The Loss of the SS Cawarra: Bad luck or an avoidable tragedy?

“Foundering of the S.S. Cawarra off Newcastle.’ Source: Australian News for Home Readers, 27 Aug 1866, p. 4.

When, in 1866, the board of Inquiry into the Loss of the Steam Ship Cawarra handed down its report, it was met with some incredulity. For, after pouring over the evidence for six weeks, they could only conclude that the catastrophe was the result of bad luck. That was despite evidence presented to them that the steamer had been grossly overladen when she left Sydney.

The SS Cawarra was a 439-ton side paddle steamer owned by the Australian Steam Navigation Company and was employed on the regular Sydney – Brisbane passage.    Around 6 o’clock on Wednesday 11 July 1866, she steamed out Sydney Heads bound for Brisbane and Rockhampton.   A crew of 36 managed the steamer and there were also on board 25 passengers.   Her hold was packed with general cargo.   More supplies were stowed on deck for the northern settlement of Rockhampton had not been visited for some time and basic provisions were running low.

A strong south-easterly breeze was blowing as the steamer cleared the heads and began heading north.   During the night the weather only worsened.   By the following morning, the winds were at gale force and they were accompanied by heavy rain and high seas.    Captain Henry Chatfield decided to shelter at Newcastle until the weather moderated before he continued north.   The distinctive outline of Nobby Head was sighted at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and shortly after they rounded the headland to enter the port.

However, as the Cawarra was approaching the mouth of the Hunter River she was pounded by a series of large waves that swept over her deck and pushed her around so she was now facing Nobby Head. 

“Position of Cawarra previous to foundering …” Source: Illustrated Sydney News, 16 Aug 1866, p. 5.

It is thought that Captain Chatfield, realising his ship was in serious peril, ordered the foresail to be set and tried to steam back out to sea.    However, just then the ship was hit by more several huge waves. Water poured below deck and extinguished the steamers fires.   Dead in the water and pounded by heavy seas she started to fill with water and began sinking by the bow.   Chatfield ordered the lifeboats to be got away but in the tumultuous conditions, they proved no refuge from the treacherous conditions.  

By 3 o’clock the Cawarra was driven onto Oyster Bank and crew and passengers could be seen gathered on the poop deck or clinging to the rigging by people watching the tragedy unfold from Nobby Head.   Fifteen minutes later, with the foredeck already underwater, the mainmast and funnel toppled into the sea taking with them everyone sheltering on the poop.   The foremast went a few minutes later tossing the remaining three or four men into the sea.    She quickly sank. It was as if the Cawarra was never there but for pieces of wreckage and cargo washing ashore.

Sixty people lost their lives but one man somehow survived.     Frederick Valliant Hedges had joined the Cawarra’s crew 8 months earlier.   He had sought refuge in the mainmast rigging as the ship settled by the bow but was flung into the sea when the mast went over the side.    He was found clinging to a red buoy by a boat sent out from the lighthouse.   Ironically, one of Hedges’ saviours was John Johnson, who had been the sole survivor of the Dunbar shipwreck in Sydney nine years earlier.

The Rescue of F.V. Hedges, the only survivor from the Cawarra. Source: Illustrated Sydney News, 16 Aug 1866, p. 4.

The tumultuous weather wreaked havoc on shipping up and down the coast.   Four more vessels foundered or were driven ashore at Newcastle, another was wrecked near Port Stephens to the north.   In all 14 other ships were lost in that storm between Sydney and Port Stephens adding another 17 fatalities to the grim list.  

It is perhaps easy to blame the weather for the Cawarra’s loss.   In fact, the commission established to investigate the circumstances found just that.   Their report concluded: “We are of opinion that the catastrophe was one of those lamentable occurrences which befall at times the best ships and the most experienced commanders, and which human efforts are powerless to avert.”

However, that explanation did not sit well with everyone.    It had the whiff of a cover-up. There had been accusations that the Cawarra was overladen when she left Sydney.   She was reportedly loaded with 450 tons of coal and cargo which was about fifty tons more than the ship’s builders recommended.   An engineer and surveyor from the Steam Navigation Board testified at the inquiry that he thought the ship was overloaded and sitting noticeably lower in the water than it usually did.   But, when he raised his concerns with his boss and a representative from the ship’s owners they both dismissed his concerns telling him the Cawarra was a strong ship.

The omission that overloading could have contributed to the loss of the ship and sixty lives was even raised in the New South Wales parliament, but seemingly to no avail.   The outspoken former clergyman and politician, Dr J.D. Lang called for the Commission’s findings to be rejected pointing out contradictory evidence presented at the inquest. 

