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The wreck of Eric the Red

The Eric the Red was a wooden, three masted ship built in Maine, USA. She left New York in June 1880 destined for Melbourne and Sydney carrying the exhibits for the Melbourne Exhibition, 3000 tons of general cargo, two passengers…...

The wreck of Eric the Red

Published: December 27, 2020

Wreck of Eric the Red

The Eric the Red was a wooden, three masted ship built in Maine, USA. She left New York in June 1880 destined for Melbourne and Sydney carrying the exhibits for the Melbourne Exhibition, 3000 tons of general cargo, two passengers and a crew of twenty four. Eighty five days later she reached Cape Otway and saw the lights of the Lighthouse; the original 21 Argand oil lamps. The Captain believed that he was six nautical miles from shore – he was wrong. At 1am the ship hit Otway Reef 3 times. It struck a second time and shortly after the ship completely broke up and sank in 12 minutes. Four persons drowned and the remaining passenger and crew took to the boat or managed to cling onto wreckage. They were all lucky to be rescued the next day by a passing steamer ‘Dawn’. The Keepers did not hear or see anything. The first we knew was when the Telegraph Manager woke up in the morning, stepped outside the Telegraph Station and saw wreckage all along the coastline. Wreckage and goods from the ship was washed ashore from Cape Otway to Apollo Bay. Local residents helped themselves and it is said that a number of houses in Apollo Bay were constructed from the ships timbers and sails were used as ceiling linings. A large part of the cargo was kerosene in tins. These tins started to rupture and there was a strong smell of kerosene along the coast.

The Keepers and Telegraph Station staff searched the surrounding coastline for survivors.  The sight they were met with is described below:

‘No wreckage came ashore at the Cape. Carried by the current and propelled by the wind, the remaining portions of the hull and an immense quantity of wreckage floated on to Point Franklin. I visited that point in the afternoon and saw a melancholy spectacle. This point is low land, and the beach was covered with debris piled several feet high, kerosene tins and timber being the most prominent objects. The ground is almost white with kerosene tins. There was a strong smell of kerosene, and the water lying in holes amidst the boulders bears on its surface much oil. Some of the cases, but not many, came ashore intact and there is an immense quantity of unbroken tins lying high and dry. It is surprising how so many escaped being smashed by this rocky coast. At Franklin Point, nearly the whole side of the vessel, about 200 feet in length, has been washed onto the rocks…pieces of American chairs, croquet balls, axes, tons of red pine wood, rat traps, American clocks, large Bibles, illustrated, are all piled together in one mass, and everything smells of kerosene…coils of wire of several descriptions, barrels of nails, and amongst other things observable are two small fly wheels with the word Sydney painted on them.’

Melbourne Argus 6th September 1880

The Eric the Red is historically significant as one of Victoria’s major 19th century shipwrecks. The wreck led to the provision of an additional warning light placed below the Cape Otway lighthouse to alert mariners to the location of Otway Reef. The site is archaeologically significant for its remains of a large and varied cargo and ship’s fittings being scattered over a wide area. The site is recreationally and aesthetically significant as it is one of the few sites along this coast where tourists can visit identifiable remains of a large wooden shipwreck, and for its location set against the background of Cape Otway, Bass Strait, and the Cape Otway lighthouse.

A section of the hull lies buried in the sand at the Parker River beach, an anchor is on the rocks at Point Franklin, a second anchor is on display at the Cape Otway lighthouse and parts of the ship are on display at Bimbi Park and at the Apollo Bay museum. Various wreckage is located in a concentration off Point Franklin, but suitable diving conditions are rare due to waves and strong currents. At the time of the wreck parts of its were salvaged and used in the construction of houses and sheds around Apollo Bay, including Milford House (since burnt down in bushfires), which had furniture and fittings from the ship, and the dining room floor made out of its timbers. A ketch the Apollo was also built from its timbers and subsequently used in Tasmanian waters.

Tales of the Cape – supported by Colac Otway Shire