Sygna stories: Readers' recollections of the 1974 storm

 The Newcastle Herald asked  readers to contribute their recollections from May 26, 1974 - the day the Sygna ran aground on Stockton Beach. These are their contributions.  

Gary McFarlane, the RAAF helicopter pilot who 40 years ago took part in the Sygna rescue.

Gary McFarlane, the RAAF helicopter pilot who 40 years ago took part in the Sygna rescue.

Gary McFarlane, now 66, was the then 26-year-old pilot of the RAAF helicopter on that day 40 years ago. Here he is on the beach when re-visiting the site on May 25, 2014.

- Steve McFarlane

Protecting my eyes from the unrelenting wind and dust blowing in my face I made the slow BHP dog watch 1.5 km trek up David Baker Road to the Bloom Mill.

The gale force wind had somehow taken out the power to the Mill (no production that night).

I took refuge in the fitters workshop to escape the ferocity of the gale and the constant crashing and bashing of the galvanised iron sheets which had been unceremoniously torn of the walls of the newly constructed number 2 bloom Mill.

These sheets of iron flying around the place were more then capable of causing major injuries. 

The next morning I left the safety of my refuge to be greeted by the most perfect  sunny, calm morning the evidence of the destructive forces of the night before could be seen all around.

It would be without a doubt one of the most terrifying nights of my life.  

- Lydin Hume

My parents lived at Eleebana in 1974 and it was here that I had arranged my engagement party on Saturday 25 May 1974.

From memory the whole of the east coast had been battered by storms all week. 

 My fiancée’s family and most of our friends were coming from Sydney…. Not the 90 minute freeway trip of today….. and of course there were the hair appointments for the women which were a logistical challenge in the circumstances.

The weather was most untimely for an occasion I had spent the best part of a year organising.

Our family was 2 males; father and brother and 5 females; mother and 3 sisters so it was an estrogenic  fuelled household and an such an event was already highly strung without the interference of climate change.

There was no room for ‘unforseen phenomenon’!

But guess what? My father’s name was Captain. Ken Hopper. Newcastle Harbourmaster and the rest is history……

- Erica Townsend

The farm house never had a phone, and our neighbors phone was for the sole purpose to contact the vet or family, news of the storm was heard on the radio at the dairy by our father.

The newspapers do not arrive until the mail is delivered, with the bread wrapped in brown paper, the mailbox a kilometer away on the roadside.

It depended on when the mail was collected to read the story of the events in Newcastle.

As we sat down in the living room to watch the ABC, the programs us children rush to see was F-troop and then the family show Bellbird, and like all children had to sit quiet to here the news.

We were lucky to recently have a colour TV, and the excitement of seeing shows in colour but do not know what happened to F-Troop it was still black and white.

The storm brought aground this boat to the beach, as for us children it was not of that great interest, but we had to be quiet to listen to the news, as the storm passed and the boat was now beached on the shores of Stockton beach.

The family's turn to have the weekend off from milking, our parents said we are going to see this Norwegian boat on the beach, and off we set in our Falcon with a bench seat in the front.

To sit between our parents meant you must be in trouble for fighting with your sisters, our treat afterwards was we were going to the Oak Factory for an ice-cream, the best in the area, there was nothing like Oak ice-cream in a cone.

As we traveled down the tar road, we came across a large amount of cars on the sandy road leading to the beach indicated we were in the right area, and we walked and walked, and complained, our younger brother was tired and finally our father carried him, finally we hit the beach, and there she layed, this massive boat stuck in the sand, people everywhere looking and taking pictures, to remember this event.

As for us children it was time to play in the sand, and get our picture taken with the boat in the background.

It is funny how time passes that in 1974, we were only young children and playing in the sand was a massive day out for us, away from duties on the farm, for our parents to march us across the sand to see a boat caught in a storm and to wait to get film developed was not instant but you waited for a week, hoping that the picture you took actually worked.

