Elizabeth Street pier, Hobart 1947 (Photo: Phillip Law)
Wyatt Earp at the ice edge on her first ANARE voyage in February 1948 April 1948 On the ice with Wyatt Earp in background, Bay of Whales

Formerly a fishing trawler named the Fanefjord, the Wyatt Earp was bought by the American polar adventurer, Lincoln Ellsworth in 1929. Ellsworth needed a support ship for his attempt to fly across the Antarctic continent. He refitted the ship by strengthening the hull for ice work with oak and armour plate. Ellsworth renamed the ship the Wyatt Earp after his childhood hero – the brave, frontier marshal who symbolised the adventurous pioneers of the American West.

The Royal Australian Navy acquired the ship in 1939 and renamed it Wongala, which means ‘boomerang’ in Yuwibara language.

Influenced by Sir Douglas Mawson, in 1947 the Australian government requested that the Navy refurbish the ship for Antarctic exploration. It was renamed the Wyatt Earp. A small wooden, sail-assisted ship, it was only slightly bigger than the Endeavour sailed by Captain Cook on his voyage to Australia in 1770.

Specifications

  • His or Her Majesty’s Australian Ship (HMAS)
  • Class A1 Norwegian Veritas
  • engine: 400 horse power; sail-assisted
  • capacity: 400 tons
  • length: 41 metres
  • breadth: approximately 9 metres
  • speed: 8.5 knots
  • range of action: 11 000 nautical miles

Key Antarctic voyages

In 1947, departing Melbourne on the first ANARE voyage, the Wyatt Earp met gale-force winds and sustained considerable damage. Everyone on board was violently seasick. Despite mechanical problems, bad weather and heavy ice, the ship finally approached waters close to the Antarctic continent but could not push through the pack ice. The Antarctic Division Director Phillip Law recalled:

The captain tried charging one of the smaller ice floes to test the ship. I had thought we might crack through but the ship had neither the weight nor the power and merely bounced off.

Instead, the ship turned away from the pack ice surrounding the Antarctic coast towards the Balleny Islands, and later reached Macquarie Island. Captain Karl E. Oom considered the Wyatt Earp to be too old, slow, and small for the task:

Never have I known a vessel which could throw staff so violently from side to side.

The Wyatt Earp was limited in its capacity for Antarctic service but, due to the shortage of ships after World War II, was the best available at that time.

Later life

In 1948, Wyatt Earp was sold to the Arga Shipping Company, and renamed Wongala. Later renamed Natone and used as an Australian coastal trader, in 1959 the ship ran aground off the Queensland coast and was dashed to pieces.