Samuel Plimsoll. Wikimedia/creative commons.

There were calls for a line to be marked on the hull of cargo ships to indicate when they were fully loaded.   However, it would be another ten years before British parliamentarian Samuel Plimsoll was able to coax his fellow members to act.   He was appalled by the number of ships and lives being lost due to overloading.   In 1876 the British Parliament enacted legislation that mandated markings on the side of cargo ships that would disappear below the waterline should the vessel be overloaded.   It would become known as the Plimsoll Line and is still in use today.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2023.

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The Cataraqui: Australia’s deadliest shipwreck – 1845.

Cataraqui wrecked off King Island in Bass Strait. Image courtesy State Library of Victoria.

Australia’s deadliest civilian shipwreck occurred on 4 August 1845 when the 803-ton barque Cataraqui slammed into rocks near Fitzmaurice Bay off King Island during foul weather.   On board were some 366 migrants and a crew of 43.    Of those 409 people, only nine made it ashore alive.  

The Cataraqui sailed from Liverpool on 20 April carrying assisted migrants escaping poverty in England, hoping to make a better life for themselves in Australia.   Many of the passengers were women and children accompanying their menfolk who were all but guaranteed work in the labour-strapped colonies.  

The voyage was largely uneventful until they were passing to the south of St Paul’s Island about halfway between Cape of Good Hope and Australia’s west coast.  On 15 July they were struck by a powerful gale accompanied by heavy seas.   For the next fortnight, they steadily made their way east along the 40th degree latitude not for one moment getting any respite from the atrocious weather conditions. They were not called the “Roaring Forties” for nothing.

By Sunday 3 August, they were within one or two days sail from Melbourne and still being lashed by strong winds and powerful seas.     At 7 o’clock in the evening, Captain Charles Finlay estimated their position at 39° 17’S 141° 22’E or about 100kms south of Cape Nelson on the Victorian coast.   At 3 o’clock the next morning, the gale moderated a little and Captain Finlay bore northeast expecting to soon see the distinctive profile of Cape Otway off their port bow.   That would have given Finlay his first accurate position since passing St Paul.

Report of the loss of the Cataraqui. Source: Port Phillip Patriot, 14 Sept 1845, p. 5.

Unfortunately, the strong winds had pushed the Cataraqui along faster than he had calculated.   Unbeknownst to him, he was further east and further south than he thought.   So, rather than making towards Cape Otway with deep water ahead, they were sailing towards the rugged west coast of King Island unseen in the thick weather and inky darkness.

At 4.30 AM the ship struck rocks near Fitzmaurice Bay.   First Mate, Thomas Guthrie provided a harrowing account of the first few hours while they waited for dawn:

“Imagine 425 [actually 409] souls,” he began, “of which the greater part were women and children, being suddenly awakened from a sound sleep by the crashing of the timbers of the ship against the rocks. The scene was dreadful, the sea pouring over the vessel—the planks and timbers crashing and breaking—the waters rushing in from below, and pouring down from above—the raging of the wind in the rigging and the boiling and hissing of the sea—joined to the dreadful shrieks of the females and children, who were drowning between decks.”

“The attempts of so many at once to get up the hatchways blocked them up, so that few got on deck uninjured, and when there, the roaring noise, and sweeping force of the sea was most appalling.   Death stared them in the face in many forms— for it was not simply drowning, but violent dashing against the rocks which studded the waves between the vessel and the shore.”

“When day broke they trusted to find a way to the shore, but no, the raging waves, and pointed rocks, rendered every attempt useless.   The sea broke over the vessel very heavily, and soon swept away the long boat and almost everything on deck.”1

Cataraqui wreck site. Courtesy Google Maps

In those few desperate hours it was estimated that some 200 people lost their lives.   Another 200 were faced with the stark reality that even though land was so tantalisingly close, there was no safe way to reach it.   The ship had struck a rocky reef running parallel with and a short distance off the coast.   Captain Finlay ordered the masts cut away.   He hoped the powerful waves might then carry the lightened ship over the rocks and closer to shore where the survivors might stand some chance of reaching land.   Unfortunately, it had no effect.   The ship remained firmly stuck on the jagged rocks. He then tried floating a buoy ashore, but the rope became entangled in kelp long before it could be used as a lifeline.  

