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‘Threading the Eye of the Needle’

‘Threading the Eye of the Needle’

 ‘Threading the Eye of the Needle’


WHEN British explorers discovered Bass Strait in 1798, naval officials were delighted. Separating the island state of Tasmania from the Australian mainland, this ocean passage cut 700 miles [1,100 km] off the voyage from England to Sydney.

Bass Strait, however, has proved to be one of the roughest stretches of water in the world. There, westerly gales, strong currents, and a shallow average depth of some 200 feet [50-70 m] conspire to create confusing seas and huge waves. Also dangerous are the jagged reefs of King Island, which lies in the middle of the strait at its western entrance.

Negotiating Bass Strait nowadays presents no problem. But that was not the case in the days of sailing vessels and primitive navigational aids. Sailing into the western entrance of the strait was a nerve-racking experience, aptly described as ‘threading the eye of the needle.’

Sailing the Great Circle Route

During the early 19th century, ships took up to five months to travel the 12,000 miles [19,000 km] from England to eastern Australia, and the voyage was anything but pleasant! Usually, the hundreds of passengers​—mostly emigrants and convicts—​were crammed below decks in deplorable conditions. Seasickness, malnutrition, and disease were rampant, as were vermin. Death was commonplace. * Still, the hope of a better life gave many passengers strength and stamina.

In 1852, things took a turn for the better when Captain James (Bully) Forbes found a shorter route. Abandoning the 39th parallel, which seemed to be the shortest path across the southern Indian Ocean to Australia, Forbes took the great circle route from England to southeastern Australia, which led him farther south, toward Antarctica. * Despite icebergs and huge waves, Forbes’ ship, the Marco Polo, with 701 emigrants aboard, docked at Melbourne, in Victoria, after just 68 days, cutting the travel time nearly in half. The record was opportune indeed, for Victoria’s gold rush was in full swing. News of the swift voyage prompted thousands of would-be miners to scramble for passage to the land Down Under.

 After ships left England, their next landfall was Cape Otway, some 9,700 miles [16,000 km] away. Navigators used a sextant and a set of tables to calculate latitude, and they used the ship’s chronometer, set to Greenwich Mean Time, to ascertain longitude. Local time was determined by the position of the sun. Each hour of difference between local time and Greenwich time represented 15 degrees of longitude. The two readings​—latitude and longitude—​enabled a good navigator to determine his position with reasonable accuracy.

But things could go wrong. Clouds might obscure the sun for days on end. And early chronometers were not always precise. One second gained or lost every day for three months could put a vessel up to 30 miles [50 km] off course. In rain, fog, or darkness, straying ships could miss the entrance to Bass Strait and come to grief on the rocky coastline of either King Island or Victoria. Doubtless, many a traveler echoed the sentiments of one captain who, upon sighting Cape Otway from a safe distance, cried out: “Thank God! We have made no mistake.” It is testimony to the skill of 19th-century mariners that most were able to ‘thread the eye of the needle’ without incident. Some vessels, though, were less fortunate.

A Ship’s Graveyard

Before dawn on June 1, 1878, the clipper Loch Ard sailed through thick mist toward Victoria’s coastline. The mist had lingered from the previous day and had hampered the captain’s noon sextant sighting. As a result, he was much nearer the coast of mainland Australia than he thought. Suddenly, the mist lifted to reveal sheer cliffs, 300 feet [90 m] high, just a mile [2 km] away. The crew worked frantically to turn the ship, but wind and tide conspired against them. In less than an hour, the Loch Ard struck a reef with a great crash and sank 15 minutes later.

Of the 54 people aboard, only two survived​—ship’s apprentice Tom Pearce and passenger Eva Carmichael, both under 20 years of age. Tom clung for hours to an upturned lifeboat in the cold winter waters. Finally, the tide swept him into a narrow gorge between the cliffs. Seeing a small beach littered with wreckage, he swam to safety. Eva could not swim, so she clung to wreckage for about four hours before being swept into the same gorge. Seeing Tom on the beach, she cried for help. Tom plunged into the surf and, after struggling for an hour, dragged a now semiconscious Eva ashore. She related: “He took me into a wild-looking cave a few hundred feet [more than 50 m] from the beach and finding a case of brandy, broke a bottle and made me swallow some, which revived me. He pulled some long grass and shrubs for me to lie on. I soon sank into a state [of] unconsciousness and must have remained so for hours.” Meanwhile, Tom climbed the cliff and raised the alarm. Less than 24 hours after the Loch Ard sank, Tom and Eva were taken to a nearby homestead. Eva had lost both her parents and her five siblings​—three brothers and two sisters—​in the wreck.

Today, thousands of vessels, large and small, ply Bass Strait safely every year. En route, they may pass more than a hundred confirmed wrecks. Some of the wreck sites,  such as Loch Ard Gorge in Port Campbell National Park, Victoria, are visited by tourists. The sites are a poignant reminder of those courageous 19th-century souls who, after voyaging halfway around the world, braved the final leg​—the “needle’s eye”—​in search of a better life.


^ par. 7 During 1852, 1 child in 5 aged 12 months or less died en route from England to Australia.

^ par. 8 A cord pulled tightly between any two points on a sphere will lie along the shortest distance​—the great circle.

[Box/​Pictures on page 17]


Tom Pearce and Eva Carmichael, the only survivors of the Loch Ard shipwreck, became instant celebrities in Australia. “Newspapers sensationalised the wreck, hailed Pearce as a hero, Eva Carmichael as a beauty and seemed determined that the two should marry,” says the book Cape Otway​—Coast of Secrets. Although Tom proposed, Eva declined his offer and three months later returned to Ireland. There she married and raised a family. She died in 1934 at 73 years of age. Tom returned to sea and was promptly shipwrecked a second time. Again he survived. After working for many years as a master of steamships, he died in 1909 at the age of 50.

[Credit Line]

Both photos: Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village, Warrnambool

[Diagram/​Picture on page 15]

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Forbes sailed the “Marco Polo” (above) from England to Australia, using the much faster great circle route



39th parallel


Antarctic Circle





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From the newspaper The Illustrated London News, February 19, 1853

[Diagram/​Map on page 16, 17]

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Sailing into the western entrance of Bass Strait was described as ‘threading the eye of the needle’





Port Campbell National Park

Cape Otway

Bass Strait

King Island


[Picture on page 16]

After crashing onto a reef, the “Loch Ard” sank in 15 minutes

[Credit Line]

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria

[Picture on page 17]

Port Campbell National Park showing (1) where the “Loch Ard” hit the reef and (2) where Tom Pearce’s cave is located

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Photography Scancolor Australia