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The Centurion

Centurion (I) - Registered at Aberdeen 27th February 1850; 3 masts, one deck plus poop and forecastle decks. Male figurehead. Walter Hood and Co  length 157' 5" x breadth 26' 5" x depth 19' 3" Registered Tonnage: 639 ton

China, then Australia Trade, .  The first Centurion ended her days as a total loss wrecked off Grimsby in 1866.

Centurion ll - 1869
The 2nd Centurion was launched in the spring of 1869, and measured:- Length 208 ft.; beam 35 ft.; depth 21 ft. Captain Mitchell overlooked her building and was her 1st Commander. She was a very fast ship and he always hoped to beat the Thermopylae with her, but never succeeded.  On her 1st voyage she went out to Sydney in 69 days.  It was a light weather passage and she never started the sheets of her main topgallant sail the whole way.  She is stated to have made 360, 348 and 356 miles in 3 successive days running down her easting, These are unverified runs. Captain Mitchell died on her 2nd voyage just before reaching the Channel homeward bound She also made some creditable tea passages, but was mostly kept in the Sydney trade. In 1871 she went out in 77 days and in 1872 in 78 days.

The Centurion was built as a magnificent clipper ship, later converted to a barque - square-rigged on 2 of 3 masts. With a length of 63 metres, the timber vessel was built in 1869 at Aberdeen, Scotland, in the celebrated yard of Walter Hood & Sons. The latest to join the famous Aberdeen White Star Line owned by George Thompson, Centurion was linked alongside one of the world’s most famous clippers - Thermopylae. That ship famously raced the surviving Cutty Sark in the China tea and Australian wool trades. Centurion made many fine voyages but was not regarded as one of the elite group of clippers that won household acclaim.  The Centurion, a timber sailing ship was lost inside North Head of Sydney Harbour in 1887.

Centurion was departing Sydney Heads under tow for Newcastle in order to load coal for Honolulu when it got into difficulties. It was towards the end of its life and the once proud passenger and cargo carrier now served as an ordinary collier. Stored in its hull were 400 tons of coal and 60 tons of rock ballast. As the steamer Phoebe manoeuvred the Centurion through the Heads, the Manhegan, moored in the centre of the entrance impeded its passage.  Centurion’s tow rope slipped and fouled the Phoebe’s propeller. An anchor was immediately dropped, but the vessel washed onto the rocks of North Head, near the ‘Old Man’s Hat’. Recovering the tow rope, Phoebe pulled Centurion off but the vessel sank, fatally holed, inside Cannae Point.

The Centurion ll left Sydney for Newcastle, N.S.W., on 17th January, 1887; at 1.30 a.m. whilst off the Heads, the tug's line carried away: the ship drifted on to the North Head, struck and then sank in 18 fathoms, barely giving her crew 15 minutes to get clear.

Spread out on the harbour floor in the midst of the metropolis of Sydney, lies the Centurion, a timber sailing ship lost inside North Head in 1887. Few travelling to work on the Manly Ferry would know of its existence beneath their course – a reminder of the days when Sydney Harbour was a major shipping destination, once congested with international and coastal sailing vessels, belching steamers and harbour craft. The loss of the Centurion was recorded as ‘avoidable’, having occurred during daylight hours.

Today the site comprises the largest timber shipwreck site in Sydney Harbour and is very popular with recreational SCUBA divers. The complicated archaeological structure is spread over 40 x 15 metres on sand in 19 metres of water. Major elements include a pile of stone ballast, anchor chain, sections of iron-plated masts, and many iron fastenings from the hull. Sections of the hull’s timbers can be seen, particularly when sand levels change, exposing previously buried portions of the structure.  The archaeological site contains an important range of data on hull construction techniques in a period of changing ship technology. While built as a timber sailing vessel, Centurion included innovative changes: iron deck beams and supports instead of the traditional timber, iron diagonal straps along the side of the hull, iron-plated lower masts and yards.  These features have been identified as key elements of a specific transitional building style, known as ‘composite’ construction. While Centurion did not possess novel iron framework associated with that style, it was built during a time of transition in large sailing ship design and construction, and the trialling of new materials and forms, such as iron components.

The unveiling of a heritage plinth at the Centurion wrecksite -
The Centurion was built as timber clipper ship, and later transformed to a barque rig, square-rigged on two masts. Built in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1869 for the Aberdeen White Star Line, she sank in 1887 after colliding with North Head.  The National Maritime Museum, working with NSW Heritage, played a large role in surveying the wreck, and designed the plinth that was placed on the wrecksite.  The Museum heritage fleet boat carried divers from the Museum out to take part in the event. It was a foggy, morning out on the Harbour, with the heads drifting in and out of view.   The plinth was draped in an Aberdeen White Star Line house flag and was lowered from a barge to the sea floor. The NSW Deputy Premier (a keen diver), then donned his gear and dived down to unveil it. The ROV was deployed to film the event. 

The Emigrant Ships - John Masefield

Those splendid ships, each with her grace, her glory.
Her memory of old song or comrade's story,
Still in my mind the image of life's need.
Beauty in hardest action, beauty indeed.
"They built great ships and sailed them " sounds most brave,
Whatever arts we have or fail to have ;
I touch my country's mind, I come to grips
With half her purpose thinking of these ships.
That art untouched by softness, all that line
Drawn ringing hard to stand the test of brine
That nobleness and grandeur, all that beauty
Born of a manly life and bitter duty;
That splendour of fine bows which yet could stand
The shock of rollers never checked by land.
That art of masts, sail-crowded, fit to break.
Yet stayed to strength, and back-stayed into rake.
The life demanded by that art, the keen
Eye-puckered, hard-case seamen, silent, lean.
They are grander things than all the art of towns,
Their tests are tempests, and the sea that drowns.
They are my country's line, her great art done
By strong brains labouring on the thought unwon,
They mark our passage as a race of men
Earth will not see such ships as those again.
— John Masefield.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013