Digest>Archives> October 2000

Cape Otway Lighthouse

Australia's Beacon of Hope

By Bob Adams


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Cape Otway Lighthouse, built in 1848, lights the ...

‘Cape Otway Lighthouse’ is situated on the ‘Great Ocean Road’ in the State of Victoria, along Australia’s most spectacular and rugged south-eastern coastline.

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Aerial view of the Cape Otway Lighthouse towering ...

The Lighthouse was built in 1848 after many tragic shipwrecks along the coast. The first whale-oil beacon guided ships through the perilous waters of Bass Strait at the end of their 90 – 120 day voyage from England.

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Section of the ‘Sculptured Coast’ including Loch ...

The Lighthouse together with its surrounding grounds and keeper’s residences are known as the ‘Otway Lightstation’ - the oldest original light facility on mainland Australia.

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The magnificent 60 foot sandstone Cape Otway ...

Otway the ‘Beacon of Hope’

Since August 1848 the Otway Lighthouse has been the main beacon for vessels approaching Bass Strait from the south-west. That entrance has been referred to by mariners as the ‘The Needle’s Eye’ linking forever Cape Otway with Cape Wickham on King Island (Tasmania), a relatively short distance of only 50 nautical miles (90 kilometres). From the early 1800’s the British Admiralty regarded the Strait as the main approach to the Colony of New South Wales. Although it was often a dangerous trap for the unwary master, it did cut off nearly 750 miles (1200 kms) off the journey south around Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) enroute to Port Jackson (Sydney).

Vessels from England to Sydney first favoured the route via the south of Tasmania before, but later adopted the shorter route through Bass Strait. After a long passage from the Cape of Good Hope, they then made their first landfall in Australia in the vicinity of Cape Otway - the provision of a lighthouse on the mainland became of considerable importance.

In May 1835, the convict ship Neva, was lost off the northern coast of King Island, with 135 female convicts and their 55 children perishing along with another 30 convicts and crew. Again disaster struck on King Island, when the barque Rebecca was totally lost in 1843. In August 1845, the emigrant ship, Cataraqui with 370 passengers and 38 crew, struck a reef just off the southwest coast of King Island; thirty-six hours later only 9 survivors had made it to shore. The Cataraqui is still Australia’s worst peacetime marine disaster. Newspapers on hearing of the shipwreck, demanded an embarrassed Legislative Council in Sydney to construct lighthouses both in the Strait and on the mainland. Charles La Trobe, the then Port Phillip District Superintendent was under strong pressure to find a way into Cape Otway, which along with King Island, Gabo Island and Deal Island had been chosen as critical locations for lighthouses needed to reduce the perils of Bass Strait for vessels.

The passage through Bass Strait was particularly treacherous, and calls were made for a lighthouse to mark jagged rock formations and cliffs — an infamous stretch reverently referred to as ‘The Shipwreck Coast’. Coastal waters are even more hazardous because of the ‘Otway Reef’, which extends about two miles [3 kilometres] out to sea in a south-easterly direction from the Lighthouse’.

The site for the Cape Otway Lighthouse was selected in that year by Latrobe on his third attempt overland to reach the Cape.

A tender for construction of the tower and quarters for the keepers, and plans prepared by Mortimer Lewis (New South Wales’ Colonial Architect), were accepted in October 1846. However, owing to the very slow progress being made, the Government foreclosed on the contract and took over construction work October, 1847. The monolithic structure was completed in 1848, and historically it was the second lighthouse constructed on the mainland. (The first lighthouse was the Macquarie Lighthouse, located at South Head, Sydney Harbour and completed in 1819).

Cape Otway was the eighth [8th] lighthouse to be established along the entire Australian coastline, which includes the island of Tasmania.

The lantern and light apparatus were received from England in March 1848, and construction using local sandstone was finally completed in August 1848. Lieutenant Lawrence, R.N. was the first Superintendent of the lighthouse. The first signal was exhibited on August, 29th 1848. The mechanism was constructed by Chance Bros. of Birmingham U.K. and shipped down from Melbourne to be landed through the surf at Parker River Inlet, 6 miles [10kms] east of Cape Otway.

Mariners of old searched the night sky for both the Otway and Wickham lights to guide them safely into the western entrance of Bass Strait and beyond.

British clipper shipmasters leaving Liverpool were often heard to remark -

“Last sight the Mersey, next sight the Otway.” That landfall was often well over 100 days later.

Light Apparatus :

The original light apparatus consisted of 21 separate parabolic reflectors arranged in 3 groups of 7, each with its own wick lamp (sperm oil). The whole being rotated by a clockwork mechanism at the speed of one revolution in 2 minutes and 39 seconds, giving a single flash of light lasting for 3 seconds every 53 seconds.

