It was cold and dark, and misty. There was almost zero visibility when Loch Ard reached the shallows of Cape Otway. It was too late for Captain Gibbs to manoeuvre the cargo ship from getting aground.
In a few minutes, the clipper collided with a rock on a reef near Mutton Bird Island. Captain Gibbs ordered to abandon the ship. The surf was rough. It was windy and the waters cold. He said to a young lady, “If you are saved Eva, let my dear wife know that I died like a sailor.”
That was his last words recorded in the memory of Ms Eva Carmichael, the only female survivor of the sea mishap.
From 1873 to 1878, Loch Ard had made several round trips from England to Australia. It also made an occasional stop in Calcutta, India. On 2 March 1878, it made its fifth and final voyage to Melbourne. It did not reach Port Phillip Bay. But it reached the Victorian shores, the shallows of Port Campbell by the Cape Otway.
Cape Otway and the Bass Strait, south of Victoria had seen more than 800 shipwrecks from 1797. Of these shipwrecks only less than 200 have been discovered so far.
Aboard the clipper was Tom Pearce, a 19-year old apprentice of Loch Ard. He was with 36 other crew members. Also on board were 17 commercial passengers, most of them wanting to emigrate to Melbourne.
For three months, Loch Ard sailed the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and crossed the treacherous and dark Indian Ocean before reaching Australia. It landed in Port Campbell but failed to arrive at its intended destination.
Loaded with commercial cargo, the clipper was at full capacity. Trade between England and Australia was booming during Victoria’s golden era. The gold rush sent adventurers and miners to the town of Ballarat, northwest of Melbourne.
When the ship reached the Victorian, the weather was not a welcoming one. Mists and fog covered the whole area. All passengers and crew were asleep including Captain Gibbs. When the ship’s captain woke up it was too late. A few meters away stood rocky cliffs and limestone stacks. He stirred the ship from running aground only to find out the ship was on a collision course with a reef.
The rock wrecked the ship. The crew and passengers had to abandon it by jumping off and swim to the nearest shore. Mr Pearce jumped into the cold water and swam to the shore with a piece of wood that helped him stay afloat.
Upon reaching land, he heard a fainting voice of a woman crying for help. He waded the rough surf again and saved the woman. Ms Carmichael fainted and went unconscious when they reached land. With a sailor’s ingenuity, he revived her with brandy.
Mr Pearce thought of saving more lives but could not do it alone. He made a wise decision of calling for help from local pastoralists. He climbed up the gorge and raised the alarm. At the nearby Glenample Station, two men rushed to their help. They brought the survivors to safety and took care of them.
Rescuers were sent to save more lives in the sea. Unfortunately, no one else survived the ordeal. All but two of Loch Ard’s passengers perished, including Captain Gibbs and Ms Carmichael’s family. The total number of casualty was 54. They were all buried at the cemetery of Loch Ard Gorge that served as a memorial.
Melbourne welcomed the hero in Mr Pearce and Ms Carmichael. The story of his heroism spread all across Australia, India, and the United Kingdom.
Three months later, Ms Carmichael went back to Europe where she married an aristocrat. Mr Pearce continued to work as a proud sailor. He returned to his hometown in England and lived there until he died at 49 in Southampton.
Loch Ard was declared a Historic Shipwreck on 11 March 1982. Artifacts and relics are displayed in a museum that keeps a detailed account of the tragedy. The gorge then was named Loch Ard Gorge to commemorate the infamous shipwreck.
There used to be an arch nearby the gorge, the Island Archway, but it collapsed in June 2009, leaving behind two pillars. The pillars were named after Tom & Eva after Mr Pearce and Ms Carmichael.
Tom and Eva remained standing today to remind us of a story of tragedy and heroism.