The Antarctic ship with seven names

Natone aground near Double Island, freighter breaking up under heavy pounding” was the headline in Queensland’s The Gympie Times on Tuesday 27 January 1959.

The woodenship was travelling back from Port Moresby via Cairns, having for the past six months been converted to carry cattle from Queensland ports, following her purchase by the Sydney–Ulverstone Shipping Company of Sydney. She had struck the tail end of Cyclone Beatrice and was leaking badly, which had put out her engines. Despite hoisting her sails, she drifted ashore on the Mudlow Rocks at Rainbow Beach on Saturday 24 January 1959, to become a total loss. The heavy seas persisted for many days, during which the ship started to break up, and it was only on the sixth day that a local fisherman was able to gain access and salvage the ship’s papers and the last of the three ship’s cats.

As if an after-thought, the newspaper reporter was able to squeeze in a few words to bring to light the significance of the loss of the ship under a sub-heading; “Did service in Antarctic”, mentioning that the ship’s former name was Wongala, and before that Wyatt Earp – “an Antarctic exploration ship”.

Such was an inglorious end to a proud little Norwegian ship, which made her name in Antarctic exploration and discovery for both Norway and Australia, and was associated with the first flight across the Antarctic continent.

The ship was the former Norwegian fishing/coastal trader, MS Fanefjord, named after the long fjord which extends inland eastward past the town of Molde, the major town in the county of Romsdal. Commissioned by the Romsdal/Fanefjord Shipping Company for owner Edv. Christensen, building had commenced at the Bolsoense Shipyard and Mechanical Workshop close to the town in 1918. With the Norwegian merchant shipping fleet being decimated during WWI, the unavailability of steel meant that she was built of wood (pine and oak). The ship was 136.6 feet long (41.6 metres), with a beam of 29.2 feet (8.2 metres) and weighed 408 tonnes. She was one of the two largest ships built in the shipyard, which finally closed after nearly 100 years in 1984.

After her launch on 27 September 1919, the ship sailed to Tronheim to load timber marine props for the English coal mines. From then on she was involved in the North Sea and Norwegian coastal trade, including the Greenland and Icelandic fishing industry.

In June 1932 MS Fanefjord was purchased by Australian aviator Sir Hubert Wilkins and the famous Norwegian aviator Bernt Balchen, for the American adventurer Lincoln Ellsworth. The trio had already made names for themselves in polar exploration, but Ellsworth wanted a ship to support the first flight across the Antarctic continent. After some modifications to enable her to carry two aircraft and survive the tempestuous seas of the Southern Ocean, MS Fanefjord sailed to Oslo to load Ellsworth’s plane and voyage south to the Ross Sea for the first of what would be four private expeditions, between 1933 and 1939.

During Ellsworth’s first expedition (1933–34), the ship was renamed the MV Wyatt Earp, after Ellsworth’s fascination with the gun-slinging Marshal of the same name, in an American wild-west frontier town. She retained the name until 1939, when she was bought by the Australian Government for the Royal Australian Navy as an ammunition and stores carrier, and re-named HMAS Wongala. She made one voyage to Darwin before being employed as an examination vessel at Port Adelaide, spending the remaining war years as a guard ship in South Australia.

Awaiting disposal, she was loaned to the South Australian Branch of the Boy Scouts Association by the Minister for the Navy, who took her over as a Sea Scout Training Ship and named her SSTS Wongala. The loan was short lived as in February 1947 the Australian Government informed the Navy that Antarctic exploration was now being considered and extensive work was required to make the ship ready for Antarctic voyages planned later that year.

For the 1948 Wyatt Earp Expedition she was commissioned HMAS Wyatt Earp on 17 November 1947; the Navy Board having decided that in view of her impending Antarctic voyage, and that she had achieved international fame for exploration work there, she should be renamed accordingly.

Her 1947–48 voyage to Antarctica was part of a trilogy of Australia’s post war expeditions; to establish sub-Antarctic stations at Heard Island (1947) and Macquarie Island (1948) and to survey the coastal regions around Commonwealth Bay, with a view to establishing a continental station. This resulted in Australia’s first postwar continental station, Mawson, being established in 1954, followed by Casey and Davis.

After problems encountered during the voyage, in part due to her fitting out in Adelaide, the HMAS Wyatt Earp was found to be unsuitable for further Antarctic voyages. Accordingly, she was paid off at Williamstown Dockyard in Melbourne on 30 June 1948, and after two years growing barnacles was sold to the Arga Shipping Company of St Helens, Tasmania. She was registered under her former name, Wongala, for the Bass Strait trade and to carry explosives. In 1956 she was bought by the Sydney-Ulverstone Shipping Company of Sydney and re-named the Natone, after the potato growing district of north east Tasmania.

The Antarctic history of this little Norwegian fishing vessel has never been properly recognised in the annals of Australian and Norwegian Antarctic expedition history, and the 60th anniversary of the ship’s sinking provides an opportunity to reflect upon her Antarctic voyages.

David Dodd