-Deidre Olofsson


From Instagram user rickprosser69: I remember as a 5 year old bracing for a big storm with fierce winds to awake the following morning with a tree down in the back yard. It was May 26 1974 and the news of the Signa bull carrier washing up on Stockton Beach hit the headlines. That day mum and dad took me and my two older brothers to see it. I remember the long walk on the sand, the crowds, strong winds and tucking under the life raft on the beach to escape the winds. After some heroic acts by rescuers and SLSC members the ship stayed put for a while broken in two. Attempts to remove the ship fully failed only being able to tow away the front half. Towed into Port Stephens and eventually towed away to China (I think) for scrap metal. Today the Signa's remains still sit on Stockton Beach and have become must sea for locals and tourists. Some think the remains of the ship have only a few years before disappearing below the water line once and for all. #Signa

- Rick Prosser

I have some photos I took in 1974 of the Sygna on the beach.

I was also on board for a few minutes and recorded  some shots.

Photo by Peter Langdon

Photo by Peter Langdon

Photo by Peter Langdon

Photo by Peter Langdon

I tried to see what time it was, but a pigeon was blocking the view of the alarm.

He was pecking away at some pie crumbs I left there last night on the bedside table.

I was freezing. I thought I must have left the window open. I turned over in bed and saw another 8 or 10 pigeons on top of the wardrobe cooing softly.

My mind was a little foggy from the shandies of the night before, but cleared quickly enough when I saw a large patch of gray sky above half the room.

I didn't have to dress, as I didn't bother to undress. I made my shaky way down the stairs to see if I could find someone.

I found the other guests in the hotels dining room. Mrs, Bird, the leasee of the Broadway Hotel Broadmeadow was mopping the floor and her eyes, repeating, "unbelievable".

Yeah..... I slept through one of the biggest storms of the century.

The hotel lost quite a bit of its roof, and I had to find other accommodation. Opposite the hotel was a used car yard where MacDonald's is now. It had a large neon sign on 12 inch galvanised RSJ frame.

The plastic sign was gone, and the massive frame was bent waist high as if taking a bow to the might of the storm.

- Joe Annyok

Myself and my two sons Peter and Matthew cannot forget the Sygna Storm but we cannot remember it because all three of us  slept through it. I had the excuse of being deaf but not the boys.

Not so my wife Gwenda. She heard every  every blast of wind that shook our house, uprooted our three Norfolk pines and threatened to smash our bedroom windows between 10:00 pm and 3:00 am on Saturday May 26, 1974 which was also our wedding anniversary.

The three trees were important  to the decision to build on that block and I had just finished attaching a swing to one after much nagging by the boys.

The loss ended one chapter but serendipitously began another  - our family’s love affair with the Australian native trees which replaced them and led to many years of bushcare work at Glenrock. So we remember the Sygna Storm almost everyday .  

- Tom Jones

My name is Keith Roderick, ex-Sgt of 16th TPT.COY. at Camp Shortland at the time of the Sygna incident.

I can recollect WO2 Jock Charles and Gus Forbes took a Larc V to assist in the recovery of crew of the Sygna that had run aground in Stockton Bight that evening/day.

They stayed on station and the following day other members of the unit were put on stand-by for further assistance if required.

Also when the bow section was taken to Nelson Bay and put at anchor myself and other crew members using Larc V's circled and entered the hull for further inspection.

- Keith Roderick

I was 17 years old when caught in the 1974 storm.

Friends and I drove around Newcastle in a tightly packed Mini Cooper S late that night.

We were nearly washed off Shortland Esplanade near Nobbys Beach by a big wave that crashed over our car in the early stages of the storm.

Our car made it as far as Merewether Heights before breaking down with water damage.

We had to get a parent to rescue us as the storm worsened. Not an easy task as this was pre-mobile phone days.

We finally got the car started and arrived home exhausted, fell asleep and missed the worse fury of the mini-cyclone. We woke the next morning surprised at the devastation.

My parents had instructed us to be home by midnight, but we were very late. To this day they don’t believe our storm story, thinking we were just out partying!

 - Steve Bradbury

On May 26, 1974, a phone call from our baby sitter informing me that large trees were falling down around our house, alerted me to the severity of the storm.

We drove home through blacked out suburbs, dodging fallen trees, flying sheets of iron, etc. 

In the harbour ships were breaking adrift from their berths; my ship, the BHP “Iron Baron”, of which I was Master, was on the floating dock, which turned out to be the safest berth in the port that night.

