My Photos 1 2

One of Sydney's most compact shipwreck sites would have to be the wreck of the SS Royal Shepherd, located only a few hundred metres outside Sydney Harbour off South Head.


Royal Shepherd
The Royal Shepherd
The Royal Shepherd was built by Blackwood and Gordon of Paisley, Scotland and launched in 1853. Originally owned by the Launceston and Melbourne Steam Navigation Co., the Royal Shepherd was 331 tons, 42 metres long and 6 metres wide. Powered by a twin cylinder oscillating steam engine, the ship was at first based in Melbourne before moving to Tasmania, Adelaide and finally Sydney. The ownership changed many times over the years, with owners including Tasmanian Steam Navigation Company, Spencer Gulf Steamship Co. Ltd, H.J. Cattanach, W.A. Firth, T. Elder et al and finally J. Warburton and Son of Pyrmont, Sydney.

Originally built as a passenger/cargo vessel for the Bass Strait service with capacity for 50 passengers, it was converted a number of times over its 37 year career, with its final role being a collier and a latter role as a sewage ship taking wastes out to sea!!

On Monday 14 July 1890 at 9.35 pm, the Royal Shepherd left Sydney Harbour for Bulli to load coal under the command of Captain Thomas Hunter. An interesting point is that Captain Hunter was the skipper of the SS Duckenfield which sank less than 14 months earlier in May 1889 only a few kilometres north of the Harbour at Long Reef and had only just received back his master's certificate after that incident.

On the way out of the Harbour, the Royal Shepherd was towing the schooner Countess of Erroll (also owned by Warburton) which was bound for Wollongong. The Heads were cleared at 10.30 pm and a course to the south was steered. At 11 pm the lights of three or four vessels were seen and at 11.15 pm the SS Hesketh, a heavily laden collier heading into Sydney Harbour, collided with the Royal Shepherd and bumped the Countess of Erroll. The Royal Shepherd sank within 10 minutes, the skipper of the Countess of Erroll cutting her free when he saw the Shepherd was going to sink. He set sail for Wollongong but due to strong head winds he put about and went to Newcastle. It is not known why he did not assist with the rescue but I assume that he was worried his vessel may have been blown ashore. Meanwhile, the Hesketh rescued all the crew of the Royal Shepherd and entered Sydney Harbour.

A Marine Board of Inquiry found that the skipper of the Hesketh, Captain Marcus Osborne, was responsible for the collision "for not stopping and reversing in time to avert a collision". His master's certificate was cancelled for six months.

The wreck of the Royal Shepherd was revealed to the Maritime Archaeological Association of NSW in February 1979. However, the South Pacific Divers' Club newsletter, Wet Rag in its June/July 2007 issue states that it was found in 1976 by Martin Kandilas, John Verren and Dave Bailey. Since then, many thousands of divers have dived this wreck.

The wreck now consists only of the boiler, engine, driveshaft and prop sitting upright on the sand at 30 metres. The wreck lies running almost due north-south, with the prop at the northern end.

From the stern you will see the prop with two blades showing above the sand. From here the driveshaft runs south to the flywheel. This is very large and towers over the rest of the wreck site. In front of here the engine, now over 140 years old, is, according to noted wreck authority John Riley, the best presented example of an early steam engine in Australia. Unfortunately, there is little else left apart from the engine and mechanicals. It is an especially interesting engine as the compound steam engine is inverted, with the cylinders at the bottom of the engine and the crankshaft at the top. Most engines have the cylinders on the top.

Forward of the engine is the boiler. Unlike nearly every shipwreck the boiler is square. The wreck appears to end south of the boiler but in fact there is more wreckage about 15 metres away. Swim south in a direction lined up with the main part of the wreck and you will come across a small deck winch.

Fishlife is not all that prolific, but you will see moray eels, cuttlefish, bullseyes and some species of leatherjackets as well as small flathead on the sand.

At a depth of 27 to 30 metres, the wreck is one that is easily accessible to all experienced divers. However, due to its close proximity to the entrance to Sydney Harbour, the Royal Shepherd is sometimes subject to dirty water, especially after periods of heavy rain. An incoming tide is best, I had 25 metres in late December 2003 about two hours before high tide. As it is a bit protected from southerly winds and seas, it is a good alternative dive when there is a big southerly running.

In summary, the SS Royal Shepherd is a very good, if somewhat small, dive site, that is a bit too small to be dived more than once every now and then.

Extract from Michael McFadyen