The Orete’s Robinson Crusoe-like Castaway

Schooner Orete (left), Donald Mackenzie (right)

In January 1918, Donald Mackenzie found himself marooned on a tiny uninhabited island after his schooner sank during one of the most powerful cyclones to hit Central Queensland.  

The tough 56-year-old Scott was a seaman on the Orete which had sailed from Maryborough bound for Mackay with a cargo of sawn timber.    They had no sooner got underway when the weather began to deteriorate.   As they bore north it got progressively worse.   Little did they know a massive cyclone was forming ahead of them.   By the time they reached the Percy Islands, less than 200kms from their destination the barometer plummeted and the heavily laden vessel was being pummelled by huge seas.   The captain dropped anchor in the lee of Pine Islet to ride out the encroaching storm.  

But as the cyclone approached the coast, the wind shifted around and the anchors started dragging.   The Orete was blown from her anchorage under bare poles and later foundered sank with the loss of five lives.   Mackenzie was plunged into the heaving sea with a life belt tied around his waist.    He climbed onto a cabin door floating nearby and held on as the storm raged around him.    After about four or five hours he was washed up on a beach to join other flotsam from the wrecked ship.

Orete survivor, Donald Mackenzie (right) holding his life preserver. Source: The Queenslander Pictorial Supplement, 9 March 1918.

When the weather subsided Mackenzie took stock of his situation.   He had no idea where he had landed, he would later learn it was Tynemouth Is. The foreshore was littered with timber and other debris.  He found a few onions and pumpkins which he would eat in the coming days, He also emptied a crate of kerosene cans and filled them with drinking water.   A quick search of the island revealed it was uninhabited but, about 2kms away Mackenzie could see another island with what looked like buildings on it.    That would later prove to be Iron Islet.

Without the means to make a fire or attract attention, Mackenzie resolved to build a raft to cross the expanse of water.   He broke apart the kerosene crate to salvage the nails and used them to fix planks together to form a raft.    

That time had not come soon enough.   Hunger and the harsh conditions were taking their toll on him.     He had eaten the last of the raw vegetables days earlier and had been subsisting on oysters smashed from the rocks ever since.   During the day there was little respite from the searing tropical sun.   And, at night he was tormented ceaselessly by mosquitoes and ants making sleep all but impossible.

Donald Mackenzie’s raft. Source: The Queenslander Pictorial Supplement, 9 March 1918.

After ten days Mackenzie was ready to leave.   He dragged his raft into the water and started towards Iron Islet using a broad timber plank to paddle.   But he was soon caught in a strong current ripping through the passage.   He was swept away and the current threatened to take him away from land.  Mackenzie made the difficult decision to abandon his raft and swim back to Tynemouth Island before it was too late. 

Disheartened as Mackenzie was, he knew he was growing weaker by the day.     If he was ever going to survive he had to build another raft.    This one took him eight days to complete.   The next morning, Sunday 10 February, he dragged his cumbersome craft into the water, straddled it, and started paddling away from shore.

Again, he was caught in the strong current.   He used every ounce of strength his fatigued muscles could give him inching the raft across the passage.    After an almost super-human effort, Mackenzie reached the southern end of Hunter Island.    There, he rested before setting off again to cross the one-kilometre channel that now separated him from Iron Islet.  

Again, he was caught in another powerful current.   This one was even stronger than the last.   He paddled furiously but it was hopeless.   He had no control over the craft.   He looked back only to see the Iron Islet buildings disappearing into the distance behind him.

Mackenzie’s approximate course,

At one time or another most people experience that sinking feeling when success – so close at hand – slips away and all seems lost.   This was Mackenzie’s moment.   He had survived the wreck which had claimed the lives of his five shipmates.   He had been cast away, Robinson Crusoe-like, on a deserted island for 19 days suffering from hunger and exposure.   He had built two rafts with his bare hands and escaped but it was all for nothing.   Mackenzie was rocketing out into the vast Pacific Ocean and there was nothing he could do to stop it.    He was mentally exhausted, and the most recent frenzied paddling had left him physically spent.   But as he exited the channel separating the islands the current slackened and the raft’s headlong progress slowed.

Mackenzie looked back towards the island and to his astonishment, he saw sheep grazing.    With renewed spirit, he drew on his last reserves of energy and paddled towards shore.   As he got closer the distinctive outline of a cottage roof stood out among the trees.     He kept paddling until the raft ran onto the sandy beach where he waded ashore on unsteady legs.   Mackenzie had survived and in time he would be returned to civilisation.

The full story is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters available through Amazon.

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

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