The Lighthouse, the Shipwreck and Saving Mr Darcy – #DCCC – Demelza Carlton’s Cursed Coast Episode 7

Did you hear how Mr Darcy almost died, the night he decided to spend a weekend on an island off the West Australian coast? Actually, it was Mr D’Arcy, not the Austen hero, but the tale is true, nonetheless.

This week’s Cursed Coast – Western Australia, where else? – involves a wonderful weekend that went horribly wrong.

The Ill-Fated Wattle

Rottnest Island, 20km off the coast of Western Australia, was described as a paradise on Earth by Dutch explorers in the summer of 1696. More than three hundred years later, Western Australian residents still agree with him – especially in summer.

Even I have stories of childhood holidays at Rottnest – and I have both the scars and photographs to prove it. I first learned landscape and wildlife photography on Rottnest with my 35mm film camera – and one of my favourite places to stay is Bathurst Point, just below the lighthouse that was built in response to the wreck of the City of York in 1899.

Australia Day is on the 26th January and when it falls on or next to a weekend, it’s an excuse for a long weekend away. With Rottnest so close, the island of beaches and cool breezes seems ideal at the height of summer.

For five Western Australian businessmen in 1930, that was definitely the case. Philip Summers, Laurie Firth, Joe Boocock and Gordon D’Arcy finished work on Friday the 24th and readied their 23-foot yacht, the Wattle for the voyage over to Rottnest. Ray Wilkinson wanted to go with them, but he had to cancel at the last minute, so only four of the men set off for Rottnest. Leaving the Royal Perth Yacht Club at 8.30pm, they sailed up the Swan River on what must have been a balmy night. There was a strong south-easterly wind, but the slight swell and tide made for smooth sailing.

The yacht ran aground, on a bank opposite the State Implement Works, but she was quickly refloated and the men decided there was no damage worth worrying about, so they continued on.

They passed through Fremantle harbour at around 11pm and set out for the remaining 20km to Rottnest and a wonderful weekend.

When they were about halfway out to the island, one of the men discovered that the centre case had come adrift – and the boat was filling with water. As they bailed the water as fast as they could, they came to the conclusion that the timbers must have sprung when the yacht ran aground in the river, but it was too late now. Too late for the yacht, too – for the Wattle sank.

They clung to the sinking boat for as long as they could, until Boocock decided he’d had enough. He shouted “Goodbye!” to the others and started swimming toward Rottnest. Now, that’s not as mad a feat as it sounds – the Rottnest swim from the mainland is an annual event which attracts increasing numbers of competitors every year. In the middle of the night, faced with the option to sink or swim, I suspect I’d have chosen to swim, too – no matter how many sharks were in the water.

Gordon D’Arcy headed off after him, but soon lost sight of Boocock. That would be the last time he ever saw him. Goodbye, indeed.

D’Arcy couldn’t see the boat, either, but he shouted until the other two men responded and he headed toward their voices. Now down to three, Gordon D’Arcy decided to try to swim to Rottnest, too, as it seemed closer than the mainland. Firth flatly refused to go with him, saying he’d never be able to swim that sort of distance. Summers decided to stay with Firth and the boat, while D’Arcy set out alone. The only navigational aid he had was the Bathurst Point Lighthouse – he could see the signal from the surface of the water and that’s where he headed, for he knew it meant land and life.

After four hours of swimming for what he estimated was four or five miles, D’Arcy arrived at Bathurst Point at 4.15 am – not the best place to come ashore, either. He managed to battle his way up the rocks at the Point, where he found help at the Hostel behind the lighthouse. At 5am, Fremantle police received a phonecall from the island, telling them of the tragedy – and that D’Arcy was alive.

As the sun rose, the news spread on the mainland of a “fearful yachting accident” and a triple tragedy. Everyone who could wanted to help.

Eight boats with search parties set out from both Rottnest and Fremantle, looking for the yacht or the other three men. They combed the water, assisted by a search plane before the morning was over, but by the end of the day, they’d found nothing. No sign was ever found of the other three men – or the Wattle.

That’s it for this week’s Cursed Coast. Next episode – when shipwreck survivors are luckier than the salvage crews.