SY Aurora

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Aurora Ship.png
A glimpse of Aurora from within the cavern in the wall of the shelf-ice of the Mertz Glacier Tongue, Commonwealth Bay, Adelie Land, Australasian Antarctic Expedition, December 1913. Photo by Frank Hurley. From the National Library of Australia ID No. nla.pic-an23478533
Builder: Alexander Stephen & Sons Ltd. Dundee, Scotland
Launched: 1876
Fate: Declared lost by Lloyd's of London, 2 January 1918
General characteristics
Class & type: Steam yacht
Tonnage: 380 grt
Length: 165 ft (50 m)
Beam: 30.5 ft (9.3 m)
Draught: 18.75 ft (5.72 m)
  • Compound Steam Engine
  • Cunliffe and Dunlop of Glasgow
  • 98 bhp
Sail plan: Barquentine

SY Aurora was a steam yacht built by Alexander Stephen and Sons Ltd. in Dundee, Scotland, in 1876,[1] for the Dundee Seal and Whale Fishing Company. Her primary use was whaling in the northern seas, and she was built sturdily enough to withstand the heavy weather and ice that would be encountered there. That strength proved useful for Antarctic exploration as well, and between 1911 and 1917 she made five trips to the continent, both for exploration as well as rescue missions.


Between the years 1876 and 1910, Aurora made the annual trip from Dundee, Scotland to St. John's, Newfoundland to take part in the whale and seal hunt in the North Atlantic. There were a couple of notable events in this time. In 1884, Aurora made a failed attempt to rescue the Greely Expedition to claim the reward money, and in 1891, the ship came to the rescue of the crew of Polynia when she was crushed in sea ice.

Douglas Mawson Expedition

In 1910, she was bought by Douglas Mawson for his Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Aurora made the journey from Hobart, Australia to Macquarie Island, Mawson's base of operations, in December 1911. After establishing the base, they sailed south again, and arrived in Commonwealth Bay Antarctica, on 7 January 1912. At Cape Denison, her crew unloaded Mawson and his team, and helped set up the camp (Mawson's Huts), but then departed to return to Hobart so as not to get trapped in the sea-ice over the winter.

In December 1912, Aurora returned to find that Douglas Mawson, Xavier Mertz, and Belgrave Edward Sutton Ninnis had set out on a sled expedition, and were overdue on their return. The captain attempted to wait for the expedition to return, but poor anchorage and extremely strong winds combined to cause a number of anchor chains to break. At the end of January the ship had to leave or risk getting stuck for the winter. Aurora left a team of six, including a radio operator, behind with ample supplies, and departed. Mawson, the sole survivor of the three, arrived in time to see Aurora disappearing over the horizon. A radio call brought Aurora back, but bad weather forced her to depart again, leaving Mawson and party behind.

Aurora returned to Commonwealth Bay on 12 December 1913, to pick up the seven men, and return to Australia.

Trans Antarctic Expedition

In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton tasked Aurora to help set up supply depots along the route for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. After being delayed by sea ice in McMurdo Sound in January 1915, Aurora managed to make her way further south, and sent teams off to set up the depots. Eventually she made her way to Discovery Bay on 12 March 1915, where she anchored and continued to offload supplies. In May, Aurora was trapped in the ice, and was carried out to the sea, stranding the men that were setting up the depots. She remained trapped in the ice for the better part of a year, drifting some 1600 nautical miles. It was not until 12 February 1916 that the ship escaped from the ice, making it back to Dunedin, New Zealand on 3 April.

1917 Ross Sea Party rescue

The Australian, New Zealand and British governments agreed to fund the refit of Aurora for the rescue of the Ross Sea Party. An Advisory Committee was established in Melbourne, consisting of Rear Admiral Sir William Cresswell, Professor Sir Orme Masson, Captain J.R. Barter, Commander John Stevenson and Dr Griffith Taylor.[2]

Shackleton's expedition funds were fully expended. After his legendary ordeal on Endurance in the Weddell Sea sector, Shackleton arrived in New Zealand during December 1916. The three governments involved were adamant that he would not lead the rescue expedition and at their insistence John King Davis was appointed to captain Aurora. After negotiation Shackleton sailed aboard Aurora, but Captain Davis had total authority on the voyage. On 10 January 1917, the ship pulled alongside the pack ice near Cape Royds and worked her way to Cape Evans. One week later, the seven survivors of the original ten members of the Ross Sea Party were headed back to Wellington, New Zealand aboard Aurora.

