|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
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
|The Royal Shepherd
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
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
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
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.