Far out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a seaman on board a small schooner thought his imagination was getting the better of him. It was daybreak on 5 February 1850. His ship, the 140-ton schooner Wanderer was en route from Sydney to San Francisco and still under storm canvas having just survived a powerful storm.
They had sailed from Sydney three months earlier and were slowly island-hopping across the Pacific. The ship’s owner, Scottish entrepreneur Benjamin Boyd, was in no great hurry. He was still licking his wounds after the spectacular failure of his grandiose enterprises centred around Boydtown at Twofold Bay (near present-day Eden on the NSW south coast). He now hoped to turn his luck around on the booming California goldfields.
Most recently the Wanderer had departed Papeete in the Society Islands (French Polynesia) bound for Hawaii. It was on this leg of their voyage that they weathered the cyclonic conditions and performed a miraculous rescue.
The sailor reported that he thought he had glimpsed something bobbing in the mountainous seas even though they were hundreds of miles from land. A man was sent aloft with a telescope and after a few minutes he called down that there was a whaleboat in distress several miles to windward. The Wanderer bore down on the stricken craft and discovered it contained six occupants.
The seas were still running high and it was not until their third attempt that a line was got across to the boat. The only words the men on the Wanderer could discern were plaintive cries for water. Then all six passengers, three men, and three women were hauled across and safely got aboard the schooner, very lucky to be alive.
It turned out the whaleboat belonged to Jose Davis, “a Brazilian man-of-colour”1 who had since resided in Hawaii for the past 17 years. With his wife and four others, (all South Pacific Islanders) he had set off from Oahu nine days earlier intending to reach Maui. They were only about 50kms from home when disaster struck.
The whaleboat was caught in a severe storm that raged for days. The sail was ripped to shreds and they lost their rudder during the tempest which made the whaleboat uncontrollable. What’s more, the planking had sprung so they were also taking on water. The boat drifted at the mercy of the wind and waves for nine days and it was ultimately pushed some 600kms south. They had no drinking water and the only food Davis and his comrades had was a few pumpkins.
But Jose was not one to give up hope. Once the weather abated, he planned to use the women’s dresses to make a new sail and then bear east towards the South American coast using the sun and stars to guide him.
With the new passengers on board and being cared for, the Wanderer continued north to Hawaii. The whaleboat sank shortly after it was abandoned. In time Jose and the others were landed at Maui to be reunited with their astonished and grateful families and friends who had since given them up for dead.
The Wanderer continued on to San Francisco, but Boyd failed to strike it rich on the goldfields and decided to return to Australia. On the homeward voyage, they stopped at Guadalcanal where he vanished while out hunting. His body was never found.
1. Colonial Times, 31 May 1850, p. 4.
© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.
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