Ultimate Fate

Aurora was last seen in 1917, when she departed Newcastle, New South Wales, bound for Iquique, Chile with a cargo of coal.The pilot who took her to sea (Captain R. S. Millington) writes: "The loss of the Aurora is impressed on my memory. On Wednesday, June 20, 1917, at 4 p.m., I took her to sea. It was a beautiful day and dead calm. To my mind there is not a shadow of doubt they intended calling at Wellington for coal and water. The captain's wife left for Wellington per S.S. Manuka the same week, so as to be in Wellington when the Aurora arrived " From the moment Captain Millington lost sight, of the Aurora at dusk on June 20, the only trace of her is the lifebuoy. December 5, 1917, the master of the Coombar, of the North Coast Steam, Navigation Co., picked up a lifebuoy in latitude, 31 deg. 22mm. S., longitude 153 deg. 6 min. E. (off the coast near Grafton NSW), "the underside of which was covered by small barnacles, but the lettering "S.Y. ' Aurora' was quite distinct, and with the lettering 'I.T.A.E.' underneath." It may be remarked that the fine weather described by Captain Millington continued for many days. Lloyd's of London posted the ship as missing on 2 January 1918; it was believed she was a casualty of World War I, possibly being sunk by a mine laid by the German merchant raider Wolf.

Message on a bottle

There remain several mysteries around this story. On May 24, 1927, two completely different accounts appeared in two regional newspapers 1000 km apart. The Broken Hill Barrier Miner relates the factual account: 'In 1917, Mr. G. R. Bressington, of Homebush, was working in the office of the New South Wales Bottle Company, Ultimo. During the afternoon, the delivery clerk brought in a wine bottle, on which were engraved eight names. It had been found in the washing department, among hundreds of others, and how it came there is not known. Mr. Bressington took it home and kept it, unaware of its value, and there is rested until recently, when its presence became known, as the result of a casual conversation with a friend. The bottle was shown to Mr. A. D. Watson, a member of the 1912 expedition, who is now a master at the North Sydney High School, he clearly remembered the signing of the first bottle, and had a faint recollection of the second, but he could not remember exactly to whom it belonged, or what subsequently happened to it.

The completely fictional account came from the Mt Gambier Border Watch, page 1: A remarkable story of the sea is unfolded by the recent finding on the beach at Tuggerah (N.S.W.), by Mr. G. Bressington, of a wine bottle which had been cast up by the sea...... It goes on to speculate that when the ship Aurora , used to carry Mawson’s party to and from Antarctica, and now converted as a coal carrier, was lost off the NSW coast in June 1917, the bottle drifted about until it was found on the beach ten years later. Sir Douglas Mawson read the fictional account, doubted its validity, and on the same day, wrote to George Bressington to set up a mechanism by which the bottle's story could be validated. In the course of the action, the bottle was taken to the Mitchell Library, then eventually recollected by George Bressington. Its ultimate fate is still unknown. But what is clear, is that it is not one of he original 3 Madeira bottles given to Mawson by the renowned Oceanographer/Surveyor, JY Buchanan, two of which Mawson had handed on to each of his base leaders, Macquarie Island (Ainsworh), Western Base (Wild) for consumption at the Midwinter Dinner festivities. At the Western Base, Frank Wild decreed that the empty bottle, which had all the names of the party, and a sketch by Harrisson, of a penguin along with an outline of the ship Aurora carefully etched by a diamond into the glass, should be returned to the donor, Buchanan. Another wine bottle was then inscribed in the same way with the names, but no sketch. It is this bottle that found its way into George Bressington's hands.

This fictional account was picked up by other regional papers all over the country in the following weeks, but the only other record of the true story could be found in the Freeman's Journal Sydney, of June 2, 1927.

As it happens, the Aurora's final movements are in keeping with the bottle being handed in at Ultimo Bottle Works Sydney. When she first set out with a load of coal n April, 1917, she hit heavy weather, and sprung a bad leak, so she put into Sydney, unloaded her coal and was taken to the Jubilee Dry Dock in Balmain for major structural repairs. She had only just been sold, and so it is entirely feasible, as she was laid up for a month, that the new owners would clean out any remaining 'rubbish' from her Antarctic exploits, and bottles being valuable recyclable assets, it is not surprising that this one should turn up at the bottle washing facility near by.



A number of Antarctic features are named for Aurora. These include:


This is a partial list of Captains of Aurora:


  1. "Alexander Stephen & Sons, Dundee Yard-list". Maritime History Virtual Archives. Retrieved 2 July 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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