The MS City of Rayville

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The City of Rayville

In late October, 1940, German Raider ships, the Passat and the Pinguin laid mines in several fields in the approaches to Hobart, Sydney, Newcastle, Bass Strait and Spencer’s Gulf.

On the night of the 29th October the Passat laid 30 mines in Banks Strait between the Furneaux Group and the Tasmanian mainland, then 30 more between Deal and Cliffy Islands, 10 off Wilsons Promontory, followed by 40 off Cape Otway on the night of the 31st October.

On the 8th November, 1940 at 7.30 pm the American ship the City of Rayville (pictured above) struck one of those mines about six miles south of Cape Otway while bound from Adelaide to Melbourne with 1500 tons of lead loaded at Port Pirie. 

The City of Rayville was not a new vessel, having been built at Tampa, Florida in 1920, but she had recently been reconditioned.

Local fishermen considered her to be extremely unlucky. The currents in the area reach four to five knots when the tide is running and any mines anchored to the seabed would be dragged out of the perpendicular, thus clearing the shipping lane. The Rayville, heavily laden and laying low in the water, reached the area in slack water between tide when mines would provide the maximum hazard.

A bright flash, followed by the rumble of an explosion alerted the Cape Otway lighthouse keepers who contacted Apollo Bay seeking help from the local fishing fleet.

Conditions were not good. A strong north-easterly was whipping up the sea and most fishermen, anticipating bad weather, had winched their small craft (couta boats up to 28 feet in length) up onto the pier (the only protection for the fleet in those days). Three boats, however, left immediately to search for survivors.

Those nine fishermen were Lincoln Allen, Les Barrand, Harry Blyth, Bill Burwood, Roy Fisk, Jock Muir, Bill Ovens, James Slater and Len Stephens.

As the craft headed into the open sea on a search expected to take them more than 20 miles south of the tiny port, they were swept by choppy seas, which necessitated constant bailing. In addition rain squalls made visibility difficult, but soon the fishermen were able to take their bearings from the flashing Cape Otway lighthouse, and several hours later flares were sighted about seven miles west from where the ship had sunk..

A long search in the darkness followed. Finally, after several false alarms, two lifeboats were located wallowing in the sea. Lines were attached and they were towed back to Apollo Bay.

Later, the ship’s master, Captain Cronin, reported the ship had sunk in 35 minutes, bow first, the only casualty being the third engineer, who lost his life when he returned to the ship to collect personal belongings.

The hotels in Apollo Bay generously cared for the Americans and the townspeople were lavish with their hospitality during the few days the crew spent in the port, where they were clothed with the assistance of the Apollo Bay branch of the Red Cross. When they left for Melbourne Lorne and Anglesea residents extended hospitality to them as they passed their towns.

Some believe that the seamen from the Passat may have landed west of Cape Otway. About a month after the Rayville was lost, two district farmers climbed down the steep cliffs to a fishing spot and were alarmed to discover possible evidence that a hostile force had apparently landed there and remained for some time. The visitors had made little effort to conceal discarded German cigarette boxes and other materials.

Over the years various attempts have been made to locate the wreck of the Rayville with the intent on salvaging the lead cargo. Most recently, in January, 1999 a local fisherman took a salvage company to where he considered the wreck to be located and an underwater submarine camera allegedly found the remains and took video evidence. This is yet to be confirmed and currently several disputes are in progress as to the ownership of the wreck should it be deemed possible to salvage the cargo which is today valued at several million dollars. 

The business Rayville Boat Houses was created by Ross Stephens and his wife the son of above Len Stevens as a tribute to these men who risked their own lives to save those of others. Rayville consists of holiday units, each named after one of these men. The original property which still stands on 9 Noel Street, Apollo Bay was built by the father and had been named Rayville since the rescue.  

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