HMS Torch and the rescue of the Ningpo castaways

HMS Torch rescuing crew and passengers from the wreck of the Ningpo, 1854. Illustration courtesy NLA.

While Lieutenant William Chimmo was preparing HMS Torch to return to survey work in the South Seas, he was unexpectedly tasked with an urgent mission.     Word had just reached Sydney that nearly 20 people had been marooned for two months on a remote island far out in the Coral Sea.   By chance, his paddle steamer had just completed repairs and was eminently suited to the task at hand.

Second Mate William Tough of the 150-ton junk-rigged schooner Ningpo arrived in Sydney on 2 October 1854 with a tale of personal heroism and a plea for help to save his stranded shipmates.   

The Ningpo had sailed from Hong Kong on 15 April 1854 bound for Melbourne to take up duties as a lighter.    The voyage south had been a difficult one plagued by storms, rough seas and a nagging leak in the hull which just kept getting worse.     To add to Captain Billings’ woes his chronometer broke and he could no longer determine his longitude, making accurate navigation nothing more than an aspiration.   Billings decided to pull into the French settlement at the Isle of Pines for repairs to the hull.   But while still north of New Caledonia he changed his mind opting to head for Moreton Bay instead.

This meant sailing dangerously close to the D’Entrecasteaux Reef, a two thousand square kilometre maze of submerged coral reefs, small islets, and sandbars.    Its discoverer, French Admiral Antoine Bruni D’Entrecasteaux called it, “the most dangerous reef he ever saw.”   By 8 PM on 28 July Billings estimated that he was clear of danger but he was wrong.   Minutes later the Ningpo ran onto a submerged coral outcrop and soon began filling with water.

Map of D’Entrecasteaux Reef

Billings, his crew and passengers made it to a small sand island a few kilometres away and set up camp using spars and canvas sails.   They fabricated a still to convert seawater into fresh.   Food proved plentiful as the waters surrounding the island teemed with fish and the island itself was home to seabirds and a nesting place for turtles.

With their immediate necessities assured, thoughts turned to how they could escape their refuge.   Their only means was a four-metre (13 ft) dinghy, the only lifeboat the Ningpo carried.   Billings wanted to try and make the Isle of Pines about 600kms away but his crew wanted to send a small party to Moreton Bay which would mean a journey of over twice that distance.    The captain and his crew were at an impasse.

After they had been there four weeks, Tough and two others set off in the dinghy to make the perilous voyage without seeking the captain’s permission.   Billings was furious.   He was sure they would fail and they had taken the only means of leaving the island.    His crew beleived they would soon be found by a passing ship.   However, Billings was not so optimistic.   He knew they were a long way from regular shipping routes and that no sailing ship would intentionally venture into these treacherous waters. 

But, despite Billings’ doubts, Tough and his companions reached Wide Bay on the Australian mainland fourteen days later.    Ten days after that Tough staggered into Brisbane assisted by a couple of local Aborigines, his mates had perished along the way.   There was no vessel in Moreton Bay that could go to the aid of the castaways, so Tough was sent to Sydney with a letter addressed to the Colonial Secretary seeking assistance.

HMS Torch at anchor, (probably in Sydney Harbour), by Conrad Martens. Courtesy State Library of NSW.

Lt Chimmo was ordered to steam to the rescue as quickly as possible.   Fortunately, preparations to return to Fijian waters were well advanced so he was able to clear Sydney Heads the following night stopping only to take on coal in Newcastle before continuing north.

Chimmo only knew that the Ningpo had run aground near a small island around latitude 18° 36’ South, the coordinate supplied by Tough and presumably recorded by Billings.    Charts available in Sydney showed the location of the Huon Islands in the vicinity but offered little detail.    HMS Torch would have to carefully pick its way through the reefs to find the castaways if they were still alive after more than 10 weeks.

The Torch battled unseasonal north-westerly winds for the first eleven days.   But, once the south-easterly trades returned they made much faster progress.  By mid-October, they had arrived at the search area but then another delay beset them.    Storm clouds began gathering and Chimmo had little choice but to make for deeper waters until the weather cleared.

 Meanwhile, Billings had finally convinced his crew that they should wait no longer for help to arrive.   After three months it was clear that if they were ever to get off the island, it would only be by their own means.   He proposed building a boat from the remains of the Ningpo and his men embraced the idea.   Unfortunately, the same storm that chased the Torch away also lashed their island and they put their plans on hold for the time being.

When the storm finally cleared Chimmo began his search of the Huon Islands.  He sent search parties out in small boats to inspect each sandbar and islet they came across but none showed any sign of recent habitation.   Frequent rain squalls and strong winds hampered the search and on one occasion a boat capsized in the choppy seas but fortunately no lives were lost.    Then on the morning of 26 October, he spotted two islands in the distance.  

The Ningpo wreck site. Map courtesy NLA.

After the storm had passed Billings and his men began preparing to go out to the Ningpo in a dugout canoe found in the bushy interior of the island.   But before they headed off a lookout spotted a ship in the distance, the first such sighting since they had landed.    The signal fires were lit and they lined the beach in anticipation of being rescued.

As Lt Chimmo drew near he saw two columns of smoke.   Then, he sighted the ship still stranded on the reef further off in the distance.   Finally, he could make out people clustered on the beach.   He fired a cannon to let them know they had been seen and gingerly made his way through the reef-strewn lagoon.   

Fearing the weather could deteriorate at any moment, boats were sent across the last couple of kilometres to collect the castaways.   One of the first to step ashore was the Ningpo’s second mate, William Tough who had volunteered to accompany the rescue.   As promised, he had brought help, to the utter amazement of Captain Billings.

The whole boarding operation was completed that day.    The Torch then sailed for Sydney arriving on 10 December 1854 having completed a round trip of more than 4,000kms.

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

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