As Captain Emile Tonnessen saw the sheer granite walls of Chatham Island loom into sight, he knew his ship and crew of 12 men were in serious trouble.
Unrelenting gale force wind and high seas had driven his 913-ton iron barque Mandalay North-east for the past several days, and his chart showed that should he escape crashing into Chatham Island, an uninterrupted line of cliffs still lay directly in his path.
The Mandalay had sailed from Delagoa Bay (since renamed Maputo), Mozambique in early April 1911 bound for Albany to take on a cargo of Karri logs bound for Buenos Aires in Argentina.
It was to be the 68-year-old captain’s final voyage before retiring to spend time with his children whom he had seen little of during his more than half a century at sea. But for a last-minute change of plan, he would have returned to his home in Norway directly from Southern Africa.
The voyage was largely uneventful until they neared the Western Australia coast in the vicinity of Cape Leeuwin on Saturday 13 May.
The weather rapidly deteriorated. South-westerly winds grew to hurricane strength and mountainous seas washed over the vessel. All canvas was taken in and the Mandalay was swept along under bare poles. The ferocious weather continued for two days pushing the helpless vessel towards the rugged and sparsely populated coast.
The crew worked furiously to get control of the ship. The only sail they could put up was on the fore-top mast, but it was not enough to alter the ship’s course. They were powerless to veer from the track the storm was pushing them let alone put about and make for open water.
On Monday morning, 15 May, they cleared the kilometre wide and 90-metre-high granite outcrop that is Chatham Island with only a few hundred metres to spare. Tonnessen later recalled that the waves were so large and powerful they crashed completely over the island as his ship was driven passed.
While they had escaped being smashed against the granite slopes of the island, it was clear they would not be so lucky to get past the sheer cliffs of Long Point now lying somewhere ahead through the torrential rain. The captain took the only action he could.
He would have to sacrifice his ship to give his crew a fighting chance of survival. In all his years seafaring he had never been shipwrecked, but now he was going to deliberately run his vessel aground. It was no doubt made doubly hard for he was a part owner of the Mandalay and knew it to be underinsured.
It was now about one o’clock in the afternoon. Tonnessen lined up to run the ship ashore on the only beach he could see and hoped for the best. They hoisted as much sail as they could, everyone donned their cork lifebelts and awaited their fate. About 100 metres from the beach the bow struck the sand hard. The top-main mast came crashing down and the ship bounced along the sea bed as successive waves pushed it closer to shore. Then the Mandalay swung broadside to the ocean swells and breakers crashed over the deck sweeping it clean of anything not securely tied down.
The crew lowered a lifeboat over the lee side but the seas were too turbulent to safely cross the short distance to shore. One of the young seamen, Knut Knutsen, tied a rope to his lifebelt and dived into the sea intent on getting a line ashore.
Unfortunately, the rope became entangled around his legs and he floundered in the chaotic surf. Knutsen was close to drowning when a second sailor, Frank Ward dived into the maelstrom to rescue him. Ward managed to get his unconscious friend to shore where he soon recovered. Now with a line ashore and a line attached to the ship, the lifeboat was able to ferry the rest of the men to safety.
The castaways were able to get sufficient stores and food ashore to build a shelter using some of the ship’s sails and spars. Unfortunately most of the food was contaminated with sea water but it was better than nothing.
The men spent several miserable days camped on the beach hoping for help to arrive. They placed a pole high on a sand dune with a distress signal flying. Several ships passed in the distance but Tonnessen could not tell if any of them had seen their flags. It would have been far too dangerous to put a boat ashore, but he hoped that one of the passing ships would call in to Albany further down the coast and alert the authorities who in turn would send a rescue party overland.
While Captain Tonnessen and the others remained camped on the beach, the First Mate, Lars Gjoem, and two seamen set off on Tuesday, the day after the wreck, with compass and chart to find a way cross country to the nearest settlement. Two days later they returned to the beach cold, wet and exhausted, unable to find a path through the dense bush.
On Friday 19 May, the day after the first party’s return, the Second Mate, Frederick Fincki climbed one of the high hills behind the beach and thought he could see a route through the maze of broken ground inland. He briefly returned to the camp to collect a staff and a knife and set off towards what he would later learn was Nornalup Inlet.
He soon found himself wading through a swamp but doggedly continued for several hours hoping to reach dry land. He eventually came out at the edge of the inlet at the same time one of the few local settlers was returning to his homestead by boat after his quarterly trip to the coast for supplies.
The settler, Frank Thompson, picked up Fincki and took him to his home, wondering to himself what would have happened had he not been passing by at the time he did. It was bitterly cold, night was fast approaching and the young Norwegian was far from dry land. His chances of surviving the night were poor.
The following day Thompson, his son and the Second Mate returned to the beach to rescue the remaining men. Over the next several days the shipwrecked sailors were cared for by Thompson and other settlers until they were safely delivered to the small settlement of Denmark further down the coast and then taken on to Albany where they caught the train to Perth.
Frank Thompson was presented with a gold fob watch by the Norwegian Consul and he and the other settlers who had helped in the rescue earned the undying gratitude of Captain Tonnessen and his crew. The Mandalay was never got off and slowly rusted away on the beach that now bears its name. Its remains are periodically exposed when the conditions are right.
©Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2020.
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