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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The Tragic Loss of George III – 1835

The Wreck of George III, by Knud Bull, wikimedia commons.

The 400-ton ship George the Third sailed from England on 12 December 1834 carrying 220 convicts bound for Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).   When less than 80kms from their destination at Hobart, tragedy struck with terrible loss of life.  

On Sunday 12 April 1835 the George III  made land at South Cape, the southernmost point of Tasmania around 11am.   By early evening they had entered the D’entrecasteaux Channel to make the final run up the coast to the mouth of the Derwent River and then on to Hobart Town.   She passed the dangerous Actaeon Islands around 8.30 that night.   The moon was out, the weather mild and they were pushed along at 1 ½ to 2 knots (3-4kms/h) by a light breeze blowing off the land.   

Captain William Moxey had a man in the chains sounding the passage as they made their way north.   Repeated soundings were around 20 fathoms (36m) more than ample for safe passage.   Then shortly before nine o’clock, Moxey was stunned to hear the man call out “quarter less four,” meaning they were in less than four fathoms (7m) of water.   He ordered the helm put hard to port.   But before the ship responded and even before another sounding could be made, the ship struck something and came to a stop where the chart said there was clear passage.    

Southern Tasmania. Google Maps.

The captain had soundings taken around the ship and found they were stranded on an uncharted rock with just 3-5 metres of water surrounding them.     The initial collision was not particularly violent but now that the ship was stuck fast the ocean swells started pounding the hull onto its rocky perch.   Within minutes, the main mast came crashing down taking the top mizzen mast with it, strewing the deck with a tangle of rope, canvas and timber spars.     

Those crewmen not on watch, along with the ship’s passengers and compliment of soldiers were soon on deck dressed in just shirts and trousers, most having already retired for the night.    Captain Moxey started organising the evacuation which was hampered by the pounding of the ship and the mess of debris on deck and in the water surrounding them.    

Meanwhile, the convicts remained locked below with armed guards standing over the hatchway.   Cries from the convicts made it clear they were already waist-deep in freezing water and were in genuine fear of drowning to death.   They begged to be allowed on deck as the water continued to rise.    As some tried forcing the hatch cover up several shots were fired into them.    At least one convict was struck and killed as testified by three of the survivors.   Moxey disputed the claim in a later inquiry stating the guards were stationed there just to keep the panicked men contained below deck until the women and children had safely been got away.   In fact, the inquiry reads like the minutes of a mutual appreciation society meeting, each praising the efforts of the other officers in saving so many lives.   

The Colonist, 7 May 1835, p. 5.

Fifteen minutes after striking the rock the deck was awash with water.   The longboat was finally got away carrying about 40 people.   Moxey was among them having been pulled from the water after he became trapped between floating timbers.  

By then some of the convicts had forced their way on deck but many others died in the hold.    Some fifty or so were too ill to save themselves, suffering from scurvy after some of the ship’s provisions were destroyed in a fire earlier in the passage out.   They drowned where they lay unable to flee the rising water.

That night Moxey and the other officers managed to save about 160 people.  Shortly after the ship was stranded a cutter with seven occupants was ordered to make for Hobart to get help.   Moxey made three trips in the longboat ferrying survivors to land near present-day Southport.   By the time he had reached the George III for the third time a schooner had arrived and was taking off survivors.   They were all taken on to Hobart cold, wet and thoroughly exhausted from the ordeal.

View of Hobart Town by Samuel Davenport, circa 1835.

134 people lost their lives.   Three were children, one a woman, and two were members of the crew.   Convicts made up the remaining 128 fatalities.   Most never had a chance, trapped in the hold as the water rose around them.     The next morning a convict named John Roberts was found dead lashed to a ringbolt in the surgeon’s cabin.   It seems he was unable to swim and had tied himself off hoping to be washed ashore as the ship broke up.

The inquiry found no one was to blame for the accident.   No officer admitted to ordering the prisoners to be confined below deck as the hold flooded with water.   The Corporal of the guard testified that the muskets were only used to “intimidate” the prisoners and only one shot was fired, and that into the air.   No one was held accountable for the loss of so many prisoners.   

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

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The Windjammer Grace Harwar 1889 – 1935

Grace Harwar. View aft from the main crosstrees, 1929. Courtesy: National Maritime Museum Greenwich.

The 1750-ton steel-hulled fully-rigged ship Grace Harwar was launched in Glasgow in 1889 and for the next 45 years, she crossed the world’s oceans carrying all manner of bulk cargoes.    She was well known to Australian mariners and dockworkers regularly taking on coal, grain and other goods bound for distant ports. 

Despite her majestic lines and presence, she gained a terrible reputation as a cursed ship.   On her 1889 maiden voyage, the bosun was lost when an upper yard was carried away in a gale off Cape Horn.  

