The Loss of the Duroc and the rise of la Deliverance

The French steamer Duroc wrecked on Mellish Reef. Source: Wikicommons.

On the night of 12-13 August 1856, the French Naval steam corvette Duroc was wrecked on Mellish Reef about 800kms off the Queensland coast.   The Duroc was returning to France from New Caledonia where she had been stationed for the previous three years or so.    After the ship ran aground, some seventy people made it onto a small sand cay but it would take them over two months to escape their tiny refuge and reach a friendly port.

The Duroc had set off from Port de France (Noumea) New Caledonia five days earlier but on that night she ran aground on a submerged coral reef and could not get off.   Each passing swell pounded the hull onto the reef and she soon began taking on water. Fearing the ship might break apart during the night Vissiere ordered his men to start hauling all stores, provisions, and water casks up on deck.    The ship’s four boats were made ready to evacuate should the need arise and they then waited for morning to better assess the situation.

Daylight revealed the ship was well and truly lodged on the reef surrounded by breaking waves, but a small low lying sandy islet offered some refuge about 4 kms away.   So began the laborious task of ferrying all the ship’s stores and personnel to dry land.   Over the next ten days, they stripped the ship of its masts, bowsprit, sails, spars, the blacksmith’s forge, a water distillation plant and the cook’s oven.   By 23 August they had removed everything that could be useful from the Duroc and had established a temporary camp on the tiny cay nearly 800 kms from the nearest land.

Survivors of the wrecked Duroc on Mellish Reef building the La Deliverance. Source: Wikicommons.

Captain Vissiere also took the opportunity to take several unhurried astrological observations and would later claim that the reef he had struck was in fact some distance from where it was laid down on his chart.   He also took the time to formulate a plan to save his crew and his wife and baby daughter who were accompanying him back to France on his warship.

Their chance of being found on such a remote and rarely visited speck of land in the vast Coral Sea seemed extremely unlikely to the master mariner.   He felt their best course of action would be to make for the Australian coast where they might find help.   However, the boats could carry only a fraction of those stranded on the small island.   So, Captain Vissiere decided to send his First Mate, Lieutenant Vaisseau, off with the three largest boats and about half the crew.   He would remain on the island with his wife, daughter and some 30 others and construct a new vessel from timber they had salvaged from the Duroc.

The three boats set off on 25 August with instructions to make for Cape Tribulation where, with any luck, they would meet a British ship sailing the Great Barrier Reef’s inner passage.   Cape Tribulation seems to have been chosen, even though it was not the closest point on the mainland, because it was easily recognisable and because the reef pinches in close to the coast funnelling any passing ships close to land.

Mellish Reef. Courtesy Google Maps

After setting off from Mellish Reef the three boats immediately encountered heavy seas which threatened to founder the heavily laden craft.   At first, they were tethered together so they might not become separated but in the rough conditions, this proved impractical, and the lines were cut.    Even so, the boats sat heavily in the water and were in constant danger of being swamped. Two days out Vaisseau made the decision to jettison everything non-essential to lighten the load and increase their freeboard.  

Then, one day while Lt Vaisseau was taking his noon observation, his boat was struck by a rogue wave tossing him into the sea.   By the time he resurfaced, surrounded by casks and other debris also washed overboard, the boat was too far away to make for.   Fortunately, one of the other boats had been astern and he started swimming towards it instead.   Vaisseau had a lucky escape, for he was only plucked from the water as his strength was finally failing him.  

On the evening of 30 August, after five days at sea and covering some 1800 kms, they reached Cape Tribulation where they anchored inside the reef for the night.   The men thought the worst was behind them and they would soon fall in with a passing British ship. Lt Vaisseau noted they still had 72 kgs of sea biscuits, 20 litres of brandy and 60 litres of wine.   However, shared among 36 hungry men, the food and drink would last only a matter of days. But, he thought, hopefully they would soon be rescued.

The next day they made land and filled their water casks and then headed north hugging the shore.   They stopped each night in the lee of islands, foraged for roots and shellfish, and cast out lines hoping to catch fish.  They only delved into the supply of sea biscuits when there was no other food to be had.  

By 9 September they had reached Albany Island. They continued through Torres Strait sailing past Booby Island unaware there was a store of water and provisions left there to aid shipwrecked sailors.   Having not sighted a single ship on the Australian coast, they ventured out into the open sea again.   Lt Vaisseau now decided to head for the Dutch settlement of Kupang on Timor Island.   The three boats finally arrived there on the evening of 22 September and not a moment too soon for their food had run out days earlier.

Construction of a new vessel La Deliverance from the wreckage of the Duroc on Mellish Reef. Source: Wikicommons.

Meanwhile, Captain Vissiere and the remaining men had been busily constructing a new vessel which they named la Deliverance.   Under the directions from the ship’s master carpenter, they sawed the Duroc’s lower masts into planks and fixed them to a frame.   The new craft measured 14 metres in length and was completed by the end of September.

On 2 October la Deliverance was launched, and they sailed away from the island they had called home for the past six weeks.  Vissiere intended to make for the Australian mainland, much as Lt Vaisseau and the three boats had done.   Depending on the winds he would then either head north, through Torres Strait and on to Kupang, or if he met with a northerly, he would turn south towards Port Curtis (Gladstone) which was the most northerly settlement on the east coast at the time.   When he reached land he found the southerly trades were blowing so he bore north.

Despite the seemingly optimistic start, the passage was arduous, hampered as it was, by contrary weather.   Prolonged calms left them stranded for days at a time. The doldrums were only relieved by violent storms that lashed them mercilessly and threatened the safety of the vessel.   By the time they were rounding Cape York the boat was leaking alarmingly.   They pulled in at Albany Island to make urgent repairs before they left the relative safety of the Australian mainland. As soon as the leaks were plugged, they got underway ready to cross the Arafura Sea.   On 30 October, four weeks after setting off from Mellish Reef, they sailed into Kupang harbour.

Though they suffered greatly during the ordeal, Captain Vissiere did not lose a single person as a result of the wreck or the 4,000 km voyages undertaken by the survivors to reach Kupang.  

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

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