In mid-morning Captain Finlay ordered their only remaining boat over the side.   He, the boatswain, the ship’s surgeon and four seamen boarded her hoping to run a line ashore.   However, the boat was quickly overturned in the tumultuous seas.   Finlay was the only one to get back to the ship alive.

At midday, the Cataraqui broke apart amidships and the aft sank taking about 100 terrified people with it.   By now there were only ninety people still clinging to life.   By midnight, twelve hours later, they were down to fifty.   Overcome by fatigue and cold, the remaining survivors dropped from the wreck into the sea.

Thomas Guthrie clung on until the end, then he was finally swept from the last vestige of the wreck as it sank below the surface.   Somehow, he avoided being dashed against the rocks and the surf deposited him on the shore.   He found only eight other survivors.   One was Solomon Brown, a 30-year-old labourer who had boarded the ship with his wife and four daughters.   He was the only passenger to survive.   The other seven, like Guthrie, were members of the crew.

Memorial to the Cataraqui shipwreck on King Island. Source: Australasian Sketcher, 29 Dec 1887, p. 197.

The next day, 6 August the survivors were discovered by David Howie and his party of sealers who had a camp some distance away.  They built a hut, got a fire going, brought provisions from their own camp, and generally tended to the needs of the castaways for the next four weeks.   On 7 September the cutter Midge arrived at King Island with fresh provisions for Howie and his men and when it left with a cargo of seal and wallaby skins, they had on board Guthrie and the rest of the Cataraqui survivors and took them on to Melbourne.

1 Thomas Guthrie quoted in the Port Phillip Patriot, 14 Sept 1845, p.2.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2023.

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Surviving the Centaur sinking.

A poster urging Australians to “Avenge the Nurses” after the sinking of the Centaur in 1943. Image courtesy Australian War Memorial.

On a quiet Saturday afternoon on 15 May 1943, the senior Royal Australian Naval officer in Brisbane received a message stating that a USN destroyer had picked up survivors from the Australian Hospital Ship (AHS) Centaur.    This was the first anyone knew of the tragedy that had unfolded a short distance off the Queensland coast.

Around 4 AM the previous day AHS Centaur had been steaming north from Sydney with a full crew, and members of the 2/14th Field Ambulance.   In all, there were 332 people on board bound for Port Moresby.   As the ship was about 30nm (55kms) off Moreton Island she was struck by a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine.

Merchant seaman Alfred Ramage had just finished his watch and was climbing into his bunk when he was rocked by the powerful explosion.   Ramage knew instantly what had happened so he quickly donned his lifebelt and began making his way to the boat deck, urgency spurred by the unfortunate knowledge that he had never learned to swim.     

The torpedo had struck the portside fuel bunker which sent flames ripping through the ship burning and trapping many people below decks.     Those same flames soon engulfed the boat deck and then the bridge as the crew struggled to get the lifeboats away.

Steward Frank Drust was standing outside the ship’s pantry when the floor collapsed and a wall of flames separated him from the closest companionway leading to the deck.   By now, the Centaur was sinking by the bow.   He waded through swirling waist-deep water and eventually made it onto the deck.   He and a few comrades began throwing hatch covers and life rafts over the side to help those already floundering in the water.   They continued their efforts until they too were washed off their feet as the water rose around them.

AHS Centaur. Photo Courtesy State Library of Queensland

Sister Ellen Savage, one of twelve nurses on board, was woken by the loud explosion reverberating through the ship.   She and fellow nurse Merle Morton fled their cabin in their pyjamas and were told by their commanding officer to get topside as quickly as they could.   They had no time to retrieve warm clothing or anything else from their cabin before they took flight.  

By the time they reached the deck the Centaur was already going down by the bow. The suction dragged Ellen Savage down into a maelstrom of whirling metal and timber cracking her ribs, breaking her nose and bruising her all over.   But, suddenly she found herself back on the surface in the middle of a thick oil slick.   She never saw her cabin mate or her commanding officer again.

Savage could see a large piece of wreckage a short distance away and swam for it.   It turned out to be a portion of the ship’s wheelhouse that several others had already taken refuge on.    In time as many as 30 or more survivors climbed onto the fragile floating island.   Others who had managed to escape the ship before it sank kept themselves afloat on pieces of debris or the few rubber rafts that had been deployed in the few hectic minutes after the torpedo struck.   

Sister Ellen Savage GM. Image courtesy AWM.

Ship’s cook Frank Martin survived by clinging to a single floating timber spar.    Half-naked and without anything to eat or drink, he held on for dear life for nearly 36 hours until he was finally rescued.      

