Disaster ‘Down the Bay’ (contributed by Nick Moffatt)

(Editor: Moreton Bay has always been a popular boaties’ escape from the confines of life in up-river Brisbane. It was a chance to ‘get lost’ for a holiday without the cares of its business world.  To be uncontactable. It was also not without its risks, as the moods of Moreton Bay were unpredictable. Such was the experience of William Gillespie Moffat who with his brother, James Campbell Moffat, owned a Drug Store (Moffat Brothers) on Edward Street, Brisbane at the time.)

Mouth of Brisbane River 1920s (photo contributed by Tony Love)

THE LATE BOAT ACCIDENT (12 May 1882)

A MAGISTERIAL inquiry relating to the late boat accident at the mouth of the Brisbane River was commenced before Colonel Ross on Monday, and resumed yesterday. In all, four witnesses have been examined, and their testimony is to the following effect:-A party, consisting of William Gillespie Moffat and son, James Phelan, Wilfred Bartley, Robert Waine, E. S. Diggles, and Alfred Edwards, started in the Native, a boat belonging to Mr. James Edwards, of Kangaroo Point, from Mr. Edwards’s shed at 4 o clock on Saturday afternoon on a fishing excursion to Mud Island.

They reached their destination at half-past 9 o’clock on the same evening, and anchored for the night. The weather was rough, with a heavy sea during the night, and in the morning a stiff breeze was blowing from the south-east. The party fished the next morning until about half past 9 o’clock, when a start was made for home. 

When they got to the mouth of the river, near Luggage Point, Phelan, who was in charge of the boat, reefed the sails, putting two reefs in the mainsail and one in the jib, and made one tack to Fisherman’s Island, and then stood in towards Luggage Point. When within about twenty yards to the leeward of the black buoy a heavy puff struck the beat, and laid her down to the combings. Both sheets were at once slacked, and the boat partly righted, when another stronger squall struck her more abeam, and a heavy sea struck her on the weather bow at the same time. 

Although the crew were all sitting up to windward, the ballast shifted to leeward; and the craft commenced to sink immediately. Moffat’s little boy was under the deck, and Bartley pulled him out and gave him to his father, who took him. Phelan got into the dingy at once, and tried to cut the painter which secured it, to the boat, but was unable to do so, as the boat sank stern first. He went down with the dingy while endeavouring to free her, and when he came to the surface, he was exhausted and could see nobody. He struck out for the shore, but after going some little distance came up to young Edwards, who sang out for help. 

Phelan, seeing the dingy’s paddles floating some distance off, swam to them and brought them to him. He kept in company with Edwards for some time, encouraging him to keep on. After a while he lost sight of Edwards and could not turn to help him as he was quite exhausted himself, the sea being very rough. Phelan reckoned he swam about a quarter of a mile before getting ashore; he passed Bartley and Waine as he swam ashore. When near the shore he sank from exhaustion, but recovered himself sufficiently to gain the bank. Diggles reached the shore first, Phelan next, then Bartley, who was followed by Waine. 

They remained on the beach where they first landed about half-an-hour, and then walked along the beach looking out for Moffat and the others, but could see nothing of them. They picked up one of the paddles Phelan had given young Edwards to assist him in swimming, and also the rudder of the boat, and continued to walk along the beach until they came to a fire, where they remained another half-hour. After warming themselves they felt stronger, and walked to the house of a German settler, who gave them some tea. Diggles was in advance of the party. They met a fisherman, who took them to his house and gave them some refreshments. Phelan related the occurrence to the fisherman, and he went with another man to look for the bodies. 

Phelan stated he had been down the Bay in the Native several times, and considered her perfectly safe. He attributed the accident entirely to the weather. The sheets were not fast at the time of the accident. He also stated he had sailed in the Bay for several years, and was competent to sail a boat. The party were driven to town in two spring carts- Diggles arriving first and reported the occurrence to the police. The last that was seen of Moffat alive was just after the boat went down. He then struck out for the shore, with his son in his arms. George Payne, a Customs boatman, went over to Luggage Point on Sunday afternoon, and found the dead body of W. G. Moffat on the beach, in charge of a fisherman. He had the body brought to Brisbane.

(Extract from The Brisbane Courier, Wednesday 24 May 1882.)

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