No Charts, No Worries

A schooner of the early 1800s. Courtesy State Library of Queensland.

When Captain George Browning sailed the small schooner Caledonia from Sydney in December 1831, he intended to follow the coast north as far as the Tropic of Capricorn.   There he was to collect salvage from a ship that had been wrecked in the Bunker Islands and return it to Sydney to be sold.   But on the way, he was to call in at the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement to collect a whaleboat the crew had used to escape the wreck.   That was where things began to go wrong for the young master mariner.

While anchored in Moreton Bay his ship was seized by a band of convicts who sent the crew ashore and ordered Browning to take them to the tiny South Pacific Island of Rotuma some 1,500 nautical miles or 3,000 kilometres away over open ocean.   See my blog “The Caledonia’s perilous last voyage,” for a more detailed account.

Among the many challenges he faced, he had no charts covering the South Pacific.  Yet, Browning had to find a way to deliver his unwanted passengers to their destination if he was to have any chance of saving his ship and preserving his own life.   He consulted his “Epitome of Practical Navigation,” a book all master mariners kept close at hand.   The regularly updated volume was considered the standard text on maritime navigation and was packed with charts and tables to help mariners navigate the world’s oceans.   

Example from The American Practical Navigator, 1837. There were several such books used by master mariners.

Browning referred to a table of South Pacific Islands with their corresponding geographic coordinates.  With this information, he flipped over one of his coastal charts and drew a grid labelling the key lines of longitudes and latitudes for the waters he would be sailing and marked the various known islands and features identified in the table, albeit with many reefs, shoals and other hazards left unrecorded.   Notwithstanding its limitations, he could now take observations and plot his whereabouts and relate that to his destination – Rotuma – and any other islands in the course of his travels.   

Using his makeshift chart, Browning navigated from Moreton Bay to New Caledonia where they stopped to collect fresh drinking water.   From there he charted a course to Rotuma and when he was directed to leave that island at a moment’s notice and make for Wallis Island he did that too.  

Perhaps the chart’s greatest value came as they sailed towards Wallis Island.   A couple of the convicts warned Browning that their leader intended to scuttle the Caledonia and do away with its captain once they had arrived.   He knew Wallis Island lay a short distance over the horizon and they would likely arrive late that afternoon.  

He shaped the sails to slow the ship’s progress until nightfall.   Then, during the hours of darkness, he picked up speed again and was able to slip by Wallis thereby prolonging his life a little longer.   A couple of days later they pulled in at the Samoan island of Savai’i.   There the Caledonia was scuttled but Browning was befriended by a local chief and escaped the convicts’ clutches.  He eventually returned to Australia to tell his amazing story.

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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