Seaman Matthew Morris was a little luckier.   At first, he found himself alone in the water blinded by salt and oil stinging his eyes.   But when his vision returned he spied a small raft a short distance away so swam over and climbed into it.   Then he spotted his mate Walter Tierney and hauled him onboard.   As daylight came the pair saw something large floating in the distance and made for it.   It turned out to be the wheelhouse so they lashed their raft to it and joined the 30 or so people already there.

They spent all that day huddled on the makeshift raft.   There was less than 10 litres of water on hand and that was doled out sparingly.    Several of the survivors had serious burns to their bodies.   One was Captain Salt, a pilot from the Torres Strait Pilot Service, who had run through a wall of flame to escape the sinking ship.   Despite his painful injuries, he kept morale up reassuring everyone that help would soon be on the way.   

Matthew Morris led choruses of “Roll out the Barrel,” “Waltzing Matilda” and other wartime favourites to keep people from thinking about their plight.   Sister Savage tended to the wounded as best she could with what little that was at hand never complaining of her own injuries.   She had remained silent about her broken ribs until after they had been rescued.

One poor man, Private Jack Walder, had been badly burned.   He drifted in and out of consciousness until he passed away on the raft.   Savage prayed over his body, which was then gently pushed away to sink from sight.   

The Brisbane Telegraph front page, 18 May 1843.

According to several of the survivors, sharks were constant, and unwanted, companions circling survivors clinging to wreckage or perched precariously on makeshift rafts.

The survivors spent all that day and the following night clinging to life hoping to be rescued.   Several saw or heard aircraft flying overhead or saw ships passing in the distance but the Centaur survivors went unseen.    At one stage, those on the wheelhouse considered sending one of the rubber rafts to try and make landfall to raise the alarm.  But that was eventually dismissed owing to the large ocean swells.

On Friday night the Japanese submarine surfaced briefly near the wheelhouse sending a chill through the survivors.   Everyone remained quiet and a short time later the sub disappeared below the waves again without inflicting any more casualties.    The survivors never gave up hope that they would be rescued.   Then, on Saturday afternoon an Australian Airforce aircraft on a routine flight saw something strange floating in the water.   On investigation, the pilot realised it was wreckage and guided the US Navy destroyer, USS Mugford, to the location.   They quickly began searching the nearby waters for survivors.  

AHS Centaur survivors being cared for in hospital. Telegraph, 18 May 1943, p. 2.

In all, 64 people were saved but another 268 lost their lives.   Sister Ellen Savage was awarded the George Medal for her efforts during the ordeal.

Lest We Forget.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2023.

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The Loss of the Duroc and the rise of la Deliverance

The French steamer Duroc wrecked on Mellish Reef. Source: Wikicommons.

On the night of 12-13 August 1856, the French Naval steam corvette Duroc was wrecked on Mellish Reef about 800kms off the Queensland coast.   The Duroc was returning to France from New Caledonia where she had been stationed for the previous three years or so.    After the ship ran aground, some seventy people made it onto a small sand cay but it would take them over two months to escape their tiny refuge and reach a friendly port.

The Duroc had set off from Port de France (Noumea) New Caledonia five days earlier but on that night she ran aground on a submerged coral reef and could not get off.   Each passing swell pounded the hull onto the reef and she soon began taking on water. Fearing the ship might break apart during the night Vissiere ordered his men to start hauling all stores, provisions, and water casks up on deck.    The ship’s four boats were made ready to evacuate should the need arise and they then waited for morning to better assess the situation.

Daylight revealed the ship was well and truly lodged on the reef surrounded by breaking waves, but a small low lying sandy islet offered some refuge about 4 kms away.   So began the laborious task of ferrying all the ship’s stores and personnel to dry land.   Over the next ten days, they stripped the ship of its masts, bowsprit, sails, spars, the blacksmith’s forge, a water distillation plant and the cook’s oven.   By 23 August they had removed everything that could be useful from the Duroc and had established a temporary camp on the tiny cay nearly 800 kms from the nearest land.

Survivors of the wrecked Duroc on Mellish Reef building the La Deliverance. Source: Wikicommons.

Captain Vissiere also took the opportunity to take several unhurried astrological observations and would later claim that the reef he had struck was in fact some distance from where it was laid down on his chart.   He also took the time to formulate a plan to save his crew and his wife and baby daughter who were accompanying him back to France on his warship.