Another colleague rushed back to his ship, the “Iron Flinders” at the Dyke berth to find it hanging on by only two forward tension wires.

The new tanker “Express” & the ‘Townsville Trader” both broke away from the Dockyard and finished up on the Stockton shoreline.

My concern was if the power cables to the floating dock carried away the dock would sink, taking the “Baron” with it.

- Ian Wright 

My wife Bronwyn and I had just purchased our first (and only) house in Renwick Street Toronto and were moving-in that weekend.  The house was next door to Bronwyn's parents and the houses were separated by a double driveway.

Bronwyn's parents had a large Jacaranda tree beside their driveway.

We had only partially moved-in when the storm hit.  We stayed the night in Bronwyn's parents spare room waking up to find the Jacaranda tree on the ground, only luck having it miss the rear lean-to of our 'new' house by inches.

At my parent's home, they were not so fortunate. A car parked in their yard was totally squashed by a tree. It was a huge Gum tree but the force of the wind so great that it totally ripped it out of ground, across the fence and onto the now unrecognisable vehicle.

- John Carr

1974 on the east coast of Australia 

A ship passed by, named the Sygna

Caught in a storm, the Norwegian bulk carrier

Got shipwrecked on a beach like the Pasha Bulker

With a couple of attempts, they tried to free'a

With no success, they thought to leave'a

40 years on, still stuck in the centre

On Stockton beach, her name is the Sygna.

by Tony Meyers

My late husband, Bill and I had a mixed business in Carrington. The night the Sygna went down there was a terrible storm & wind.

The lightening struck the television antenae which brought down the power lines on to our two storey building which became electrified.

A live wire burnt a hole in a gas pipe alongside the house and caused a flame about 1 metre shooting out into the street. we had to stay still & not touch anything for safety.

That night we had the fire brigade, the gas &and electric companies, and police with us.

It was reported in the Herald, which I still have a copy of somewhere.

- Dawn Comyns

On the night that the Sygna was blown ashore, I was then boarding in a weatherboard house in the heart of Hamilton.  My room was on the southern side with the bed near a large window.

I still vividly remember the outer wall of my room “yielding” a little under the impact of the screaming wind gusts as they slammed into it with a deafening roar.  I left my room for fear that the window might be shattered. 

The landlady, an elderly widow whose bedroom was on the other side of the hallway, was scared stiff that the roof could be blown off.  The only damage was to an awning on the rear verandah.

We were without power for 30-dd hours, but friends living on the other side of Donald St were not affected. 

- Peter Newey 

I chose Saturday night 25th May 1974 to clean the kitchen cupboards!

I was 38 weeks pregnant and soon to be a mother of 3 children under 5 years, so it would be another 2 years before I could “do” the cupboards. Besides my parents were returning in the morning from visiting my brother and family in Canada. So with everyone asleep, I started.

 Our home was a tiled roof, double brick house and while it was raining, the sound was not unusual until about 12.30am, when there was a rattle on the roof.

On parting the curtains in the lounge room, I was greeted with the turbulent picture of a ferocious storm, with huge winds blowing many objects down the street, but worst sight of all was the barge board of the house opposite being blown backwards and forwards across the electricity wires and continually giving off sparks.

At 3.30am my husband left to drive to Sydney Airport to pick up my parents, but 30 minutes later he returned. He had successfully navigated the empty metal beer barrels from two Merewether clubs rolling down Llewellyn St but when he reached a fallen tree across the main road, he turned back.

My parents received the message from airport staff (no mobiles then) and stayed in Sydney.

The Sunday morning was a beautiful and sunny, with a clear blue sky.

The rattle was a tile that blew off our roof. The objects included metres of plastic sheeting and yellow batts from the roof of a unit block, where the bricks blew in one end of the roof and out the other, landing on their car ports, while the 165km/h gale exploded the large front glass windows, completely saturating the upstairs bedroom.

Footnote. Grant was born on the 8 June 1974 at Royal Newcastle Hospital. There was not one grain of sand on Newcastle Beach, only rocks and a small blow hole, where the surf ran up a broken pipe, built through the rocks. 

- Elaine Street

We had a small art gallery called “The Little Gallery”   in Glebe Road The Junction/Merewether  opposite the Prince of Wales Hotel. 

