Shipwreck heroes

4276portraitMy eyes closed and I drifted to dreams of heroes and shipwrecks. This week the wrecks of British and Dutch ships, sunk off Indonesia during the Second World War, were found to have disappeared just a dozen years after being discovered. No such loss in my mind however, as tales of heroism, luck, and tragedy, abound.

Bill Sharrock looked up as the afternoon sun waned behind a watery blur. Desperate arms weighed interminably across his shoulders and around his neck. He could no longer breath, and was found the next day, still upright, sadly below the water’s surface.

Constable Sharrock was among 80 passengers aboard the motor launch Nestor, cruising the Hopkins River at Warrnambool on a sunny Sunday afternoon in 1921. He’d lost his wife 2 years before, with 5 children the youngest then just 6 weeks old. His genial smile towards his sister-in-law Ellenor at the bow of the boat was interrupted by the realization that something was very wrong. Women and children screamed as the crowded ferry filled with rushing water. Bill’s standing with water to his waist, his arms around Ellenor and a small child, when a rescue craft arrives. He pushes them to the boat and says, “Go on, quick.” He then holds another woman afloat until help arrives. Others witness him do this several times. When last seen he was trying to keep two more women afloat. Bill was among the 10 lives lost in Victoria’s most tragic boating accident.

Two thousand people turned out to farewell him, and Bill’s still the only member of the Victorian police force to be posthumously awarded a bravery medal. Today he rests overlooking the river where he drowned 85 years ago. However, his grave wrongly remained unmarked until a plaque was placed there by public subscription just a few years ago, unveiled by the commissioner.

Eleven years later, and this time luck smiles on the same extended family. Charlie Barclay, a turncock with the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, was always visiting relatives as far afield as Portland, Milltown, and Naracoorte. These visits of course included his daughter and grandchildren at Port Fairy, on the same south-west coast of Victoria as the Nestor once sailed. “Pardie Barclay was always late,” his grandson and my dad said.

“We were tearing off to the wharves to catch the ferry back from Port Fairy to Melbourne,” he said of one such visit, “and we got here in time to see it disappearing down the river, and that was the time it went down.” The ship was the SS Casino. She sunk off Apollo Bay just after 9am that Sunday morning in 1932. Again 10 lives were lost from the 12 on board. Seven years later the Second World War broke out, engulfing the same extended family in more luck and tragedy.

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