September 2007

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

HMAS Melbourne & HMAS Voyager

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

On the evening of 10 February 1964, the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne, flagship of the Royal Australian Navy, and the Daring-class destroyer HMAS Voyager were conducting a night exercise to the south-east of Jervis Bay. Two Sea Venom fighters from the naval air base at Nowra were attempting a ‘touch and go’ landing on the carrier’s flight deck. As ‘plane guard’, the Voyager’s job was to escort the Melbourne at a distance of 1500 yards, ready to recover any aircraft that ditched into the drink.

The sea was smooth with a low swell, the night was dark with no moon or clouds, and both ships were lit only with operational lights. As the Melbourne changed course, the Voyager was signalled to make corresponding adjustments to its position. Normally this would mean allowing the Melbourne to pass ahead, then crossing its stern before taking up station on its starboard quarter.

As the 20,000-ton carrier completed its manoeuvre, the Voyager suddenly turned back across its bows. Despite desperate attempts to avert a collision, the carrier struck the destroyer amidships, slicing it in half. The Voyager’s captain and bridge officers were killed by the impact. Destabilised by the weight of its gun turrets, the ship’s bow section capsized, then sank.

For the next three hours, the crew of the badly damaged Melbourne worked feverishly to rescue battered and bleeding survivors from the water and the aft of the Voyager, which remained defiantly afloat. Apart from other injuries, most had swallowed sea water and fuel oil. In all, 82 officers and sailors lost their lives. Shortly after midnight, Captain Robertson, the recently appointed commander of HMAS Melbourne, signalled fleet headquarters: “Voyager has sunk.”

Two royal commissions failed to adequately account for the accident. Allegations were made that the Voyager’s captain was an alcoholic and an amphetamine user. Poor visibility, a mix-up over signals and a navigation “fishtail” were variously blamed. Lies were told and officers covered each other’s backs. Surviving seamen battled for decades for compensation.

After repairs, the Melbourne resumed duty. In June 1969, during SEATO exercises in the South China Sea, it collided with the destroyer USS Frank E Evans in almost identical circumstances to the Voyager disaster. Seventy-four American sailors died. The Melbourne was exonerated. After decommissioning in 1982, it was bought by a Chinese scrap-metal company and broken up.

The wreck of the Voyager lies in 600 fathoms of water, 20 nautical miles west of the Point Perpendicular lighthouse. The current HMAS Melbourne is a guided-missile frigate, and the lead ship for the Nulka expendable-decoy system. According to the Navy, ‘nulka’ is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘be quick’.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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