The Wanderer and a Miraculous Rescue

Schooner Wanderer. Painting by Oswald Brierly From the collections of the State Library of New South Wales, a128927.

Far out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a seaman on board a small schooner thought his imagination was getting the better of him.     It was daybreak on 5 February 1850.   His ship, the 140-ton schooner Wanderer was en route from Sydney to San Francisco and still under storm canvas having just survived a powerful storm.  

They had sailed from Sydney three months earlier and were slowly island-hopping across the Pacific.   The ship’s owner, Scottish entrepreneur Benjamin Boyd, was in no great hurry.   He was still licking his wounds after the spectacular failure of his grandiose enterprises centred around Boydtown at Twofold Bay (near present-day Eden on the NSW south coast).   He now hoped to turn his luck around on the booming California goldfields.     

Most recently the Wanderer had departed Papeete in the Society Islands (French Polynesia) bound for Hawaii.  It was on this leg of their voyage that they weathered the cyclonic conditions and performed a miraculous rescue.

Benjamin Boyd portrait. Source: Australian Town and Country Journal 29 Aug 1906 Page 28.

The sailor reported that he thought he had glimpsed something bobbing in the mountainous seas even though they were hundreds of miles from land.   A man was sent aloft with a telescope and after a few minutes he called down that there was a whaleboat in distress several miles to windward.   The Wanderer bore down on the stricken craft and discovered it contained six occupants.     

The seas were still running high and it was not until their third attempt that a line was got across to the boat.   The only words the men on the Wanderer could discern were plaintive cries for water.   Then all six passengers, three men, and three women were hauled across and safely got aboard the schooner, very lucky to be alive.

It turned out the whaleboat belonged to Jose Davis, “a Brazilian man-of-colour”1 who had since resided in Hawaii for the past 17 years.   With his wife and four others, (all South Pacific Islanders) he had set off from Oahu nine days earlier intending to reach Maui.    They were only about 50kms from home when disaster struck.

The whaleboat was caught in a severe storm that raged for days.   The sail was ripped to shreds and they lost their rudder during the tempest which made the whaleboat uncontrollable.   What’s more, the planking had sprung so they were also taking on water.    The boat drifted at the mercy of the wind and waves for nine days and it was ultimately pushed some 600kms south.   They had no drinking water and the only food Davis and his comrades had was a few pumpkins.  

Map of the Pacific Ocean showing where the whaleboat was found.

But Jose was not one to give up hope.   Once the weather abated, he planned to use the women’s dresses to make a new sail and then bear east towards the South American coast using the sun and stars to guide him.  

With the new passengers on board and being cared for, the Wanderer continued north to Hawaii.   The whaleboat sank shortly after it was abandoned.   In time Jose and the others were landed at Maui to be reunited with their astonished and grateful families and friends who had since given them up for dead.

The Wanderer continued on to San Francisco, but Boyd failed to strike it rich on the goldfields and decided to return to Australia.   On the homeward voyage, they stopped at Guadalcanal where he vanished while out hunting.   His body was never found.

1.      Colonial Times, 31 May 1850, p. 4.

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

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The Douro and its Piratical Captain

A typical trading schooner in the South Seas. Source: Picturesque atlas of Australasia, 1886.

In the 19th Century ship captains were often considered undisputed masters of their domain, especially while they were at sea.   Most, to varying degrees, kept a rein on their power, others ruled their vessels with an iron fist, and a few, like Neil Peter Sorensen, went completely rogue.

In August 1885 a portion of the crew from the schooner Douro arrived in Cooktown with a harrowing story of kidnapping and piracy.   The culprit being their former captain.

The Douro’s first mate Otto Ashe and two other members of the crew claimed that Captain Sorensen was out of control and terrorising communities in the Solomon Islands.  They had grown so concerned that they were prepared to chance being charged with deserting their ship rather than risk being implicated in their captain’s depredations.

Ashe and the others had signed on the Douro at the Portuguese consulate in Sydney in April 1885.   The Douro had previously been named the Albert and had been a British registered vessel.   The ship’s owner said the change of registration had been made to spare it from capture should the Russians go to war with the British, a genuine concern at the time.  In reality, it was more an attempt to place the ship outside the bounds of the British legal system.     Sorensen, no stranger to the South Pacific or operating outside the law, was made captain of the ship.  He had previously served on the Albert but this would be his first time in command.

Map showing Australia and the Solomon Islands.

