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Remembering the Sygna

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On this day nearly half a century ago, Newcastle made waves around the world when the Norwegian bulk carrier MV Sygna ran aground at Stockton Beach.

The date was 26 May, 1974, and the 53,000 tonne carrier was anchored off the Port of Newcastle waiting to load thousands of tonnes of coal destined for Europe.

A gale warning had been issued and, of the 10 ships waiting off the port, seven had weighed anchor and moved out to sea.

The storm:

Winds of up to 70 miles per hour and the largest swell conditions ever seen at the port’s entrance were recorded, with a wave height of over 17 metres.

The conditions resulted in the Sygna dragging anchor and drifting eleven kilometres sideways in half an hour before grounding 130 metres off Stockton Beach. 

The Sygna lost 700 tonnes of bunker oil at the time of the grounding. This oil was generally dispersed by heavy seas and no clean up or recovery action was initially required.

Photographer Barry Shoesmith snapped this shot of the Sygna in 1974.

The aftermath:

As soon as the storm and the sea subsided, the stern settled in deep water. The ship was initially considered too large to be salvaged and the wreck was declared a total loss and left in place. A helicopter from Williamtown RAAF base lifted the crew of 30 to safety with no injuries or loss of life.

On 4 September, a salvage team led by Japanese millionaire Kitoku Yamada refloated the ship after repairing several holes in the hull and pumping out thousands of tonnes of water. 

The stern section was refloated first, followed by the bow, which had been resting deep in the sand. The bow remained afloat but, unfortunately for the salvagers, the stern again went aground about 80 metres out from the beach and gradually settled in the sand as salvage crews stripped it of all items of value. 

After lying in Salamander Bay, Port Stephens, for almost two years, the bow section was towed away and broken up in Taiwan.

During late September and early October, there were several failed attempts to salvage the stern, which was driven back ashore by bad weather and continued to leak oil, affecting about five miles of beach. Beach cleaning was carried out by bulldozers.

Following further salvage attempts of the stern in November, very heavy oil spillage occurred, spreading along the beach up to 10 miles north of the site. Response was limited to further beach clean-up by bulldozer, with oil buried in the sand above the high water mark.

The significance:

The Sygna is believed to be the last of 59 ships which have been lost on Newcastle’s shores.

It was feared that the MV Pasha Bulker would join it as a Newcastle icon when it ran aground at Nobbys Beach after a massive storm in June 2007.

However, the Pasha Bulker was successfully refloated almost a month later.

During storms in early June 2016, the Sygna‘s remaining superstructure collapsed into the ocean.

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