On a passage from Cape Town to New Zealand in December 1901, she was slammed by a powerful storm as she neared her destination.   Heavy seas broke over her sweeping the lifeboats away.  The ballast shifted and the ship took on a dangerous list which saw the lee rail submerged three feet under water.   The captain was swept overboard but fortunately, a wave washed him back on deck where he scrambled to safety.   A crewman was not so lucky and drowned.   But, the Grace Harwar survived limping into Gisborne for repairs.

GRACE HARWAR CREW circa 1920s by A.C. Green, Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

While sailing from Australia to Tocopilla Chile in 1907, the captain’s young wife died from tuberculosis off the South American coast.   Captain Hudson returned his wife’s body to Sydney in the hold and then left the Grace Harwar, never to go to sea in her again.

Then in July 1910, a seaman was killed when the Royal Yard came crashing down on deck just as the men were congratulating themselves on making it around Cape Horn unscathed.  

The following year, 1911, she was anchored at Coquimbo in Chile when a freak storm blew out of nowhere causing havoc with the ships anchored in the bay.   The Grace Harwar lost her figurehead and bowsprit when she collided with another ship as they both swung on the end of their anchor chains.   Then her anchors started dragging and she ground against a German barque causing yet more damage.    During the same year, one of the mates was injured and later died during an operation to recover a lost anchor at the Chilean port of Iquique.

The Grace Harwar under sail. Photo by Allan C. Green , Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

During a ferocious hurricane, while anchored at Mobile Alabama in the Gulf of Mexico a seaman was knocked overboard by a loose spar where he drowned before anyone could go to his aid.   That was in 1916.

By 1929 the number of fully-rigged sailing ships still operating commercially was dwindling.   Increasingly, vessels moving cargo and people across the world’s oceans no longer relied on wind to power them along.   Two young Australian journalists wanted to record the passing of the era.   They joined the Grace Harwar’s crew in South Australia to film the old windjammer’s voyage as she delivered a cargo of wheat to England via Cape Horn.   One of the reporters, Ronald Walker was struck by a falling yard while aloft during foul weather and died.   The footage he and his partner, Allan Villiers shot was edited together to make the 1930 feature-length film “Windjammer.”

Photo of Allan Villiers on the Grace Harwar taken by Ronald Gregory Walker. Courtesy: National Library of Australia.

The Grace Harwar was a regular at the annual “Great Grain Race” through the first half of the 1930s carrying wheat from ports in the Spencer Gulf, South Australia to England.  Strictly speaking, it was not an official race but the captains of the windjammers that carried the annual grain harvest were known to wager bets on who would deliver their cargo in the quickest time.   And of course, there were bragging rights at stake.

In 1935 the Grace Harwar’s career came to an end.   She made one last 40km voyage from Falmouth to Charlestown in the UK where she was broken up for scrap.

Seas sweep over the Grace Harwar’s deck. Source: The Daily Telegraph, 4 Nov 1929, p. 13.

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

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S.S. Maheno (1905 – 1935)

The SS Maheno wrecked on K’Gari in 1935. Photo C.J. Ison..

As anyone knows who has ventured across to K’Gari (formerly Fraser Island) the wreck of the old luxury passenger liner SS Maheno makes an imposing presence on the long sandy beach which serves as the island’s main highway.

Swept ashore during a cyclone in 1935 on her way to a Japanese scrapyard, the Maheno was once one of the fastest luxury liners on the trans-Tasman run.

The SS Maheno was built at William Denny and Brothers shipyards on the Clyde River in 1905 for the New Zealand-owned Union Steam Ship Company.   She measured 122m in length and was 5,300tons gross.   She was fitted with powerful steam turbine engines that were revolutionary for the time. They could push her along at an impressive top speed of nearly 20 knots (36kms/h).  

S.S. Maheno postcard. Courtesy State Library of Queensland.

For much of her career she carried cargo and passengers between Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart in Australia and Wellington, Auckland and Dunedin in New Zealand.     She was also occasionally called to carry passengers across the Pacific to San Francisco.   The Maheno once made the passage from Sydney to Wellington in just under three days, a record that would remain unbeaten for the next 25 years. 

She was not only fast, she was luxurious.  The Maheno could accommodate 120 passengers in her sumptuous first-class cabins, 120 in second-class and 60 more passengers in third-class.    The saloons, dining rooms and other common areas were beautifully appointed harking back to a bygone era.    In short, she was a magnificent example of turn-of-the-century ship-building at its finest.   

SS Maheno, Saloon was luxuriously fitted out. Phot Courtesy State Library of Queensland.

During the First World War, she served as a hospital ship seeing service during the Gallipoli Campaign ferrying casualties from ANZAC Cove to Malta.   She then transported wounded New Zealanders home before returning to Europe.   Over the next several years, she made several trips back to New Zealand returning wounded Kiwi soldiers. She also carried thousands more sick and wounded men from the Western Front across the English Channel to receive treatment in England.  

After the war, she returned to her regular duties crossing the waters between New Zealand and Australia.   As she aged, newer ships took over her routes.   However, she remained on the Melbourne – New Zealand run until the beginning of 1935 when she was finally retired.    In all her 30 years of service, she never had a serious accident, a testament to the ship and the captains who commanded her.   But on her final voyage, that was about to change.

