Bato to the Rescue – 1854

Shipwreck survivors take to their boat.. Source: Tales of Shipwrecks and Adventures at Sea, 1856.

In 1854 the Dutch ship Bato, rescued not one, not two, but three separate parties of shipwreck survivors whose ships had come to grief in separate encounters with the Great Barrier Reef.   In the space of a few weeks, these three ships all ran aground trying to negotiate the dangerous reef strewn waters leading to Torres Strait.

The first casualty was the 521-ton ship Fatima.   On 3 June the Fatima left Melbourne bound for Singapore via Torres Strait.   She made good time sailing up the east coast until, on 26 June, she was within sight of the entrance through the Great Barrier Reef marked by Raine Island and its distinctive 20m tall tower.   Then her voyage ended abruptly and violently when she crashed into the Great Detached Reef about 12nm (20kms) south of Raine Island.   The Fatima could not be saved and the captain and crew had no choice but to take to the boats to save their lives.    A refuge of sorts was close at hand and they struck out for Raine Island off in the distance.   There they remained, subsisting largely on a plentiful supply of seabird eggs while they waited to be rescued.

A couple of days after the Fatima left Melbourne the 391-ton barque Elizabeth departed that port as well.   She was bound for Moulmein Burma and also intended to pass through Torres Strait by the Raine Island passage.   However, disaster struck on 28 June when the barque ran aground on a small coral outcrop about 28nm, (55kms) south of Raine Island.        Fortunately, no lives were lost and after a considerable amount of effort the crew managed to get the ship off the reef and into deep water.   However, the hull had been breached and by now she was taking on more water than the pumps could remove.   Captain Churchill made the difficult decision to abandon his ship and he and his men took to the boats.   Five days later they arrived at Booby Island where they found provisions and fresh water put aside for shipwrecked sailors.

The Wreck of the Thomasine. Courtesy State Library of Queensland.

The third ship, the Thomasine departed Sydney on 8 June for Batavia also via Torres Strait.   She too was making her way north when her voyage was cut short on 20 June.   When the Thomasine was about 270kms east of present-day Port Douglas she was wrecked on a coral reef.    

Captain Holmes would later recall that around 8 o’clock on the evening of the 19th, the ship bumped over a submerged reef where no such obstruction should have existed.   He had been on deck at the time and gone to his cabin to consult his chart, for he was sure it had shown nothing in their immediate path.  While he was still standing at his chart table, he was summoned back on deck with the lookout calling “breakers ahead.”   When Captain Holmes returned on deck he was faced with the daunting sight of a long line of breaking waves ahead that extended around to his left and right almost completely encircling his ship.  

Holmes and his crew kept the ship from running aground during the night by tacking back and forth in the open water between the reefs.   The next morning he saw how dire their situation was.   The ship was trapped by an almost unbroken ring of breaking waves denoting the presence of submerged reefs. Reefs that were absent from the charts but have since been added and bear the name, Holmes Reefs.   

The wind began to rise and Holmes realised his only chance of escape was to try and make it through one of the narrow breaks in the line of surf.   He selected one, hoping it was a passage that would lead his ship to safety.   Unfortunately, it proved too shallow and the Thomasine struck heavily and had to be abandoned.   Two boats were loaded with as much food and water as they could carry.  

Captain Holmes divided his crew between the two boats and they bore north intending to reach Booby Island and its cache of stores.    18 people set off from the Thomasine.   One of his seamen drowned in the struggle to get the boats away as the rough seas surged around them.   To add to Holmes’ concerns, he was accompanied by his wife and three children, the youngest just four months old.

Over the next fortnight or so they steadily made their way north surviving on short rations and about 700ml of water each day from the small quantity taken from the ship.   But, by 6 July they had covered about 800kms and had reached Bird Island in Torres Strait.   They were only a day or two away from reaching Booby Island.  

Map showing location of the three shipwrecks in Torres Strait. Courtesy Google Maps.

Around this time the Dutch ship Bato was in the same waters.  She had sailed from Hobart on 10 June and steadily made her way up the east coast of Australia.   As Captain Brocksmit approached the Raine Island entrance he sighted the Fatima castaways on the island.   Ten men were taken onboard while the rest followed in the Bato’s wake in their own boat until they had reached the Middle Bank well inside the Great Barrier Reef.     

The next day, 6 July, the Bato came across the survivors from the Thomasine off Bird Island and made room for them on his ship as well.   Finally, the following day, they came upon the survivors of the Elizabeth who had made it to Booby Island four days earlier.  

Now with as many as sixty additional people on board, the Bato put the dangerous waters of Torres Strait behind her.    Captain Brocksmit made his way along the Indonesian archipelago arriving in Batavia on 25 July 1854. The survivors were disembarked and the captains were faced with the unenviable task of notifying their respective ship owners of their losses.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2023.

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