Three Months in a Leaky Boat

As you sit down to Christmas lunch spare a thought for the Sapphire castaways who spent 25 December 1859 in a struggle for their lives.   Theirs is a remarkable story of perseverance in the face of unimaginable hardship served with a healthy measure of good luck.

Christmas Day saw William Beveridge and his men kedging their stricken barque off a sandbank near Cape Direction about 500kms north of present-day Cairns in North Queensland.      Their ordeal had begun three months earlier, and they would not reach safety for another two.

Their ship, the Sapphire, had run aground on the Great Barrier Reef north of Raine Island on the evening of 23 September 1859.    The crew abandoned the ship in two lifeboats and made for Sir Charles Hardie Island.   There they decided they would return to Port Curtis (Gladstone) where they had sailed from.

Unfortunately, they found they could not beat a course south against the prevailing south-easterly winds.   So, they turned about and sailed north past Cape York and on to Booby Island.   By the time they arrived it was mid-October and they had been roaming the seas around Torres Strait for almost one month.   They found barrels of food put aside for shipwrecked sailors at Booby Island [See my blog The Post Office in the Middle of Nowhere] but it would not last indefinitely.

Illustration of Booby Island, Torres Strait – Otherwise, Post Office. From the Illustrated Sydney News, Fri 16 Dec 1864, Page 9.

It was now cyclone season and they had not seen another vessel since becoming marooned.   They would likely not see another until April the following year as few captains would venture into these dangerous waters until then.

They determined to make another attempt to return to Port Curtis despite their recent failure.     After spending two weeks at Booby Island, they set off but immediately ran into the winds that had so plagued them earlier.  

About now they also lost half their number.   The captain and more than half the crew were killed by Aborigines off Hammond Island in an encounter that turned deadly.   The Mate, William Beveridge, and the rest of the men escaped and eventually passed back through Torres Strait.   Then, for the first time, their luck changed for the better.

They spotted a ship in the distance.   But, as they drew near they found it was deserted.  The vessel proved to be the Barque Marina, which had run aground during foul weather back in September.   It too had been abandoned by its crew.   Miraculously, the Marina floated off during a spring tide to drift around Torres Strait.   Meanwhile the crew made for Sir Charles Hardie Island, arriving only hours after the Sapphire’s crew had left.  

Sapphire survivors route through Torres Strait from leaving the Sapphire and finding the Marina.

After preparing their boats for the long voyage ahead of them the Marina crew set off for Port Curtis, then the most northerly settlement on Australia’s eastern seaboard.   After 43 days of arduous sailing, they made it safely to port and notified the authorities of the loss of the Sapphire and her crew.

HMS Cordelia was despatched north to search for them but only steamed as far as Cape Upstart thinking the lost sailors could not still be any further north.   But, they were wrong.   It was now late January 1860 and the Sapphire’s crew were anchored off Lizard Island in the Marina, 500 kms further north.

Beveridge had decided to sail the barque to Port Curtis rather than continue in their small lifeboat.   Setting off on 26 November, they battled the same contrary winds and currents that had plagued them previously.

Marina’s course down the Queensland Coast. Source Google Maps.

For the next two months they made painfully slow progress.   They anchored for days and weeks at a time waiting for the south-easterlies to fall off.   In the first month alone, they travelled just 180kms.

They spent Christmas Day dragging the stranded barque off a sandbar and got aground twice more in the weeks that followed.   Her hull was so damaged that water flowed freely into the hold.   The only thing keeping them afloat was her cargo of tightly packed Kauri logs which gave her buoyancy.

On 9 February they were anchored off Palm Island.   In the past two and a half months they had covered a little more than half the distance to Port Curtis.   All seemed lost.   They were slowly starving to death.   

At first, the men were rationed to one sea biscuit per day.   Even that meagre diet would be reduced as their stores dwindled.   If they did not reach port soon, they never would.

Finally, their luck changed again.   The wind started blowing from the north.      They put to sea and arrived outside Port Curtis eight days later.   Their ordeal was over, and they had survived.

The Sapphire’s full story is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters, available as an eBook or paperback through Amazon.

© Copyright C.J. Ison, Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2021.

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