In 1881 a subsidiary fixed red light was exhibited from a small housing at the base of the lighthouse to warn ships of their too near approach to the Cape - if seen, it is an indication that the course should be altered to clear the Cape by a wider margin. This lamp was installed following the ‘Eric the Red’ disaster in 1880.

In 1891, the original apparatus was replaced by a ‘modern’ revolving lens, a 1st Order British constructed Fresnel lens consisting of fifteen glass panels arranged in five groups of three, the whole rotating at one revolution in 5 minutes to give a triple-flashing light of three flashes every 60 seconds.

In 1905, the power of the lamp was increased to 100,000 candles by the use of an incandescent kerosene mantle in place of the wick lamp formerly used.

On 25th October, 1939, the apparatus was converted to electric operation - the speed of the rotation of the lens` was increased to one revolution in 90 seconds (giving 3 flashes every 18 seconds ) and the power of the lamp was raised to 1 million candles. At the same time the supporting pedestal for the lens was replaced by an improved type in which the weight of the rotating lens is floated on mercury, to reduce friction and give a more uniform rotation.

The ‘Eric the Red’ Tragedy

The ‘Eric the Red’ was a wooden three masted sailing vessel of 1850 tons that was built in the United States of America in 1871. She ran coal between England and the United States, visited the guano ports of South America and traded between Antwerp and the United States during her sailing life.

On the 4th of September, 1880 - ‘Eric the Red’ was on a voyage from New York to Melbourne with a cargo of exhibits for an international exhibition The cargo was to be housed in the then new Melbourne Exhibition Building. The Captain misjudged his position and struck the Otway Reef, some three kilometres south of the Cape Otway Lighthouse. Upon striking the reef, she almost immediately broke in two, leaving her twenty-seven crew and passengers struggling in the water. Some managed to board a damaged lifeboat that was drifting nearby whilst others clung to wreckage.

Several miles away, the small coastal steamer ‘Dawn’ under the command of Captain Jones, heard faint calls of distress in the still morning air. Lifeboats were launched and within an hour, twenty-three men were rescued. The ‘Dawn’ continued searching for the three missing crew and one passenger, however only one body was recovered and is buried in the Cape Otway Lighthouse Cemetery.

The next day, ships in the area reported large quantities of wreckage in the sea, much of which was later washed ashore. Among articles recovered were pianos, toys, sewing machines, tobacco and numerous other sundry items. Many of these articles were stolen before Police and Customs could arrange a reliable guard. Large quantities of timber was salvaged by local residents and later used as building materials including renovations to a large guesthouse in Apollo Bay and the construction of a yacht that was used locally for many years. One of two anchors from the ‘Eric the Red’ is now on display in the Lighthouse grounds after being recovered close by in 1968.

‘City of Rayville’ Sinking

At about 6.45pm on the evening of 8th November, 1940, the MV (Motor Vessel) ‘City of Rayville’, a 5883-ton cargo vessel – built in 1920 by Oscar Daniels & Co. of Tampa Bay, Florida USA and owned by the U.S. Maritime Commission, was near the start of a journey from Port Pirie, South Australia to New York when she apparently struck a German mine and sunk in 260 feet (80 metres) of water about 3 miles (5 kms) south of Cape Otway.

At the time, the ‘City of Rayville’ had on board a crew compliment of 38 men and a cargo of 1,500 tons (1,360 tonnes). Residents along the Cape Otway coastline and in the nearby Otway Ranges, heard an explosion which was followed by a red glow in the sky. Some witnesses at the time reported hearing the explosion as far away as 9 miles (15 kms) from Cape Otway. All but one of the crew survived the disaster, with James Bryan of Norfolk, Virginia loosing his life when he re-entered the water in a vain attempt to retrieve personal effects from the doomed ship before she settled beneath the waves.

The ‘City of Rayville’ is considered the first American ship sunk in the Second World War, as the United States was about a year away from ‘officially’ entering the war (with the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December, 1941). The cargo consisted of 37,520 bars of lead, currently valued at $1.2 million (USD) ownership of which passed into the hands of Lloyds of London at the time. Salvage rights to the ship were sold to an English salvage company for $50,000 (£25, 000 Aust pounds). However the City of Rayville has been declared a historic shipwreck long after those salvage rights were sold. No vessel protected under the 1976 Historic Shipwrecks Act may be disturbed without a permit and there is no precedent for the issuing of a commercial salvage permit for the recovery of cargo.

