A captain’s last voyage & how Mandalay Beach got its name

The 'Mandalay' under tow on the Avon River, Bristol, England. Source: WNDHS.

The ‘Mandalay’ on the Avon River, Bristol, England. (WNDHS)

The Norwegian barque Mandalay left Delegoa Bay in Africa in 1911 to take on cargo in the Western Australian port of Albany.

Good weather favoured the ship and as she sailed gracefully over the Southern Ocean off the south-west corner of the Western Australian coast Captain Emile Tonnessen and his crew looked forward to reaching their destination.

In all his 46 years at sea as a naval man, the skipper had never experienced a mishap. This was his final voyage before retirement.

As the sky clouded over and the breeze freshened, Captain Tonnessen was filled with sense of foreboding. He recognised these ominous signs of a change in the weather.

Suddenly there was a freak wind change which turned the breeze into a gale from the south-west.

The Captain issued his orders and the crew sprang into action and for many hours fought to control the vessel against the fury of the wind, which in turn whipped up huge, relentless seas.

The tremendous force of the wind caused the Mandalay to be driven shorewards and all efforts to bring the ship away from the coast were fruitless against the merciless wind.

The ship came perilously close to Chatham Island, a sheer rocky peak rising 130 feet out of the water.

By some miracle the captain and his crew managed to keep the vessel clear of Chatham but a greater danger loomed; Long Point.

Wreck of the 'Mandalay', Mandalay Beach. Photo taken by Tom Swarbrick c. 1929. Source: WNDHS.

Wreck of the ‘Mandalay’, Mandalay Beach. Photo taken by Tom Swarbrick c. 1929. (WNDHS)

Captain Tonnessen realised that the force of the onshore winds would prevent them from rounding Long Point and made the only decision that could result in survival. He ordered his men to beach the vessel.

The beaching was accomplished but resulted in a further problem; that of moving men and provisions ashore through the turbulent, tossing ocean.  The storm had not abated and the wind howled through the flapping canvas of the ship’s sails.

One man volunteered to make the first move and a rope was tied securely around him. However, it became tangled around his leg, putting him in imminent danger. A young Englishman went to his aid and together they were successful.

Finally, all the men, urged on by the skipper they loved and respected, fought their way to shore with provisions and set up a makeshift camp where they watched helplessly as the seas relentlessly battered the stricken ship.

When the wind abated, efforts were made to find help.

One crew member was sighted in the dense bush by early settlers on the Deep River — Frank Thompson and his sister Phyllis — who took the man to their home.

After a short rest, he led a rescue party back to the beach where Captain Tonnessen and crew of the Mandalay were overjoyed to see their rescuers.

Captain Emile Tonnessen and the crew of the iron barque 'Mandalay' were wrecked on the beach that would bear its name. Photo taken at Bow Bridge in 1911 by Bert Saw. (WNDHS)

Captain Emile Tonnessen and the crew of the iron barque ‘Mandalay’ were wrecked on the beach that would bear the ship’s name. Photo taken at Bow Bridge in 1911 by Bert Saw. (WNDHS)

The men were led through the sand hills to the Thompson’s homestead and enjoyed great hospitality before being taken to Albany and on to Fremantle and then back to Norway.

Thus ended the life of the Mandalay; left to be gradually broken down by the sea until little remained of the ship.

A number of people still hold relics of the Mandalay and for many years, at various times of the year, parts of the ship are visible on the beach that bears her name.

Perhaps you have been to Mandalay Beach recently. What did you see? Let us know in the comments below.

This story has been adapted from an article that first appeared in two parts; in the June 11, 2014June 18, 2014 editions of the Walpole Weekly. Molly Smith is a regular contributor to the Weekly with her “Looking Back with Molly” column. Pictures sourced from the Walpole, Nornalup & Districts Historical Society.

Wreck of the 'Mandalay', Mandalay Beach, November 27, 2002. Source: WNDHS.

Wreck of the ‘Mandalay’, Mandalay Beach, November 27, 2002. Photographer unknown. (WNDHS)


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  1. Elizabeth Priest(nee Benson-Lidholm)

    Charles Albert Benson is my Grand Father and I would like a photo of the Plaque that stated he was used as the interpreter that could relay their concerns.I have just visited the Mandalay Beach again and have a photo of the part of the story and would like to complete it for my Story please Regards Elizabeth

  2. My son Greg and I will be traveling from Minneapolis, MN. USA to WA from Nov. 3rd through Nov 21, 2015 with the express purpose of learning all I can about the Mandalay.
    My great grandfather was one of the Mandalay’s two captains and he and his six daughters were part owners of the Mandalay. Although not aboard the Mandalay when she was wrecked, the ship played an important role in the family then and now.
    I too, welcome any information about the ship, it’s crew, those that helped bring the crew to safety and the crew’s journey home.

    Elizabeth Priest, I would like very much to visit with you about your grandfather, Charles, and your Story. My email address again is:
    kakolbjorn@comcast.net. Thanks

  3. From my reading and local knowledge it was Point Nuyts that they were worried about rounding, long point does not jut out too much.

  4. Julie Benson, married to Charles Albert's grand son

    Spent a wonderful day at Mandalay, the wreck is out of the water again. At Low tide it is a wonderful view and well worth a walk to see. 23/10/2016

  5. I was wondering how the men from the Mandalay ship travelled to Mr Thompson’s house? Was there a road that they used or did they follow the river which is very shallow in parts?

  6. Hi Clare thanks for your comment. You could contact the Walpole Nornalup Historical society for further details on this story.

  7. Molly Mansfield

    Hi Elizabeth Priest and everyone – I am the great great granddaughter of one of the Mandalay’s two captains. My mother’s cousin, Arne Kolbjornsen, posted a comment above in 2015. Our family is continuing to research the Mandalay, continuing Arne’s work. Although my great great grandfather was not aboard the Mandalay when she was wrecked, the ship played an important role in the family then and now.
    I’m based in the United States and am glad to communicate with anyone about the families connected to the Mandalay. mansfieldme@gmail.com

  8. WalpoleOnline.com

    Hi Molly, Would you have any pictures of your great great grandfather and do you know if he was captain of the Mandalay went it was shipwrecked. We are creating a coffee table book and there is a small section on the Mandalay. Thank you. My email is crc@walpole.org.au
    Kind regards
    Cherie Smith
    General Manager of Walpole Community Resource Centre

  9. Chris Maas Geesteranus

    Dear descendants of any – I understand – captain of the SV Mandalay which wrecked at Cape Leeuwin!
    I was there, around 1990, and made a photo of a memorial ‘statue’ on location. This memorial, to my surprise, I could nowhere find on the internet; neither did I find any reference to it in your correspondence. That’s why I wish to share it with each of you in case you will respond to this comment. Please also send your email address


    The Netherlands

  10. WalpoleOnline.com

    Hi Chris,
    Our email is crc@walpole.org.au
    Thank you for your comment.
    Kind regards
    Cherie Smith

  11. Peter Dawson, then of the Albany Shantymen, wrote a sea shanty about the Mandalay. Copy the following link to hear it on Spotify or search for The Albany Shantymen https://open.spotify.com/track/54I1UNfqweK9QwuCiKlx3b?si=87c2eaffa5fd4c01

  12. Bjørn Inge Holberg

    This story is very interesting because I know own and live in captain Tønnessens house in Narestø, Norway! And it is first last year I get to know this incredible story. I really want to go to Mandalay beach som day

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