The sinking of the Blythe Star

Jorge Diez del Corral Dominguez
Friday, 13 October 2023

Fifty years ago, the Merchant Vessel Blythe Star sank off the coast of Tasmania. The tragedy claimed 3 lives, captured the public's attention with a gripping tale of survival, and left a legacy of legislative reform that improved safety at sea.

Earlier this year, CSIRO located the wreck of this fateful ship.

The National Archives has digitised records about the Blythe Star, including film, photos, crew lists and newspaper clippings that tell the story of its last journey.

Stranded in the Bass Strait

On 12 October 1973, the Blythe Star and its crew of 10 set off from Prince of Wales Bay in Hobart, bound for King Island.

The routine freight journey started with calm seas. However, the next morning, the ship began to tilt, throwing the crew from their beds as it began to take on water. The 45-degree lean made it impossible to launch a lifeboat. Some of the crew managed to free an inflatable life raft, while others jumped overboard. Luckily, by the time the ship sank, all 10 members of the crew were safely on board the tiny life raft. The ship sank so fast that no one was able to send a distress signal.

The crew were stranded in the middle of the rough Bass Strait with just 72-hours’ worth of supplies.

Chief Officer Ken Jones organised turns for the crew to row, and cook Alf Simpson meted out the meagre rations. Their combined efforts kept the crew from giving up, but what followed was a harrowing 10-day fight for hope, as much as for survival.

The bumbling search operation

A series of miscommunications meant that by the time a search and rescue operation started, the crew had been lost at sea for several days.

Despite being one of the biggest search and rescue operations to date in the country, it was hampered by poor collaboration between the Marine Operations Centre, the RAAF and the RAN. After a week, the unsuccessful search was called off.

Tragedy and survival

After 7 days at sea, Second Engineer John Sloan died, likely because his medication for an existing health condition sank with the ship.

Two days later, the raft drifted into Deep Glen Bay and the exhausted crew crawled back onto land.

That night, Ken Jones and Chief Engineer John Eagles died on the shore.

The surviving 7 members of the crew found themselves weak and malnourished in a tiny bay surrounded by steep cliffs. It was 3 days until Alf Simpson, Malcolm McCarroll and Mick Doleman, the youngest of the crew, made it through the bushland onto an old logging trail. A logging worker discovered them, taking them to the nearest post office. There, the postmistress gave them food and clothes, while her husband used his knowledge of the local coastline to identify where the rest of the crew were stranded.

That afternoon, a police helicopter picked up the 4 survivors, and the bodies of Jones and Eagles. After hospitalisation, all 7 of the surviving crew recovered.

Legacy of safety

A Court of Marine Enquiry was established to understand what went wrong.

Media attention and advocacy around the inquiry led to changes to maritime law.

One of the changes was the introduction of the Australian Ship Reporting System (AUSREP). This system made it mandatory for certain ships to report their position daily, to ensure the issues that affected the Blythe Star's search and rescue operation didn't happen again.

The Tasmanian Maritime Museum holds some items related to MV Blythe Star, including the inflatable life raft the crew lived survived on for 10 days. You can also access records related to the MV Blythe Star and other ships by searching the National Archives’ digitised records online.