Tony and I  had run this as a part time venture for about two years  whilst still working at the Herald office.

 Tony was in advertising sales and I headed up a small department doing layouts and finished art for advertisers.   

That terrible night the roof blew completely off the building we were renting for our gallery  and damage was done to the water colourist’s exhibition we were holding at the time. 

Although we were covered by insurance it was a disappointment for both us and the lady exhibiting, and also a huge mess to clean up. 

A few months later when the building had been repaired the owners doubled the rent and we were not able to continue. “  

- Tony and Barbra Elvin

I was in the control room (switchboard) on the night of the Sygna storm as a member of the NSW Fire Brigades in 1974 at Cooks Hill Fire Station.

I received the first call of a ship breaking its moorings in Newcastle Harbour . This ship was the Sygna.

The storm was terrible – our firefighters were out most of the night. I remember at the front door of the Fire Station in Union Street a concrete seat which had blown all the way up from outside No.1 Sportsground some 200 metres away.

It was a work night I will never forget.

- John Scobie     

A sleepless night. Bed crowded with kids. Groaning roof, howling wind, pelting rain. 5am called to Colliery.

Trees down. Hiked 3 kms with tool box. Powerlines down. Home. Called to the Gas Depot.

Drove carefully over fallen power lines, leaning poles. Began manual operation of the gas supply. It was a week before electricity resumed. Radio reporting “ The Saga of the Sygna.”

Wrapped kids warmly, set out to Stockton Bight. Climbed the dunes, an amazing sight. That giant collier, beached, its back broken, pounded by massive seas, was never to sail again,

A helicopter arrived, winching people. Historic occasion! Took cold children back down the dunes.

Passed Harbour Master and assistant in dress uniforms, climbing up. We watched as they reached the top. They saw that unforgettable sight. Their knees buckled. Halted, dismayed. The mighty Sygna, a victim of the seas it once ruled, never to sail again.

- Col Maybury 

I was a student at the time, sharing a rented cottage in Elizabeth St, Mayfield.

I can recall vividly, the noise from the wind that night. I’m not sure what time it was, but the house was rattling and shaking with the typical high-pitched whining of very strong wind outside.

Without warning, two windows on the southern side of the house blew in across the dining room. I attempted to get to the garage to get material to block up the window.

Outside, it was awesome, with airborne debris filling the sky. I got to the garage but was unable to open the old doors for about 15 minutes, till a slight lull; for fear that the doors would be taken off by the wind. I eventually boarded up the windows and we sat it out. 

The strongest, most frightening gale I have ever encountered to this day.

- Paul Ashton

It was May 1974 ,I was 12 yrs old. I lived in a little farmhouse at the bottom of a hill at the End of Lavis Lane with my family.

I remember it was freezing cold and I was very scared. We had the old combustion stove going and we had it going full bore to keep the house warm.

We heard at a knock at the door and my father found two young man freezing and drenched right through, they had broken down on the beach they came in and headed straight for the stove to try and get some warmth.

They stood over the stove with  there hands stretched out trying to warm there themselves from the freezing cold.

I remember how much they was shivering and seemed to be in shock.

The next morning we woke to hear the Sygna had ran aground. I remember large tins of Milo laying on the beach ,which must have come from the ship.

My family still own the little farm at the bottom of the hill.

- Christine Darcy

BHP Newcastle was well advanced on the installation of equipment at the 44” Bloom Mill.

The main and ancillary building frames had been erected and external wall and roof sheeting was partly completed.

I was involved in the installation of the electrical equipment at the site, and in the weeks prior to storm the electrical switchboards and process control equipment had been delivered and placed into the yet unfinished motor-rooms for unpacking and later installation.

At this stage the motor-room area doorways were temporarily covered with tarpaulins and some roof areas remained unsheeted.

During the storm the tarpaulins and some of the wall and roof sheeting was blown away, allowing the salt laden rain to be blown into the motor-rooms, entering the yet to the installed high value and unique electrical equipment.

The resulting cleanup cost many hundreds of man-hours and corrosion problems remained during the life of the plant.

- Lance Kindleysides

Saturday, 26th May, 1974 started as a regular, monthly, launching day at Carrington Slipways shipyard at Tomago.

