Catching memories from the iconic Sygna wreck

BIG CATCH: Chris Simmons fishing on the wreck of the Sygna in the 1980s. Photo courtesy Chris Simmons.

BIG CATCH: Chris Simmons fishing on the wreck of the Sygna in the 1980s. Photo courtesy Chris Simmons.

To Novocastrians, it is an icon. To mariners, it is a symbol of the perils of the sea. To Chris Simmons, the wreck of the Sygna was a great place to fish and camp. 

“Oh, it was Nirvana,” said Mr Simmons. “To say it was the best wouldn’t be good enough for it.” 

What brought a lot of joy to Chris Simmons was a place of fear for a ship’s crew and a source of wonderment and disbelief to a community during a ferocious storm on May 26, 1974. The 53,000-tonne bulk carrier was cowed by Mother Nature. Monstrous waves and winds up to 170 km/h drove the ship ashore at Stockton Bight, wedging the ship into the sand and the memory of a city.

As thousands of other Hunter people did, Chris Simmons, then a teenager living at Cardiff, drove with a mate to Fern Bay, trudged over the sand dunes and stared at the extraordinary sight of a ship on the beach.  

“People in Newcastle don’t call that the 1974 storm,” said Mr Simmons. “It’s the Sygna storm.”

The stern section of the Sygna could not be budged off the beach by salvage efforts, nor could it be moved from people’s minds. It grew into a tourist attraction and provided a surfing break for Chris Simmons. But then in the early 1980s, he and his mates decided to not just surf on the edges of the wreck, but to fish from it. 

“We all loved the water, and it was there,” shrugged Mr Simmons when asked why. “Other people had been out there, and there used to be a flying fox attached to the beach, but that had gone by the time we did it.”

So the mates paddled their boards out to the wreck. Their fishing gear was lashed to their backs, tied on behind the boards, or even floated out in a garbage can or inflatable children’s pool. The mates were so intent on catching fish, or basking in the satisfaction of returning to shore with a haul, they pushed aside any thoughts of the really big fish lurking.

“We knew sharks were out there, and when we were paddling in with a backpack filled with fish, we could have been live bait,” he said. 

Neil Dalby was one of the fishing group. These days, he is a teacher and co-owner of Asa-don Japanese restaurant, but back then, he would happily paddle along “the fine line between sheer exhilaration and imminent disaster”. 

“We were always looking for a way to catch big fish,” recalled Mr Dalby. “With the Sygna, it was a ready-built fishing platform in deep water, so you didn’t think twice – ‘Let’s get out there and fish!’”

Chris Simmons and his friends would camp on the wreck. He left a sleeping bag on board – “it smelled a bit”. But in the darkness, lying on a deck where he could smell the rust, Mr Simmons sensed the Sygna still had a life; he could hear the wreck breathing. 

“The sounds were ever-present,” he explained. “You could hear the water washing under the ship, and that would compress the air through pipes and openings, which made different noises. I called it ‘The Sygna Symphony’. 

“But one night a storm came up. That was spooky. We didn’t fish all night. A big wave hit into the bulkhead, and there was a deep ‘boom’. The symphony turned into the 1812 Overture! We were safe on board, but we were thinking about the paddle back next morning.

“Some nights, you looked up at the stars, you could see the glow of the steelworks, then all the way up to the bay, and you’d go, ‘This is surreal’. Then your reel would go off.”

The reels frequently rattled. The fishing was superb. Mulloway, luderick, bream, tailor, and the occasional shark – “I landed a big hammerhead one night”. Yet it wasn’t just fishing that kept drawing Chris Simmons back to the wreck, but the time spent with mates. They continued to fish from the Sygna for almost a decade.

“There were a lot more holes in the wreck, so it was getting unsafe,” Mr Simmons explained.  

CATCHING MEMORIES: In his book, Chris Simmons has recorded his memories of fishing and camping on the Sygna.

CATCHING MEMORIES: In his book, Chris Simmons has recorded his memories of fishing and camping on the Sygna.

But the Sygna has now played another role in Chris Simmons’ life. It has been the inspiration for his first book, The Sygna – my story. More than holding a collection of fishing tales, the book is a story of mateship, of observing nature in all its beauty and fury, and keeping alive the memory of a ship that time and tide have now taken away.

“If it’s written down, it becomes history; if not, it remains a mystery,” he said. 

The book includes photos taken by Mr Simmons while on the wreck, even a few snapped from his surfboard. The photos are an intimate view of something most of us have seen only from the beach.

“I took only about 50 photos, and they were starting to fade, so it was time to do something.” 

What prompted him to action was when the wreck of the Sygna finally slipped below the waves earlier this year, after more than four decades in the surf at Stockton Beach. He sees that patch now as a grave without a headstone, so Chris Simmons wrote the eulogy.

“It’s like losing a friend or a part of the family,” Mr Simmons said. “It’s just a beach now.”

The General Manager of Newcastle Maritime Museum, Frank Elgar, is delighted Chris Simmons wrote the story and captured history.

“I think it’s very important,” said Mr Elgar. “It’s so real, it’s about people enjoying the Newcastle environment, and otherwise this may have been completely forgotten. It really is a part of living Newcastle history.”

Chris Simmons sees the story as a celebration of another time.

“There were no fees, no permission; we did it because it was there, and we could,” he said.

“It’s one of the most special things I’ve done, especially with friends. And I can’t do it anymore.”

Yet Neil Dalby sees a potential downside with the book for his author friend. 

“As a fisherman, he can’t lie anymore,” Mr Dalby laughed. “But the rest of us can. We can continue to expand on our stories.” 

Chris Simmons will be at the Newcastle Maritime Museum to talk about the Sygna and sign books from 10am to 2pm, Saturday, December 17, and Sunday, December 18.

Video by Justin Martin
This story Memory fishing on an icon first appeared on Newcastle Herald.