The wreck of the City of Rayville was reputedly located in January of 1999 by Harry Ferrier a local Apollo Bay deep-sea fisherman. Gippsland diving instructor, Barry Heard also claims he located the Rayville in 1997 when he was diving off Cape Otway; however he did not register his find, as he felt at the time it might have been the Selje a Norwegian freighter sunk in a collision in 1929.

Many local myths and legends abound in regard to the sinking of this ship, and it is generally accepted that the Rayville struck a mine (one of 43 laid in the western approach to Bass Strait) by the German captured Norwegian Oil-tanker the Passat (formerly the Sorstard). The Passat had been sighted off the tip of Point Franklin close to Cape Otway by a local trawler a few days before the sinking of the Rayville in early November, 1940.

There is still one resident living along the Great Ocean Road near Apollo Bay who claims to have been commissioned by the military authorities to destroy mines in Bass Strait using single shot .303 rifles. Apparently only 18 of the 43 mines were ever located. The City of Rayville was the second freighter sunk in Bass Strait, following the sinking of the British freighter Cambridge off Wilson’s Promontory in October, 1940.

Heritage Victoria’s Maritime History Unit reported the recent discovery (in 1999) of the City of Rayville wreck opening a new chapter in Australia’s wartime heritage. The report went on to indicate that the Victorian coast was littered with about 660 shipwrecks, and only about 25% being positively identified. Over 300 shipwrecks are estimated on the rugged Geelong-Otway-Portland section of the coast, today known as ‘The Shipwreck Coast.’

Cape Otway in the 21st Century:

Less than a decade after Victoria became a separate colony in 1851, a number of functional buildings and residential quarters surrounded the lighthouse. They were occupied by various keepers and attendants — and their families. Over the years, the Lighthouse has seen many modifications which have changed dramatically the way in which it operates. Initially Whale Oil, then Kerosene, Telegraph, Diesel motors, Electricity, Radio and Global Positioning Systems have all had an impact.

Finally in 1994 the introduction of satellite navigation systems caused the ‘old light’‘ to be decommissioned and replaced with a small solar powered signal. The new system is efficient and requires little maintenance; however it holds little of the romance and charm of the beautiful sandstone tower built over 150 years ago.

Today, the Otway Lighthouse complex includes a number of historical buildings and functional areas, which were constructed on Commonwealth Land, an area that includes some of the most spectacular scenery in Southern Victoria. The complex is historically unique and includes the oldest remaining lighthouse staff residences and the earliest telegraph building on the Australian mainland. The 1848 Light Tower and the 1850 Assistant Keeper’s quarters within the historic Lightstation grounds, were built during the time when this area was part of the original British colony of New South Wales.

The ‘old Light-tower’ which stands on cliffs 90 metres above the sea offers the visitor a rare opportunity to relive the early days of British immigration to Australia.

In 1994, the Federal Government returned the Lighthouse facility to the people of Australia. Since then the Cape Otway Lighthouse has quickly became a major tourist destination, catering to 700,000 day-visitors per year.

Tours of the historic Lightstation, walking in the adjacent Otway National Park and sightseeing along the spectacularly beautiful coastline, are the main attractions of this area of Victoria.

The heritage, sandstone Lightkeepers’ residences (built in the late 1850’s) can be occupied by holiday guests who wish to experience the lifestyle of the diligent Lightkeepers and their families. Each residence is fully self-contained, featuring the original open-wood fires and unbelievable views of the Southern Ocean and Bass Strait.

Southern Right and Humpback Whales, Australian Fur Seals, Dolphins, Killer Whales and Fairy Penguins are often seen from the Lightstation. Many varieties of marine birds make their home along this isolated and rugged shoreline. The ancient Otway National Park is home to native Koala, Kangaroo, Wallaby and Echidna, many of which can be seen at night when taking a leisurely walk around the Lightstation.

Cape Otway is a comfortable three (3) hours drive from Melbourne along the Great Ocean Road and is an ideal location to access the Otway Ranges with their spectacular waterfalls and rainforests. The famous rock formations known as the Twelve Apostles are only a one and a half hours drive from the Lighthouse.

The ‘Cape Otway Lighthouse’ stands proudly today with its past firmly rooted in the history of Australia. It is a symbol of days past of a seagoing era lost forever and serves as a reminder to an emigrant people of that longest of journeys by sea to a new life.

Editor’s note: Bob Adams is the co-author of ‘The Mount Buffalo Story’ and currently the General Manager of the Cape Otway Lightstation – operating under lease from the Victorian (State) Government in Australia.

This story appeared in the October 2000 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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