Their chance of being found on such a remote and rarely visited speck of land in the vast Coral Sea seemed extremely unlikely to the master mariner.   He felt their best course of action would be to make for the Australian coast where they might find help.   However, the boats could carry only a fraction of those stranded on the small island.   So, Captain Vissiere decided to send his First Mate, Lieutenant Vaisseau, off with the three largest boats and about half the crew.   He would remain on the island with his wife, daughter and some 30 others and construct a new vessel from timber they had salvaged from the Duroc.

The three boats set off on 25 August with instructions to make for Cape Tribulation where, with any luck, they would meet a British ship sailing the Great Barrier Reef’s inner passage.   Cape Tribulation seems to have been chosen, even though it was not the closest point on the mainland, because it was easily recognisable and because the reef pinches in close to the coast funnelling any passing ships close to land.

Mellish Reef. Courtesy Google Maps

After setting off from Mellish Reef the three boats immediately encountered heavy seas which threatened to founder the heavily laden craft.   At first, they were tethered together so they might not become separated but in the rough conditions, this proved impractical, and the lines were cut.    Even so, the boats sat heavily in the water and were in constant danger of being swamped. Two days out Vaisseau made the decision to jettison everything non-essential to lighten the load and increase their freeboard.  

Then, one day while Lt Vaisseau was taking his noon observation, his boat was struck by a rogue wave tossing him into the sea.   By the time he resurfaced, surrounded by casks and other debris also washed overboard, the boat was too far away to make for.   Fortunately, one of the other boats had been astern and he started swimming towards it instead.   Vaisseau had a lucky escape, for he was only plucked from the water as his strength was finally failing him.  

On the evening of 30 August, after five days at sea and covering some 1800 kms, they reached Cape Tribulation where they anchored inside the reef for the night.   The men thought the worst was behind them and they would soon fall in with a passing British ship. Lt Vaisseau noted they still had 72 kgs of sea biscuits, 20 litres of brandy and 60 litres of wine.   However, shared among 36 hungry men, the food and drink would last only a matter of days. But, he thought, hopefully they would soon be rescued.

The next day they made land and filled their water casks and then headed north hugging the shore.   They stopped each night in the lee of islands, foraged for roots and shellfish, and cast out lines hoping to catch fish.  They only delved into the supply of sea biscuits when there was no other food to be had.  

By 9 September they had reached Albany Island. They continued through Torres Strait sailing past Booby Island unaware there was a store of water and provisions left there to aid shipwrecked sailors.   Having not sighted a single ship on the Australian coast, they ventured out into the open sea again.   Lt Vaisseau now decided to head for the Dutch settlement of Kupang on Timor Island.   The three boats finally arrived there on the evening of 22 September and not a moment too soon for their food had run out days earlier.

Construction of a new vessel La Deliverance from the wreckage of the Duroc on Mellish Reef. Source: Wikicommons.

Meanwhile, Captain Vissiere and the remaining men had been busily constructing a new vessel which they named la Deliverance.   Under the directions from the ship’s master carpenter, they sawed the Duroc’s lower masts into planks and fixed them to a frame.   The new craft measured 14 metres in length and was completed by the end of September.

On 2 October la Deliverance was launched, and they sailed away from the island they had called home for the past six weeks.  Vissiere intended to make for the Australian mainland, much as Lt Vaisseau and the three boats had done.   Depending on the winds he would then either head north, through Torres Strait and on to Kupang, or if he met with a northerly, he would turn south towards Port Curtis (Gladstone) which was the most northerly settlement on the east coast at the time.   When he reached land he found the southerly trades were blowing so he bore north.

Despite the seemingly optimistic start, the passage was arduous, hampered as it was, by contrary weather.   Prolonged calms left them stranded for days at a time. The doldrums were only relieved by violent storms that lashed them mercilessly and threatened the safety of the vessel.   By the time they were rounding Cape York the boat was leaking alarmingly.   They pulled in at Albany Island to make urgent repairs before they left the relative safety of the Australian mainland. As soon as the leaks were plugged, they got underway ready to cross the Arafura Sea.   On 30 October, four weeks after setting off from Mellish Reef, they sailed into Kupang harbour.

Though they suffered greatly during the ordeal, Captain Vissiere did not lose a single person as a result of the wreck or the 4,000 km voyages undertaken by the survivors to reach Kupang.  

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2023.

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Bato to the Rescue – 1854

Shipwreck survivors take to their boat.. Source: Tales of Shipwrecks and Adventures at Sea, 1856.

In 1854 the Dutch ship Bato, rescued not one, not two, but three separate parties of shipwreck survivors whose ships had come to grief in separate encounters with the Great Barrier Reef.   In the space of a few weeks, these three ships all ran aground trying to negotiate the dangerous reef strewn waters leading to Torres Strait.

