The Hobart

From The Dead

by Piia Wirsu
From The Dead

When 18-year-old Mick Doleman farewelled a blossoming romance to sail out of Hobart on 12 October 1973, he didn’t know his whole world was about to change.

Less than 24 hours later he would be adrift on a liferaft in the Southern Ocean with nine other men he’d only just met, after the ship they were sailing to King Island sank in calm waters off the southwest coast.

The shipwrecking of the Blythe Star captured the nation, and the sea and air search that followed was the biggest Australia had ever seen. But, it was also plagued with miscommunication and inefficiency.

Mick Doleman was the youngest of the 10-man crew, and recalled hearing jokes from the men loading up the freighter about how low she was in the water – he had no idea then how serious those jokes were.

RAAF searches for the Blythe Star. Pic: ABC News archives

When the Blythe Star sailed down the Derwent River from Prince of Wales Bay, the shores of Hobart slipping by, she was overloaded and unstable. At eight the next morning off South West Cape, the ship lurched suddenly to the side. In minutes, it was clear she was going over and Mick watched in horror as water poured into his cabin.

He scrambled with the other crew to stand on the outside of the ship’s hull, now completely tipped over, as the bosun Stan ‘Tas’ Leary wrestled the life raft free. When they finally all made it into the liferaft, with only the clothes they had on when the ship started to roll, the captain revealed he didn’t get a mayday away. No one was coming for them.

Weather battered the life raft, winds blowing them south before swinging around to push them up the East Coast. Nine days after the search started, when the ship failed to turn up on King Island, hope was fading that the men would be found alive and the search was called off. The daughter of the ship’s cook recalls the family being told they should hold a memorial.

The remnants of the life raft are on display in the Maritime Museum of Tasmania. Pic: Helen Shield

But, two days after being given up for dead, Mick Doleman and two of his crewmates stumbled out of the bush onto an old logging track on the Tasman Peninsula. The men’s ordeal was finally over. Three of the crew hadn’t made it, and the remaining seven were barely hanging on.

An inquiry would highlight the failings that led to the shipwrecking and loss of life. Mick Doleman has dedicated his life to improving maritime safety. Decades after the event Mick has shared the story he has held close for so long out of respect for the dead, to put the events on the record before it’s too late. To hear more, search for From the Dead on your podcast app or visit www.ab.co/expanse.

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May 2024

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