In July 1935 the Maheno left Sydney under tow by the Oonah, another aging vessel destined to be broken up in Japan.     “Like a minnow towing a whale, the little Oonah set out to tow the Maheno, which towered above her like a giant,” is how the Daily Telegraph described the scene as they made their way down Sydney Harbour.

SS Maheno shortly after she ran aground. Photo Courtesy State Library of Queensland.

The first few days were relatively uneventful but by the time they were off the Queensland coast, the weather had turned foul.   A powerful storm lashed the two ships with huge swells and gale-force winds.   Then on 7 July, the Oonah suffered steering problems and the tow cable parted.   The two vessels were about 80kms off K’Gari when the Maheno was lost from sight.  

The Oonah would be rescued without further incident.   The Maheno, on the other hand, was now at the mercy of the storm without any means of propulsion.  There were grave fears for the eight Japanese sailors on board.    But they rode out the maelstrom as best they could and eventually the Maheno gently made landfall.  

The former luxury liner was driven broadside onto the island’s long sandy beach about 30kms south of Indian Head.    The crew got ashore safely on 10 July, but the ship was stuck solidly in the sand.  

Thoughts of refloating the ship were soon abandoned and she remains there to this day, perhaps the most prominent and accessible shipwreck on the Australian coast.

The SS Maheno ship wreck on K’Gari. Photo: C.J. Ison.

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

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The Dunbar Tragedy – 1857

The Dunbar shipwreck, by Samuel Thomas Gill, courtesy the State Library of New South Wales.

The loss of the Dunbar in August 1857 was one of the more tragic and distressing shipwrecks to occur in Australian waters.   On the morning of Friday 21 August people living in Sydney’s East awoke to find wreckage and mutilated bodies dotted along the rugged coast and inside the harbour mouth.   A large ship had come to grief, but its identity would remain a mystery for much of that day.

The weather on the night of 20 August was thick with heavy rain, strong winds and a powerful swell creating mountainous waves.    The Dunbar had sailed from London 81 days earlier and was making its way up the New South Wales coast nearing the end of its voyage.  

She passed Botany Bay around 8.30 in the evening.  Then Captain James Green headed out to sea on a starboard tack under closely reefed sails.    They then changed course again heading towards the entrance to Sydney Harbour.   The captain sent the Second Mate to the forecastle and asked him to keep a good lookout for the North Head.  

By Day and Son; Thomas Goldsworth Dutton; William Foster –, Public Domain,

Suddenly the Mate called out “breakers ahead,” as churning white water at the base of the cliffs materialised out of the inky gloom.   It was now a little after midnight.  Captain Green ordered the ship round but the surging seas drove her broadside onto the rocks before she could respond.  

Passengers were jolted awake by the violent impact and streamed on deck in panic, most still dressed in their night attire.    But before any thought could be given to getting them into the lifeboats another wave smashed the Dunbar into the cliffs and she immediately started breaking up. 

Passengers and crew alike were swept into the surging sea and dashed against the rocks.  Others were crushed between heavy timbers and splintering wood.  

There were 122 people on the Dunbar as she neared Sydney Harbour.   She had a crew of 59 and was carrying 63 passengers.   Most of the passengers, including families with young children, were residents of Sydney returning home after spending time in England.  

Incredibly, one of the crew managed to survive.    As the ship broke apart John Johnson grabbed hold of a plank with three other men to keep themselves afloat as they were tossed around in the turbulent white water.   Two of their number soon lost their hold but Johnson and the ship’s Boatswain were dumped high on the rocks by a large wave.    Johnson scrambled higher but before the other man could do likewise, he was caught by another wave and sucked back out to sea.    Johnson continued climbing until he reached a narrow ledge and could go no further.   

The Sailor Rescued. Courtesy the National Library of Australia 211620415-22

The next day he heard people on the clifftop above him and saw several ships pass by but failed to attract anyone’s attention.   He remained a second night on the ledge before a young lad spotted him from near Jacob’s Ladder.  The boy, Antonio Wollier, volunteered to be lowered down to the ledge by a rope to rescue the survivor.  

Meanwhile, the grim work of recovering bodies began.    Some brave souls were lowered over the cliff at the Gap where as many as 20 bodies had collected among the rocks.   They had been so badly battered that none were ever identified.    Other bodies were found inside Sydney Harbour where they had been swept by the current.   Most were buried in a mass grave in the Newtown Cemetery.

Sydney Harbour. Courtesy Google Maps.

An inquiry concluded that Captain Green, hampered by the foul weather, had either thought he was approaching the North Head or mistook the Gap for the entrance to Sydney Harbour.   As a result of this catastrophe and another similar shipwreck nine weeks later a lighthouse marking South Head was built.       

John Johnson was later employed as a lighthouse keeper in Newcastle and in 1866 he rescued the only survivor of the steamer Cawarra when it sank trying to enter that harbour.

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