The Douro sailed from Sydney in late April bound for San Cristobal in the Solomon Islands where they hoped to recruit men to collect beche-de-mere and pearl shell for them.      Sorensen got no takers as the village chiefs remembered him from his visit a year earlier.  He had promised to return the men after his fishing trip, but he never did.   Now, no one wanted to venture out with him.

The Douro stopped at a couple of other islands but only managed to recruit men on the promise they would be gone for four or five months.   This was a lie for Sorensen expected to be away for at least a year and probably longer.   While anchored off Guadalcanal he beat his cook senseless over some perceived minor infraction.  Otto Ashe also claimed that Sorensen continuously bullied and threatened the rest of the crew.   No one was prepared to challenge him, not least because he always went about heavily armed.   But, the treatment of his crew was nothing compared to how he treated the Islanders.

Newspaper coverage at the time.

At Isobel Island he had two chiefs brought out to the schooner.   He only released them when they had six recruits sent onboard in exchange.   Off Wagina island he came across a chief and several of his men out fishing from their canoes.   He welcomed them aboard and then invited the chief to dine with him in his cabin.   Sorensen clapped the chief in irons and went back upstairs with his rifle and threatened to shoot the rest of the Islanders if they did not leave his ship.   Sorensen kept the chief hostage until his people handed over 4,000 beche-de-mer, 24 sea turtles, 1 pig and three “boys,” to be used as unpaid labour.

On one of the Carteret Islands he took his plundering to a new level.   Sorensen kidnapped four girls and brought them on board the schooner for the men’s entertainment.   He went ashore armed to the teeth with a party of men taken from islands earlier and forced the chief to sign over possession of the island to him.   He and his men then went from hut to hut collecting all the weapons they could find.  The haul included an assortment of spears, clubs, and tomahawks, a Snider rifle and two shotguns.   Now that the Islanders were disarmed, he ordered the men to go out and fish the reefs for pearl shell and beche-de-mere to fill his ship’s hold.

A typical South Sea Islands trading schooner circa 1885.

By now the first mate had seen enough.   Fearing that Sorensen would continue his reign of terror through the islands he took the first opportunity to escape his captain’s madness.   On 23 June he, with two other white seamen and seven Solomon Islanders, took off in the schooner’s longboat.    They reported Sorensen’s crimes to the German Consul in New Britain and eventually made their way to Cooktown where they told the Queensland authorities what they had witnessed.

When the Douro sailed into Brisbane in March 1886 it was immediately seized and Sorensen was placed under arrested and charged with assault and robbery.   He was also charged with sodomy but that was later dropped because the principal witness was, “now in a lunatic asylum.”1   Sorensen denied the allegations but he was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison.    It is a sad indictment that the conviction and hefty sentence were unusual in a time when similar depredations in the South Seas went largely unpunished.

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

1    Brisbane Courier, 25 Mar 1886, p.6.

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HMAS Sydney and the sinking of the Emden

HMAS Sydney (I). Photo Courtesy Australian War Memorial.

In late 1914 HMAS Sydney was accompanying the first convoy of AIF troops leaving Australia to fight in the First World War. However, a few days after the convoy left Albany WA, the Sydney was ordered to investigate the presence of a suspicious vessel near the Cocos Islands.  The ship turned out to be the German Cruiser Emden which had been terrorising Allied shipping across the Indian Ocean since the beginning of the war.

On 9 November 1914 the Sydney found the Emden and immediately went into action.     A few days later Stoker Henry Nielsen wrote a letter to his mother living in Rockhampton, Queensland, telling her of their great victory.   The account below has been taken from his letter which appeared in the Morning Bulletin newspaper on 6 January the following year.

Emden before she was destroyed by HMAS Sydney at Cocos Keeling Islands in Nov 1914.

“Just a line to let you know I am still alive and kicking in spite of the Emden.   I have nothing to write about except our scrap with the Emden.   We got a wireless message from Cocos Islands about seven o’clock on the 9th instant saying that there was a German warship lying there with a collier.   We were about fifty or sixty miles away from there, and we altered course and made for Cocos at full speed.”

“We came up with the Emden about 9.30 am and she let go a shot at us at 11,000 yards.   We let go a ranging shot immediately after, and then both ships went at it hammer and tongs. …  Our shots told far more than theirs as we were only slightly damaged and our shots carried away her bridge, foremast, and three funnels in quick succession. Early in the fight the Emden caught fire and continued to burn throughout.”

“One of their shots wrecked our range-finder and killed the men who were working it.”

