Matthew Flinders and the loss of HMS Porpoise – 1803

Loss of the Porpoise & Cato. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Shortly after Matthew Flinders completed his historic circumnavigation of Australia he was farewelled from Sydney to return to England as a passenger onboard HMS Porpoise.   To everyone’s astonishment, he returned a month later to report the loss of that ship and another on a reef far out in the Coral Sea.

HMS Porpoise, under the command of Lt Fowler, along with the merchant ships Cato and Bridgewater departed Port Jackson on 10 August 1803 intending to sail together as they made their way north and traversed the dangerous waters through Torres Strait.  

On the afternoon of 17 August, they passed by a small island marked on the chart which confirmed their position about 160nm (300kms) NE of Sandy Cape at the northern end of Fraser Island (K’gari).    The chart showed no other obstacles in their path until they were ready to pass through the Great Barrier Reef much further to the north.

As night descended the three ships continued bearing NNE under reduced sail pushed along by a southerly breeze.   The Porpoise was out in front with the Cato and Bridgewater off her port and starboard quarters respectively.   Then around 9.30 pm the lookout called “breakers ahead.”    The Porpoise tried to veer off but without success, striking the uncharted reef.    Likewise, the Cato tried to avoid the line of white water but ran aground about 400m from where the Porpoise struck.   

The 430-ton Cato by Thomas Luny cira 1800.

Fortunately, the Bridgewater avoided the reef and spent the rest of the night and the following morning trying to get back to render what assistance it could to any survivors.   Hampered by contrary winds and large seas the Bridgewaters captain could not get close to the reef without risking his own vessel.   He reluctantly continued on his way leaving the other ships to their fate.

Meanwhile, the men on the stranded ships waited out the night.   HMS Porpoise had gone aground broadside to the reef with her hull facing the crashing waves offering some protection to those onboard.   The Cato was not so lucky.   She had run aground with her deck exposed to the full force of the powerful waves and soon started breaking up.    Her crew spent an anxious night clinging for dear life to the inner forechains.  

The next morning the Porpoise’s small gig and a six-oar cutter were used to ferry the crews of both ships to a small sandy islet a short distance away.   Over the next several days they salvaged as much as they could from the two stranded vessels.    Casks of water, flour, salt meat, rice and spirits along with live sheep and pigs were all brought ashore, sufficient provisions to last the 94 castaways for three months.  

Captain Matthew Flinders, RN, by Toussaint Antoine DE CHAZAL DE Chamerel. Courtesy Wikipedia.

On the morning of the 19th of August Captain Matthew Flinders took command as the most senior naval officer present.   Flinders, in consultation with Lt Fowler and the Cato’s captain, John Park, decided he should take the largest cutter and sail for Sydney to get help.    They also agreed on a contingency plan should Flinders and his party fail.   The ship’s carpenters would begin constructing two new boats from materials salvaged from the wrecks.  If, after two months they had not been rescued, Lt Fowler and the rest of the men should try and make for Sydney in them.  

The cutter was fitted out with a deck to make it more seaworthy for the long voyage ahead of it.   She was christened “Hope” and, on 26 August, nine days after striking the reef, Flinders, Park and twelve sailors set off to three loud cheers from their shipmates on shore.    They took sufficient provisions to last them three weeks and bore towards the Australian coast.   On the evening of 28 August they made land near Indian Head on K’gari and headed south following the coast until they reached Sydney ten days later.

Map showing Wreck Reefs where the Cato and Porpoise were wrecked in 1803. Courtesy Google Maps.

Meanwhile, the carpenters got to work building the first of the two new boats.   The first boat, named Resource, was completed in a couple of weeks.  However, as they were working on the second boat their supply of coal for the armourer’s forge ran out, halting construction.     The Resource was dispatched to the small island they had sighted the day they ran aground.  There they were to make a supply of charcoal from the low scrub and return so the second boat could be completed.   

But, before they set off their rescuers came into sight.   The fully-rigged ship Rolla along with the colonial schooners Cumberland and Francis had arrived to take the men off.    Captain Flinders, who had returned with the rescue ships had spent a couple of anxious days trying to find the uncharted reef.    Most of the men were taken onto the Rolla which sailed on to China while Flinders returned to Sydney on the Cumberland.   Much of the stores and salvage from the ships was also taken back to Sydney on the Francis and Resource.   Unbelievably, only three men were lost during the ordeal.   The site of the disaster is now known as Wreck Reefs.

Captain Flinders’ adventures did not end there.   By the time he next left for England, Britain was at war with France.   When his ship stopped at Mauritius he was placed in detention until the end of hostilities.    Flinders did not arrive back in England until 1810.   His book “A Voyage to Terra Australis” detailing his voyages was published in 1814.

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

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