It was slightly different  to normal as we were launching two 85 foot 40 ton bollard pull tugs, on the one day, for the port of Bahrain in the Middle East. Australia was world competitive in those days.

Chatting to the overseas guests when disaster struck ,one of the triggers on one of the launching ways had given way and the tug AL RAHIB slid sideways and landed on its side half way to the water. What to do?

 After a quick conference it was decided we would launch the second tug AL RAHALLA and adjourn for the prearranged launching party.

A team headed by Ted "Mungo" Morgan proceded to jack up the first tug and install new launching ways ,working late into the night to have it ready for high tide next day.

 We  arranged accomodation for the overseas visitors at the then Novocastrian in Zara street and then dinner that night.

About 10 o'clock that night Ted called to say the tug was ready to go but the weather was getting bad -  an understatement.

When I walked out the front door of the hotel to get the car the waves from the beach were blowing past, up Zara Street.

The wind was that strong, I did a U-turn, went to the desk and asked if they had a room for the night.

"Yes sir, sorry we don't have any with ocean views."

"That's fine." said I.

 Early the next morning my wife Maureen and I were walking to the lift with two ladies in front us when  one said "did you hear all the noise last night, all the breaking glass" apparantly quite a lot of windows on the sea front were broken and being at the back we hadn,t heard a thing.

   When we were driving away the scene in the street was like a war zone ,glass everywhere, balconys off buildings laying in Hunter St.  and a phone  box at civic in the middle of the street,the news came on to say that the newly built tanker M.V.EXPRESS had been torn from its moorings at the State Dockyard and was aground at Stockton and a ship was aground at Stockton, made our problems seem small.

   The second tug was successfully launched at midday and  both delivered to Bahrain

- Don Laverick

It was a miserable stormy day and I was working in the area as the company (Hawkins & Sons) hauled sand out of a sand quarry off Coxs Lane  (which was adjacent to where the ship ran aground ) and provided dozer and aid to push a sand pad out to the stricken Sygna.

I remember giving a hand on securing safety ropes to the ship to help with access to and off the ship for crew. This happened on the day.

After, a salvage team refloated the front end and towed it up to safe harbour at Nelson Bay.

They also had the back end refloated but, due to an industrial dispute regarding payment this jeopardised the salvage and the rusting hull remains to this day.

Storms come and go (Pasha Bulka) but the physical legacy was left NOT by the storm but as a result of a monetary dispute.

- Merv Drewe

Saturday noon. Sygna anchored off Newcastle,

 Tomago Shipyard Tugs Rahid  launched, Rahib next,

Rahib crashed off launch Poppets.

Decision Relaunch Rahib noon Sunday, Teams started raising ship,

coffee, but no dinner, toilets breaks taken

finally ship has launching Poppets replaced.

Home late crashedout on lounge. Awoke terrible noises, 

Wind,Rain howling outdoors dark and dangerous

Sunday firstlight Pacific Highway trees down damage

everywhere. Shipyard problems get crane back on rails

repair poppets crane damage

wonderful sounds of wedges driven, cursing, swearing, laughter

Sygna briefly mentioned Ship ready

Noon launch lady blesses ship Axe swinging, Ship moving,

hits water coming upright. Cheers hugs backslaps smiles

Partytime Heroes everyone.

Sygna drags anchors in storm. Stranded. Famous.

Other ship not newsworthy

Rahib and Rahid working. Middle East

Yes I remember Sygna well.

Still filled with pride of job well done. Incredible men

those 24 hours.

- Bill Saxby  

I, along with 4 other officers, was on the night shift.

As we drove around to Wharf Road near Nobbys Surf Club there was a wall of water across the road. We did not know then it was the forerunner of the storm.

By the time we got across to Carrington, the wind was blowing a real gale. Roofing sheets were flying across the State Dockyard car park. Shortly after a Dutch ship that had been tied up at 1 Lee wharf came floating into the Basin, one of the Basin Coal Loading booms got lose and careered down the wharf and the sudden stop made the loading  head fall into the hold of a Japanese ship waiting to load. The tanker Express was at the fitting out wharf at the State Dockyard it got away and landed up on a sandbank in the river.

It was a night to remember.

-Fred Saunders

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