In 1851 two men pulled off a sailing feat few thought possible. They had been the only hands on board the Countess of Minto when it vanished during a violent storm stranding the rest of the crew on a remote desert island. Everyone thought the ship had foundered but four weeks later it sailed into Sydney Harbour. To everyone’s astonishment, the two men had survived and saved their ship.
On 25 August 1851 the 300-ton barque was anchored off Lady Elliot Island on the Great Barrier Reef to collect guano, a valuable commodity at the time. John Johnson and Joseph Pass had just returned to the ship having taken the captain and the rest of the crew ashore when the weather started to turn.
By midday the wind was howling, high seas raged around them and torrential rain was lashing the deck. It was now far too dangerous to take to the jolly boat to join their shipmates on the island. They would have to ride out the storm as best they could.
Johnson and Pass let out the anchors as far as they could and hoped they would remain firmly dug into the seabed. The ship surged and the chains strained with each powerful swell, and for a time they held.
Then, around 11.30 that night a very thick squall struck. The force of the wind and the seas were too great, and the anchors started dragging. The barque was swept out into the deep water of the Coral Sea, somehow missing the island and surrounding reefs. Johnson and Pass could only pray they survived the night.
Johnson was the ship’s carpenter and Pass the steward. Neither were part of the regular sailing crew but it is clear that one or perhaps both men possessed a wealth of sailing experience. And, at least one of them could navigate using sextant and chronometer.
The next morning, Johnson and Pass found nothing but deep blue ocean extending from horizon to the horizon. By now the wind had eased and the men took stock of their situation.
The two men were relieved to find the Countess of Minto had survived the storm with only superficial damage. The hull, masts, and sails were intact, but they were now drifting aimlessly under bare poles at the mercy of the wind and current.
Both anchors were still dangling at the ends of their 45 fathoms (90 metres) of chain. The deck was littered with ropes and other gear that had broken loose but escaped being washed overboard. The longboat had been swept off the forward hatch and was now being dragged along behind the ship, full of water. The jolly boat, likewise, was trailing behind.
They let go the anchors being unable to haul them up by themselves. They set up a boom with block and tackle and retrieved the two boats. Then they tidied up the deck. At midnight they pumped eight inches of water from the bilge and continued working through til dawn.
They finally hoisted some canvas and bore towards the south-east. For the first time since being swept from their anchorage nearly 36 hours earlier, they had control of the ship.
On Wednesday evening, 27 August, the winds picked up having dropped off for most of the day. They now tried to set a north-westerly course to return to Lady Elliot Island and rescue their shipmates. But in the face of contrary winds and hampered for want of manpower, they struggled to get back.
For over a week the pair battled to return. But despite their untiring efforts the ship continued drifting southward and away from the coast. By the following Friday, 5 September, the men were utterly exhausted and further away than ever from their shipmates.
They finally decided to go with the wind and make for Sydney to get help. Four days later they were off Port Macquarie and only 300 kms from their destination. There they met with another ship who lent some hands to help the exhausted duo the rest of the way.
On 20 September the pair sailed into Sydney Harbour to be greeted by their captain who had just arrived and reported his ship lost. Johnson and Pass were commended for their “meritorious conduct” and each rewarded with £10 by the insurance underwriters.
The Countess of Minto’s incredible 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, 2022.
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