HMAS Wyatt Earp 19471948

Wyatt Earp at Elizabeth Street pier, Hobart 1947
Wyatt Earp at Elizabeth Street pier, Hobart 1947 (Photo: P 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

Wyatt Earp was built in 1919. A staunch, single deck, motor-driven vessel, she was built of Baltic pine and English oak, and had served her early life as a herring boat named Fanefjord, in the Bay of Biscay. She was bought by the American polar adventurer, Lincoln Ellsworth, as a support ship for his attempted flight across the Antarctic continent between 1929 and 1933.

Ellsworth refitted the ship and strengthened her hull for ice work with oak and armour plate. He re-named her Wyatt Earp after his childhood hero – the brave, frontier marshal of Dodge City and Tombstone, who typified for many the pioneer empire builders of the American West.

Sir Douglas Mawson was instrumental in the Australian government refitting of the vessel for an Antarctic exploration vessel in 1946. With a round bottomed hull, Wyatt Earp had the reputation of being able to ‘roll violently on wet grass!’

Her specifications included:

  • engine 400 horse power
  • tonnage 400 tons
  • length 135 feet
  • beam 29 ft 2 inches
  • depth 14 feet 3 inches
  • speed 8.5 knots
  • endurance 63 days at 8 knots
  • range of action 11000 miles
  • class A1 Norwegian Veritas

Wyatt Earp was only slightly bigger than Captain Cook’s Endeavour, which visited Australia in 1770.

Just out of Melbourne on her first ANARE exploration voyage, the ship met a Force 10 gale, sustained considerable damage, and everyone on board was violently seasick. Not an auspicious beginning! Thwarted by mechanical problems, bad weather and heavy ice, Wyatt Earp finally approached within 30 miles of King George V Land coast at Cape Grey, and visited the Balleny Islands. Her commander, Karl E. Oom, considered Wyatt Earp to be too old, too slow, and too small for the task, and commented:

“Never have I known a vessel which could throw staff so violently from side to side. She doesn't even roll like a lady!”

On 30 June 1948, Wyatt Earp ended her Antarctic career and was sold to the Arga Shipping Company. She was re-named Wongala and later Natone, and used as an Australian coastal trader. She ran aground 150 miles north of Brisbane on Saturday 24 January 1959, and was dashed to pieces.