All Hands to the Pumps

In September 1789 H.M.S. Guardian sailed from Portsmouth, England with much needed supplies for the newly established penal settlement in New South Wales.    But its voyage was cut short when it struck an iceberg in the Southern Ocean and began filling with water.

After an uneventful passage south, the Guardian had stopped at Table Bay for a fortnight in early December to take on plants and livestock for the colony before setting off across the Southern Ocean for Australia.   

The sea was calm and there was a gentle breeze blowing on 24 December.   They were at 44°S 41°E and, but for a few isolated islands, the nearest land was nearly 2000 kilometres away.    Then late in the afternoon the fog lifted revealing an iceberg about six kilometres away.  

After two weeks at sea the ship’s water supply had been much depleted by the additional animals and plants they were carrying.   The captain, Lt. Edward Riou, decided to use the opportunity to resupply.   He brought the Guardian to within 500 metres of the towering white mountain and sent two boats out to gather blocks of ice floating in the sea.   

Captain Edward Riou, commander of the Guardian.

It was about 7 o’clock in the evening when the heavily laden boats returned and the fog had once again descended.   By quarter to eight Riou could barely see the length of his ship.  

Then, without warning, the Guardian crashed stern first onto a submerged iceshelf projecting from the berg.   The force of the collision violently shook the vessel and broke off the rudder.   Riou backed off the ice and for a moment it seemed that crisis had been averted.

But on sounding the wells, the carpenter reported they were taking on water, a lot of water.   The ship had sustained serious damage.   Riou ordered the pumps manned and the ship lightened starting with the livestock on deck.   The animals were thrown into the sea, followed by stores brought up from below. 

By ten o’clock it was clear their hard work was not going to save the ship.   The water was gaining on the pumps and the ship was sitting so low in the water that waves swept over the deck threatening to pour into the hold through the open hatchways.

Efforts to save the ship continued through the night and the next day.   By now the weather had turned foul.   A gale was blowing and mountainous seas rose around them.   The crew were exhausted from continuous labour at the pumps and jettisoning stores.   Lt Riou finally accepted the inevitable and gave the order to abandon ship.    

He had already decided to remain with his ship to the end, but he felt not everyone needed to perish. There were 123 souls on board including the crew, 25 convicts and several overseers and their families. He encouraged anyone who wished to do so, to take to the boats to save their lives. The five lifeboats could accommodate only half those on board, but the captain thought at least some of The people might reach safety if their luck held.

One boat was lost immediately on being lowered, but the other four got away and were soon lost to sight.    Sixty-two people chose to remain with the ship, including 21 of the convicts.

Illustration titled “Part of the crew of his Majesty’s Ship Guardian endeavouring to escape in the boats.” Courtesy: State Library of NSW.

To everyone’s great surprise the Guardian remained afloat but only just.   It was sitting very low- the deck awash with frigid water – but it sank no further.   They discovered barrels trapped in the hold were lending enough buoyancy to keep the stricken vessel afloat.  Also, the ship had lost most of its ballast through the rent in the hull.

Riou had a sail draped under the ship to stem the inflow of water.  The pumps were manned around the clock, and they slowly made their way back to Table Bay.   The relentless cold and wet conditions and sheer physical effort made the passage brutal.   However, nine weeks later they made it.     Of the sixty who took to the boats, only fifteen survived.   Nine days after being at sea, one boat was rescued by a passing ship.    The other three lifeboats were never heard of again.

Map courtesy Google Maps.

Lt Riou was cleared of blame in the loss of his ship and later promoted to Captain.    He praised the performance of his officers and men and sought pardons for the convicts who had worked so resolutely to save the ship.    But, by the time the recommendation reached Port Jackson, one had already been executed for stealing, six others had gone on to commit additional crimes.  But fourteen received pardons.  H.M.S. Guardian eventually broke apart at False Bay.

(C) Copyright Tales from the Quarterdeck / C.J. Ison, 2022.

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