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SS Elingamite is well known in New Zealand and Australia and among the international diving fraternity despite sinking more than a century ago, because of the drama associated with it, and wild tales of lost treasure.
She was a single screw passenger steamer of about 2500 tons engaged on the regular Tasman Sea run between Sydney and Auckland.
Elingamite left Sydney early on Sunday morning of November 9, 1902 with Captain Ernest Atwood in charge. On board were 136 passengers and 53 crew, and a consignment of 52 boxes of coins for banks in New Zealand, including 6000 gold half-sovereigns.
The voyage was uneventful until mid-morning on the 9th when the ship suddenly encountered thick fog. Captain Atwood took necessary precautions, but the vessel struck West Island, one of the islands in the Three Kings group, about 35 nautical miles north of Cape Reinga on the northern tip of mainland New Zealand.
The vessel foundered and sank within 20 minutes, but those on board managed to escape in lifeboats and rafts, some taking survivors to King islands and some to the mainland. One lifeboat was never seen again, and the total death toll was 45.
A court of enquiry into the sinking began at Auckland on November 28 and lasted about two months. Captain Atwood was found guilty of grossly negligent navigation (and on other matters), and his masters’ certificate was suspended.
Eight years later the Australian Naval Station reported that the Three Kings were wrongly charted. In 1911, the Terra Nova surveyed the area and established the Three Kings group to be a mile and a quarter south, and a third of a mile east, of their position shown on Captain Atwood's chart.
The enquiry was reopened and the court found that the sinking would never have happened had the chart been accurate. Captain Atwood was cleared of all charges and later became a ship surveyor at Wellington where he died in the 1930s.
Over the years there have been exaggerated claims that there was unregistered bullion aboard, and inflated tales about the true value of the coins on board when she sank. It was worth £17,320 (approximately equivalent to $2 million in 2004 U.S. dollars) which was a lot of money, but less than claimed by urban legends. For almost 30 years the Elingamite wreck has been a favourite site for adventurous divers and many of the coins have been recovered.
Some coins that were on the ship, continue to be held by locals in Auckland, New Zealand.