The first casualty was the 521-ton ship Fatima.   On 3 June the Fatima left Melbourne bound for Singapore via Torres Strait.   She made good time sailing up the east coast until, on 26 June, she was within sight of the entrance through the Great Barrier Reef marked by Raine Island and its distinctive 20m tall tower.   Then her voyage ended abruptly and violently when she crashed into the Great Detached Reef about 12nm (20kms) south of Raine Island.   The Fatima could not be saved and the captain and crew had no choice but to take to the boats to save their lives.    A refuge of sorts was close at hand and they struck out for Raine Island off in the distance.   There they remained, subsisting largely on a plentiful supply of seabird eggs while they waited to be rescued.

A couple of days after the Fatima left Melbourne the 391-ton barque Elizabeth departed that port as well.   She was bound for Moulmein Burma and also intended to pass through Torres Strait by the Raine Island passage.   However, disaster struck on 28 June when the barque ran aground on a small coral outcrop about 28nm, (55kms) south of Raine Island.        Fortunately, no lives were lost and after a considerable amount of effort the crew managed to get the ship off the reef and into deep water.   However, the hull had been breached and by now she was taking on more water than the pumps could remove.   Captain Churchill made the difficult decision to abandon his ship and he and his men took to the boats.   Five days later they arrived at Booby Island where they found provisions and fresh water put aside for shipwrecked sailors.

The Wreck of the Thomasine. Courtesy State Library of Queensland.

The third ship, the Thomasine departed Sydney on 8 June for Batavia also via Torres Strait.   She too was making her way north when her voyage was cut short on 20 June.   When the Thomasine was about 270kms east of present-day Port Douglas she was wrecked on a coral reef.    

Captain Holmes would later recall that around 8 o’clock on the evening of the 19th, the ship bumped over a submerged reef where no such obstruction should have existed.   He had been on deck at the time and gone to his cabin to consult his chart, for he was sure it had shown nothing in their immediate path.  While he was still standing at his chart table, he was summoned back on deck with the lookout calling “breakers ahead.”   When Captain Holmes returned on deck he was faced with the daunting sight of a long line of breaking waves ahead that extended around to his left and right almost completely encircling his ship.  

Holmes and his crew kept the ship from running aground during the night by tacking back and forth in the open water between the reefs.   The next morning he saw how dire their situation was.   The ship was trapped by an almost unbroken ring of breaking waves denoting the presence of submerged reefs. Reefs that were absent from the charts but have since been added and bear the name, Holmes Reefs.   

The wind began to rise and Holmes realised his only chance of escape was to try and make it through one of the narrow breaks in the line of surf.   He selected one, hoping it was a passage that would lead his ship to safety.   Unfortunately, it proved too shallow and the Thomasine struck heavily and had to be abandoned.   Two boats were loaded with as much food and water as they could carry.  

Captain Holmes divided his crew between the two boats and they bore north intending to reach Booby Island and its cache of stores.    18 people set off from the Thomasine.   One of his seamen drowned in the struggle to get the boats away as the rough seas surged around them.   To add to Holmes’ concerns, he was accompanied by his wife and three children, the youngest just four months old.

Over the next fortnight or so they steadily made their way north surviving on short rations and about 700ml of water each day from the small quantity taken from the ship.   But, by 6 July they had covered about 800kms and had reached Bird Island in Torres Strait.   They were only a day or two away from reaching Booby Island.  

Map showing location of the three shipwrecks in Torres Strait. Courtesy Google Maps.

Around this time the Dutch ship Bato was in the same waters.  She had sailed from Hobart on 10 June and steadily made her way up the east coast of Australia.   As Captain Brocksmit approached the Raine Island entrance he sighted the Fatima castaways on the island.   Ten men were taken onboard while the rest followed in the Bato’s wake in their own boat until they had reached the Middle Bank well inside the Great Barrier Reef.     

The next day, 6 July, the Bato came across the survivors from the Thomasine off Bird Island and made room for them on his ship as well.   Finally, the following day, they came upon the survivors of the Elizabeth who had made it to Booby Island four days earlier.  

Now with as many as sixty additional people on board, the Bato put the dangerous waters of Torres Strait behind her.    Captain Brocksmit made his way along the Indonesian archipelago arriving in Batavia on 25 July 1854. The survivors were disembarked and the captains were faced with the unenviable task of notifying their respective ship owners of their losses.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2023.

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