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SS Maheno: The former ocean liner and hospital ship of WWI left rusting on the beach for more than 80 years

Bojan Ivanov

The shipwreck of SS Maheno is situated on the coast of Fraser Island, Australia. Fraser Island is famous for its shipwrecks. Throughout the years the waters around the island have taken down many ships and many sailors died during strong storms and accidents. Some of the ships are on the bottom of the ocean and others were beached on the island’s sand. Between 1865 and 1935, twenty-three wrecks were recorded in Fraser Island waters.

The Sandy Cape lighthouse was erected in 1870 in order to prevent further tragedies, but this lighthouse and the smaller lighthouse on Woody Island did very little to reduce the number of ships wrecked in the mysterious waters. The SS Maheno is probably the most famed shipwreck of them. Not only that the rusting remains of the ship are a picturesque symbol of the beach and a landmark attraction for more than 80 years, but also that this vessel has a quite impressive history.

Hand-colored postcard of the SS Maheno

Hand-colored postcard of the SS Maheno

SS Maheno was originally built to be used as an ocean liner. Constructed in Scotland in 1905, she was the first turbine driven steamer in the world, powered by three turbines. At the beginning operated in the Tasmanian Sea and carried passengers on lines between New Zealand and Australia as part of the New Zealand’s Union Company. Weighing 5000 tons ship and able to carry 420 passengers, the name chosen for this ship comes from The Maori language (the native language of New Zealand) and means “island”.  The passengers of first class enjoyed their journey in great luxury.

In first class there were plenty of luxuries

In first class there were plenty of luxuries

There were a smoking room, dining room and music room with a Bechstein grand piano. On the ship were applied modern day novelties and highest standards. She was lit by electricity, there was a refrigerated cargo hold and literally, every corner was equipped with latest safety equipment. She made frequent tours between Sydney and Vancouver too.

In WWI she served as a hospital ship/ Author: Lt. H. T. B. Drew – CC BY-SA 3.0

In WWI she served as a hospital ship/ Author: Lt. H. T. B. Drew – CC BY-SA 3.0

In World War I the SS Maheno served as a hospital ship in the Mediterranean Sea and in the English Channel, as part of the New Zealand division of the Royal Navy. Those days this vessel carried the sick, dying and wounded soldiers to safe locations. During the war, New Zealand also converted another luxury ship, SS Marama, into a hospital ship. The ships were fully equipped with the help of the Government and public voluntary donations. They were painted white with a green band and red crosses. SS Maheno had eight hospital rooms and two operating rooms, as well as an X-ray room, laboratory and sterilizing room. The medical team of this floating hospital included 5 doctors and 61 assistants from the Army Medical Corps, a matron, 13 nurses, a chaplain and several civilian sailors. During the Gallipoli Campaign, SS Maheno transferred thousands of wounded soldiers from Anzac Cove to the nearby Greek islands of Lemnos and Imbros.

In 1935 the ship was beached

In 1935 the ship was beached

SS Marama entered the war at the beginning of the operation for the evacuation of the Allied forces from Gallipoli. Later they were used for the purposes of the battles of the Western Front, especially the Battle of the Somme, to carry wounded soldiers from France to England across the English Channel. One of the main tasks of these hospital ships was to bring invalid soldiers back to New Zealand. At the end of the war, the vessels were returned to their owners and they continued their former lives as commercial ships.

The wreck in 2013/ Author: Letsbefiends (talk) – CC BY-SA 3.0

The wreck in 2013/ Author: Letsbefiends (talk) – CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1935 the ship was declared outdated and the owners decided to sell her to Japan to an Osaka ship-breaker company for metal scrap. In July 1935 the SS Maheno was towed by the SS Oonah, which was also sold to the same company and the trip to Japan began. But, when they reached Queensland waters, approximately 50 miles out from the coast of Fraser Island, the ships were caught in a strong cyclone that broke the towline. The SS Maheno and its crew of eight men drifted away in the waters and disappeared, unable to control the ship as her propellers had been removed before the trip. The crew on the SS Oonah couldn’t do anything. The ship was missing for three days and was found washed ashore on a beach on the east side of Fraser Island.

Entering in the wreck is prohibited/ Author: Simondg16 – CC BY-SA 4.0

Entering in the wreck is prohibited/ Author: Simondg16 – CC BY-SA 4.0

There were several unsuccessful attempts to re-float the ship and to sell her to other buyers, but all of them failed. Since then the ship has been left abandoned, and much of the former ocean liner and hospital ship has been destroyed and fallen to pieces. During World War II the wreck served as a target for bombing practice. Today the rusted remains are still visible, but entering is prohibited, mainly because of the dangerous state of the wreck.