It was a fine day on 26 September in the year 1913, when the cargo steamer Tyrone left Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour bound for Port Chalmers on what was to be her last fateful voyage. The Tyrone, originally named the Drayton Grange, was commissioned in 1901 by the Houlder Brothers (UK), and built at the Workman, Clark, and Co. yards in Belfast. A steel hulled, four masted, schooner rigged steamer, she displaced 6664 long tons gross and was 137 m in length, and with two 662 horsepower steam engines was capable of a sustained speed of 11 knots.
The Drayton Grange’s early career included serving as a troopship for Australian and New Zealand colonial forces returning from the Boer War, during which on one fateful trip in 1902 between Durban South Africa and the port of Albany in Western Australia, seventeen servicemen died from tuberculosis and mumps due to the overcrowded conditions on board. Following this inauspicious start, she plied the Australasian trade routes before being purchased in 1912 by the Union Steam Ship Co. of New Zealand and renamed Tyrone.
On 24 September, 1913, under the experienced command of Captain A.F.G. McLaughlan, the Tyrone had arrived in Lyttelton port from Liverpool UK, via Wellington, with her hold full of container loads of cocoa, cornflour, clover, and crockery plus some tons of pig iron and several thousand bottles of whisky. After this stop she was to discharge the last of her cargo in Dunedin and Bluff, and was then scheduled to sail to Sydney, Australia to begin a new USSCo trade route between Sydney, Wellington, and Vancouver BC. As you might guess, the fates had other plans for the steamship Tyrone.
Leaving Whakaraupō heads on 26 September around 12 PM the Tyrone rounded Horomaka Bank’s Peninsula and was past the Akaroa lighthouse by 3:25 PM, setting course for the 240 km, 12 hour night run to Otago Peninsula in clear weather. At midnight, Robert Leighton began his shift as lighthouse-keeper at Taiaroa Heads, overlooking the mouth of the Otago harbour. Around 2:40 AM on the 27th, he noted a light northerly breeze blowing a thick fog in, and so began to sound the explosive fog warning every six minutes, as was the standard practice of the day.
It was this fog warning that first alerted Captain McLaughlin to the danger at around 3:45 AM as the Tyrone neared the heads, having made record time at 12 knots aided by an unusually strong current. Slowing the engines to half speed, the captain made his fateful decision, and rather than drop anchor and wait for daylight to show the way, at 3:55 AM he decided to ease his ship at dead slow towards the heavy fog, guided only by the dead reckoning of his log book.
Ten minutes later, the ship’s lookout, one Archibald McLean, could see no lights nor land until suddenly breakers loomed large. He called the warning down and at 4:05 AM the ship came to a dead stop as the captain ordered full astern, hard to port, but to no avail, and two minutes later a heavy bump was heard by all aboard. At 4:30 AM, the watchman at Taiaroa Heads lighthouse, William Carter, heard the first distress signal and alerted the port authorities who dispatched the tug Plucky.
As the fog cleared with the morning sun, it became apparent that the Tyrone had missed the port heads by fully a mile to the south, no doubt driven by the strong southbound current. The tug attempted a tow but the Tyrone was stranded hard on the rocks just off the steep cliffs of Rerewahine Point, close enough for the 70 man crew to abandon ship via a 20 foot long ladder!
Divers reported two large holes in the hull, and the Tyrone was declared a total loss at a cost of £140,000, and remained the largest ship to wreck on the South Island coast until the Mikhail Lermontov hit rocks off Cape Jackson in the Marlborough Sounds in 1986. Captain McLaughlin was exonerated by a magisterial inquiry which found that “the unusual and strong current was the primary cause of the disaster”. While much of the cargo was salvaged, it was reported that many cases of the fine whisky went ‘missing’, coinciding with a short lived epidemic of what came to be called the “Tyrone flu” amongst the local fishermen.