david ellis & john crook
IT had all the makings of a Hollywood block-buster: a wild and stormy night, a shipwreck and the captain going down with his vessel, and just two survivors – a beautiful young girl and a handsome young man washed ashore to the sanctuary of a cave on one of the most treacherous stretches of coast on earth.
And a final dash for help that culminates with our young hero carrying the shivering and semi-conscious maiden to the refuge of a bed in a remote country farmhouse…
But despite all this it lacked the most vital of all for Hollywood – there was no romance. And the reason was that 18-year old beauty Eva Carmichael was a daughter of 19th century British aristocracy, while handsome Tom Pearce was a mere apprentice seaman.
The tiny 1700-tonne clipper ship Loch Ard was almost at the end of a 3-months voyage from England to Melbourne when, at dawn on June 1 1878, she ran aground in heavy fog and wild seas on Mutton Bird Island near Victoria's Port Campbell.
Her captain, George Gibb had battled for hours to keep her clear of the island, and when she finally struck many of the seventeen crew and 37 passengers – who just hours before had ended a party celebrating the virtual end of their long journey at sea – were killed by collapsing masts and spas, that also prevented ship's boats from being launched.
Within ten minutes the Loch Ard had rolled on her side, sinking with all on board except Eva Carmichael and Tom Pearce.
Tom managed to paddle ashore on the smashed remains of a lifeboat, and struggled up a beach to shelter from the wind and rain in a cave in a narrow gorge. Soon after he heard Eva's screams in the surf and sighted her clinging alternately to a chicken coop and part of a ship's spa.
By now she had been in the water five hours, and after swimming to her rescue Tom dragged her to the safety of his cave. Then in still-pouring rain he climbed to the top of the cliff and miraculously bumped into two workers from a nearby sheep station.
After he blurted out his story the men gathered blankets from their homestead and with Tom raced back Eva who, clad only in a wet nightdress, was now semi-conscious and suffering hyperthermia; the young apprentice seaman insisted in carrying her himself to the homestead, where they spent several days recuperating.
Upon hearing their story the Melbourne media went into near-frenzy; Tom received a hero's reception including a gold watch from the State Governor and the first Gold Medal from the Royal Humane Society of Victoria – while hundreds openly prayed for romance to blossom between Tom and Eva.
But such was not to be, and they never saw each other again – with virtually all her family lost aboard the Loch Ard, Eva returned to an only brother in Ireland while Tom fulfilled his wish to become a ship's captain (and was shipwrecked twice more.)
The story of Tom and Eva is told nightly in Shipwrecked, a sound and laser show at the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village at Warrnambool, near western Victoria's world-famous Shipwreck Coast, a disaster zone that since European settlement has claimed an astonishing 700-something vessels.
The nightly show is not only a gripping tale in itself, but remarkably is projected onto a huge wall of water rather than a screen; the Maritime Village also incorporates an original lighthouse and light-keeper's cottage, replica shops, a sail-makers workshop, an historic shipping agency office, an old bank, chapel, Masonic Temple and a cosy Tea Room that serves the most wonderful traditional Devonshire Teas.
Numerous artefacts from many of the shipwrecks along the neighbouring coast are on display in the Museum – look out in particular for a spectacular 1.5m high porcelain peacock that survived the sinking of the Loch Ard, and floated ashore unscathed in its wooden crate two days after the tragedy.
GETTING THERE: WARRNAMBOOL is on the Great Ocean Road, 260km south-west of Melbourne. Bookings for the nightly Shipwrecked Sound & Laser Show are essential; for information phone 1800 637 725 or (03) 5559 4620. It's also an easy drive to Loch Ard Gorge in which Tom and Eva initially sheltered in their cave.
LOCH ARD Gorge was anything but picturesque and tranquil on the wild and stormy night that claimed the small clipper ship after which she is named.
FLAGSTAFF HILL Maritime Museum is a working village that takes visitors back in time.
EXHIBITIONS ashore and afloat have something of interest for those of all ages.
(PHOTOS - John Crook)