Sailing on the Sobraon

Imagine a sailing ship with masts nearly 200 feet high. A ship made of wood and iron. A ship that could spread two acres of sail. That’s about the size of the pitch in a premier football stadium or the space you need to park some 300 cars.

That’s how large the Sobraon was when she was launched in 1866 by one of Aberdeen’s finest ship builders Alexander Hall & Co. She was named to commemorate a famous and fierce battle that took place in 1846 between the British East India Company and Sikh forces in the Punjab in India.

The Sobraon was the biggest composite ship of all time. Made of wood and iron, she was very strong and could sail closely into the wind, reaching incredible speeds for a ship without additional propulsion. (She was originally designed as a steamer but built as a clipper.) Her composite design almost led to disaster on her maiden voyage, when the large quantities of metal interfered with her compass.

The people who commissioned and built the Sobraon wanted her to be fast, luxurious and very special. Unlike most clipper ships there were only two passenger classes; 90 people could travel first class and 40 in second class. Onboard facilities including a water condenser, ice chamber and fresh food and milk (the Sobraon could carry nearly 100 sheep, 50 pigs, three bullocks and a lot of poultry) meant passengers could make long journeys in relative comfort. A crew of 69 sailed the ship and looked after their needs. As Harold John Graham’s watercolours make clear, those on board were not short of entertainment, either.

On her trips to and from Australia the Sobraon circumnavigated the entire globe. She would travel out round the Cape of Good Hope at the southernmost tip of Africa and back to the United Kingdom via Cape Horn at the tip of South America. She often stopped at Cape Town as well as St. Helena, both of which were popular with her passengers. Her fastest trip to Sydney took just 73 days. Later, Melbourne became part of her regular route. In addition to passengers, she took on cargo: initially she was used to ship Indian tea to England, but after three return voyages she was loaded with Australian wheat and wool to bring back instead.

The Sobraon traded profitably for 25 years, but eventually even she was outstripped by steam ships passing through the Suez Canal. In 1891 she was purchased by the colonial government of New South Wales and used as a reformatory school, before being sold on to the Federal Government in 1911. She was repurposed as a training ship for the fledging Australian Royal Navy (RAN), refitted and commissioned into the RAN as HMAS Tingara (an aboriginal word for open sea). Between 1912 and 1927 over 3,000 boys were trained for naval service there. 

The Sobraon was decommissioned in 1927 and laid up in Berry’s Bay, where, despite various efforts to save her, she slowly rotted away before being broken up in 1941. 

While the ship may have physically disappeared, her name lives on in Tingara Memorial Park in a suburb of Sydney, and in the Tingira Australia Association.