12 November 2006

The wreck of the bay: $7m to save the Cerberus

By Kate Hagan November 12, 2006

Snorkellers investigate waters near the former warship Cerebus, scuttled off the coast of Black Rock in 1926.
Photo: Justin McManus

GENERATIONS of beachgoers are familiar with HMVS Cerberus, the last flagship of the Victorian Colonial Navy scuttled as a breakwater off Black Rock in 1926. But many who have swum out to the bay landmark on a summer's day would be shocked to see how far it has sunk.

Cerberus has been on the decline since its hull collapsed in 1993. There was hope that the removal of four guns, each weighing 16 tonnes, in March last year would lighten the load, and celebration when the warship was added to the National Heritage List in December.

But the Cerberus continues to sink into the seabed at a rate of 16-20mm a year. Friends of Cerberus secretary Peter Tully admits the wreck looks "terrible", but can't get either the state or federal government, who have both at times paid tribute to the warship's history, to fund a plan to stabilise it on a steel frame.

"It's do or die for the Cerberus," Mr Tully said. "The only reasonably cost-effective solution — apart from just letting her collapse — is to stabilise her on site.

"All the discussions we've had with state and federal governments have been very positive — until you start talking about dollars."

The dollars amount to 6.5 million, and will keep mounting with the cost of steel. Mr Tully expects the figure to be $7.1 million by this time next year. "It's got to be within the next 12 months or it's going to be cost-prohibitive," he said.

"We'll be going back to the state and federal governments and saying, 'it comes down to you two, are you prepared to save her or not? 2007 has to be the year when you say yea or nay'. I get the impression they would almost like it to collapse just to get rid of us. But our argument is, if it does collapse, your problems aren't going to stop there."

Mr Tully suspects an exclusion zone of 25 metres that already applies around the site — and is widely ignored by swimmers, divers and boaters — would simply be expanded if the Cerberus collapsed.

GHD Consulting project manager Doug Oldfield is working on a risk assessment for Heritage Victoria for that very scenario. "Preliminary findings are that it's likely to create a substantial hazard due to exposed metal below the water surface," Mr Oldfield said.

"There's a lot of algal growth on the deck so it's very slippery, and if the vessel collapses we would expect that a lot of the steel is going to deform … so for people climbing on the vessel, there's a real risk they're going to fall off and cut themselves and do some serious damage.

"Once the vessel falls another one or two metres into the water, you'll probably only see the tower sticking up above water, so boats will be more at risk of hitting it underwater than they are now."

Neither the State nor the Federal Government would be drawn on what they would do if the Cerberus collapsed. Both recognise the warship's history, but neither appears poised to take action to save it.

A spokesman for Federal Liberal MP Andrew Robb, who represents the local electorate of Goldstein, said the Government had not received any formal funding application.

At state level, a spokeswoman said the Bracks Government had already made a substantial contribution towards the Cerberus, including funding engineering studies and removing the guns.

"Despite the fact that the Commonwealth Government has acknowledged the national heritage significance of the ship they are yet to make a contribution to its conservation and it's about time they put their money where their mouth is," she said.

Even scrap metal remover Shane Evans, of Hallam, isn't interested. "It'd be too much mucking around," he said. "It'd cost about $50,000 to get it out, and that's probably what you'd get in scrap metal."

For Mr Tully and his 500 fellow Friends of Cerberus, fear of the warship collapsing is all too real. "I've been interested since the early '70s and kept in touch with the various campaigns to try and save her," he said.

"Three campaigns have come and gone — but this is really the last one. If nothing happens now, she's gone. You'll have the ironic situation where a vessel has been placed on the national heritage list as intrinsic to Australian values, and yet we do nothing about trying to save her. That's the biggest tragedy of all."


■1868 Cerberus launched in Britain.
1871 Arrives in Melbourne. The last flagship of the Victorian Navy.
1901 Serves the Commonwealth Navy.
1911 Serves the Royal Australian Navy.
1924 Declared surplus to navy requirements.
1926 Scuttled as a breakwater off Black Rock.
December 1993 Major collapse of hull.
March 2005 Guns removed in an effort to save the ship from sinking.
December 2005 Added to National Heritage List.
November 2006 Going, going …