Text and Photography by Damien Siviero
Like bulls to a red flag, it all started with a dive operator saying, “We’ve got a wreck...but it’s deep!”

A few months later, we were back up the coast with all the gear necessary to do an 263 - 300-foot dive on what was then just a fisherman’s gut feeling and a few squiggles on a depth sounder. After loading the boat and an anxious ride out, our skipper (Al Dederer) dropped the pick, and within seconds proclaimed that we were hooked in. Skeptical, we looked at each other and began to gear up. What we found was something pretty special – an intact and untouched wreck that had been the unknown grave of seventeen souls for more than 60 years.

Putting the rough seas to the back of our minds, we jumped in and were welcomed by warm, clear water with 100-foot visibility, only mild current, and a clear run to the bottom. Little did we know that it would be the only time that we would encounter such perfect conditions. As I moved down the line and my eyes adjusted to the drop in light, I could just make out the forward and rear king posts (square masts) that rose up from the bottom like football goal posts. With some excitement, I turned to my buddy, Merv Maher, to acknowledge that we had indeed found a wreck and not a rusted fish trap or shipping container. He looked at me with wide eyes and yelled through his loop, “Keep f%$king moving!” By that stage, time was indeed ticking and we were eating into our limited bottom time.
Once on the bottom, it was straight into photo mode for me. But with no plan other than to go down, swim around, and come up -- I was somewhat overwhelmed. With my camera out and strobes firing, the site must have looked like a disco as I began taking stills of anything that could possibly identify the wreck.

Upright and proud with her hull relatively intact, the Fairwind appeared on the sandy bottom as soon as we got in range. The forward and rear king posts towered over the site, protruding about 30 feet above the wreck. This inspiring view made the Fairwind reminiscent of the Truk Lagoon maru-style ships, and is something very distinct in Australian waters.

The bow and king posts were intact, as were the twin props and rudder. The rear bridge area and super structure had completely collapsed inwards and left a mess of jumbled plate steel and artifacts, including cooking implements and port holes. We found a stack of car-style batteries, which gave us some indication of age, as did the absence of a boiler, which meant she was likely powered by diesel engines.

The central hold is comprised of a large open section, which backs onto a tight but open passage into the aft section. Although penetrating this section and the bow area may be possible, at only 120 feet in length any penetration is not for the faint-hearted -- and not amenable to the amount of gear we were packing. Having been fished by locals for some years, the site is also covered in Kevlar traces which can hook you up and is very difficult to cut. For now, what lies within the hidden sections of the wreck remains a mystery.
With the first dive complete, things got much harder. The weather took a turn for the worse, and a decision was made to return to Sydney (about a six hour drive). With some photos of the wreck, a rough sizing and some indicators of age, our trusty wreck expert, Geoff Cook, was able to provide us with the name MV Fairwind. Historical photos of the vessel plus additional information about location, structure, and size have led us to the conclusion that the wreck is indeed that of the MV Fairwind. The identification was bittersweet; it came with the news that seventeen people had lost their lives when the vessel sank during a mini cyclone in 1950.

Built in 1946, the vessel was originally designated MSL 251 by the Royal Australian Navy, though she never saw service in this role. After two years in reserve she was renamed MV Fairwind, and loaned to the Australian Department of External Territories in order to conduct a fisheries survey in Papua New Guinea (PNG). This first voyage also fatefully turned out to be her last. It was on her return from PNG that the Fairwind was lost. Extensive air and sea searches turned up nothing; until recently, the Fairwind remained a relatively forgotten chapter in Australian maritime history.

After several months of on and off research, we eventually stumbled on an ex-crewman of the vessel. Surprisingly, he had managed to narrowly escape the tragedy when he received a Dear John letter from his girlfriend at the time. He immediately resigned his position as engineer and returned home to Australia by plane, eventually marrying the woman who is still his wife today.
With the world’s worst kept secret held by the project team, months passed before we could organize another trip to the site. Once there, the “damn current” -- as we have come to know it -- proved it was in charge and forced us to call more than one dive. An unpredictable 3-4 knot current regularly plagues the site. Over the following months, repeated attempts to dive the wreck resulted in a blown gear box, lost anchors, more current, and a lovely bounce dive to the sandy bottom on one or two attempts. Accepting that we needed to learn about the site and what it would throw at us, we persisted.
Capturing video and stills of the wreck has been challenging, but with the relatively clear water we have managed to compile a decent collection of material that does justice to the wreck. Having completed each of my dives on the site with a camera, I look forward to the next dive without one so that I can concentrate on the detail which has been so well preserved. Viewing the world through a camera lens results in an abstract, almost hazy impression, which is only ever sharpened when you have time to sit down and consume the captured images.

The experience of that first dive on the Fairwind is something that I will not quickly forget. With 17 years of diving behind me, I have dived a lot of wrecks but on each occasion I have more or less been told what to expect. Diving on a virgin wreck is so much more; it embodies that sense of exploration that I suspect drives each of us to dive, whether it be on a wreck, in a cave, or around a reef. It is all too easy to forget about the tragic events that often cause ships to sink and, ultimately, lives to be lost. For me, discovering the MV Fairwind has made the human side of shipwrecks just a bit more real.