Greycliffe disaster

The Greycliffe disaster occurred in Sydney Harbour (Australia) on 3 November 1927 when the harbour ferry Greycliffe and the Union Steamship Company mail steamer Tahiti collided. The smaller ferry was cut in two and sank with the loss of 40 lives, the deadliest incident on Sydney Harbour.

The Greycliffe

Greycliffe was a wooden double-ended screw steamship of 133 gross tons, on dimensions of 125.0 feet length between perpendiculars x 24.0 feet beam x 9.9 feet depth of hold, built at Balmain, Sydney in 1911 by David Drake Ltd. and was owned by the Watson's Bay and South Shore Ferry Co. Pty. Ltd. The vessel was powered by a triple-expansion steam engine of 49 nominal horse power made by Campbell & Calderwood that gave a maximum speed of about 12 knots[1]

The collision

Greycliffe left Circular Quay, Sydney's main ferry terminus, at 4.15pm on Thursday 3 November 1927, with 120 passengers on board, including many schoolchildren returning home. The ferry stopped at Garden Island to pick up dock workers, and then resumed its journey on a course that would have taken it just north of the lighthouse near Shark Island. Its remaining intended stops were to be Nielsen Park, Parsley Bay, Central Wharf (near The Crescent), and Watsons Bay. On roughly the same course, however, was the liner operated by the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand's outward-bound transpacific Royal Mail Ship, the 7,585-ton RMS Tahiti, three times the length of Greycliffe. Greycliffe was ahead and to starboard of Tahiti.

At about half-way between Garden Island and Bradleys Head, Tahiti's bows struck Greycliffe midships on her port side. The small ferry was pushed around perpendicular to the large steamer's bow, and momentarily was pushed along. The ferry began to overturn, and was broken in two, and the steamer sailed through the ferry, which sank immediately. Passengers who were sitting outside had an easier chance to live, while those inside the two cabins—a ladies-only saloon, and a smoking room for men—were trapped. A number of other boats on the harbour witnessed the collision and rescued survivors from the water.

Several days later, smashed hull sections were towed to Whiting Beach near Taronga Zoo and divers looked for missing bodies. Seven of the forty killed were under the age of twenty, including a two-year-old boy who died along with his grandparents. Most of the victims came from the ferry's intended destination, the small Sydney suburb of Watsons Bay. Among the other victims was Millicent Bryant, who had become the first Australian woman to hold a pilot's license a few months earlier.[2]

Investigations and aftermath

The tragedy stunned people because of its swiftness and horror, as well as the 40 deaths and over 50[3] injured passengers. The weather and sea were calm, with good visibility.

Greycliffe′s design was identified as flawed with the wheelhouse offering no clear view of ships coming from behind. Most witnesses, including other ferry captains, agreed that Tahiti was going too fast and that Greycliffe, inexplicably, had turned sharp left into her path. Greycliffe′s captain, William Barnes, survived and claimed he had not consciously strayed from his course, and that he had not seen Tahiti until it was too late. He claimed that a few minutes from Garden Island, he felt the ferry pull to port, which he blamed on a problem with the steering mechanism for which he compensated."[4]

The pilot on board Tahiti, Sydneysider Thomas Carson, said he saw the ferry swing left towards the ship, and he ordered the engines astern and a changed course. Carson and his family, who unlike Barnes, lived in Watsons Bay, along with many of the victims' families, became persona non-grata in the eyes of some members of the community, according to Steve Brew.[4] Blaming Carson, Sydney Ferries had "the bow theory", which stated that when a large and a small vessel were on parallel courses in shallow water, and with the larger vessel travelling faster, its bow wave could drag the smaller vessel into the larger one.[4]

A Marine Court of Inquiry, formal Inquest, and Admiralty Court of Inquiry gradually shifted blame for the disaster from Tahiti′s pilot, Captain Thomas Carson, to the ferry master, William Barnes, and the probable failure of Greycliffe′s steering gear that allowed her to swing off course and into the path of the liner.[4] The coronial inquest and the Admiralty Court dismissed the bow theory and accepted that, even though the Tahiti was going too fast, the collision wouldn't have occurred had not the Greycliffe turned into its path. A verdict was handed down by the final court of appeal in 1931, which concluded that while both captains were guilty of contributory negligence, the "Greycliffe′s navigator" was twice as culpable as Carson. The various inquiries had difficulty obtaining evidence between voyages of the Tahiti and, on one occasion, an embarrassing clash of the courts took place.[5]

Using the transcripts of the inquiries, Brew believes Carson's reputation was unfairly tainted, in particular by Justice James Lang Campbell, the Supreme Court judge appointed to preside over the initial marine inquiry.[4] Campbell accepted evidence from witnesses that Tahiti was probably travelling at 12 knots (22 km/h) instead of the permitted eight knots. However, he refuted evidence from the same witnesses that the Greycliffe had turned directly into the path of Tahiti.[4]

Sinking of Tahiti

On 15 August 1930, Tahiti′s hull was punctured by a broken propeller shaft while she was at sea between Wellington and Rarotonga. She wallowed for two-and-a-half days before sinking on 17 August 1930 without loss of life.[6]

Salvage of Greycliffe′s engines

The only part of Greycliffe to survive is the engine. In 1928, it was shipped to New Zealand. Where the engine was stored is not known but in 1938 the engine was installed into the Tirau dairy factory in the Waikato region. A large, grooved 2-metre (6.5-foot) flywheel was fitted to the crankshaft. By using continuous rope belts, the engine drove ammonia compressors and butter churns. After 30 years service, it was donated to the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland and was installed as a working exhibit over the next four years.


  1. Register of British Ships, Sydney 8/1911.
  2. Millicent Bryant plaque, Monument Australia.
  3. The Disaster Sydney Morning Herald, 4 November 1927, at Trove
  4. Brew 2003
  5. Coroner's Inquest: Clash of Interests The West Australian, 29 November 1927, p 7 at Trove
  6. "The Last Moments of a Sinking Liner" Popular Mechanics, November 1930


  • Brew, Steve. (2003) Greycliffe: Stolen Lives. Navarine Publishing. ISBN 0-9751331-0-1
  • Gunter, John (1978), Across The Harbour: The Story of Sydney's Ferries, Australia: Rigby Limited, ISBN 0-7270-0715-7.

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