Emden at Cocos Keeling Islands viewed from a HMAS Sydney boat dated 9 Nov 1914. Courtesy State Library of NSW, FL541160.

“The action lasted an hour and thirty-six minutes.   The Emden got an awful doing and the captain beached her on South Keeling Island.   She continued to fire for a short time after she was aground, but we soon silenced her. …”

“She was still flying the German flag, and when signalled would not reply so we put another broadside into her and she fired another couple of shots.   However, they did not want any more as they pulled the flag down. …  It was late in the afternoon when the Emden hauled down her flag and we went out to sea and cruised about outside until morning.  … We then went back to the Emden to see what we could do for the wounded.   We were there all the remainder of that day fetching off German wounded, and prisoners. …”

“From mainmast to stern she is just a shell, there being only the deck and hull left, all the rest being burnt out.   Her three funnels are lying over the top of one another.   Her foremast is down and her bridge is blown away.   The starboard side of her deck is full of great holes, and she is torn up everywhere.   There are holes in the side that you could walk through. …”

Postcard commemorating the Sydney’s victory..

“During the action we made the best speed the Sydney ever did.   We got just on thirty knots out of her.   Pretty good going!.   …  When we had finished with the Emden’s wounded we came on to [Colombo, Sri Lanka], arriving here last Sunday.”

Stoker Nielsen survived the war and was discharged from the Navy in 1919.

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

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The Loss of the Maria: A Cautionary Tale

Wreck of the Brig Maria with the New Guinea Expedition. Source: Australian Town and Country, 9 Mar 1872, p. 17.

If ever there was a cautionary tale warning of the perils of going to sea ill-prepared, it is that of the tragic loss of the Maria in 1872.

The Marine Board inquiry blamed the captain’s poor navigation and equally poor character for the loss of the ship and so many lives.   But, the underlying causes went back to the purchase of the ship by a committee of young men from Sydney seeking adventure and fortune in the wilds of New Guinea.

The men, members of the New Guinea Gold Prospecting Association, purchased the brig Maria to take them to New Guinea so they could search for gold in that largely unexplored part of the world.    

The brig they bought was over 25 years old and its glory days were long gone.   It had been seeing out its time hauling coal from Newcastle to Sydney.  Its only redeeming feature was its price.  After a month of searching, it was the only ship they had found that they could afford.   One expedition member later mused, “it would, perhaps, have been difficult to find a more unseaworthy old tub anywhere in the Southern waters.”[1]

Things might have turned out differently had they heeded the warning of the port authorities when the Maria was refused clearance to sail under the Passenger Act because the ship was deemed overcrowded, unseaworthy and the 68 passengers (all members of the Prospecting Association) were not adequately provided for in terms of safety equipment and provisions.    Rather than address the problems, the committee chose to sign on all but a handful of the passengers as members of the crew so the Act no longer applied.

Expedition members onboard the Maria before sailing from Sydney. Photo Courtesy SLQ.

Alarm bells should have rung out loud and clear when, at the last moment, the captain they had hired refused to take the ship to sea.   Though he feigned illness it seems he had begun to doubt the wisdom of taking the overcrowded, unseaworthy tub on the 3,700kms passage through the Coral Sea at the height of the North Australian cyclone season. 

Then, rather than spend any time recruiting another qualified master mariner they accepted the First Mate’s offer to captain the ship.  It was put to a vote and he was immediately elected to the post with barely a moment’s thought given to whether he was actually up to the task.

The Maria finally sailed from Sydney on 25 January 1872 with 75 people on board.   The first few days passed uneventfully but for friction between the Prospecting Association’s members.   They broadly fell into one of two groups: well-heeled, well-educated adventurous young gentlemen from some of the colonies leading families, and working-class miners and labourers hoping to make money on the new goldfield.   It was probably the first time any of them had spent time with the others more or less as equals and the mix proved volatile at times.

Then when they were only days away from reaching New Guinea they were struck by a ferocious storm.   The Maria was tossed around for five days and sustained serious damage.   After one-third of the expedition members pleaded to be put ashore, the majority voted to turn around and head for Moreton Bay to make repairs and disembark those who had had enough.   

Wreck of the Maria. Image Courtesy SLQ.

But, in its damaged state the Maria could not make its way south into the prevailing trade winds so the captain decided to sail for Cleveland Bay (present-day Townsville) instead.   However, that would require him to find his way through the Great Barrier Reef.   He only had a general coastal chart with a scale of one inch to 50 nautical miles (approx. 1cm to 40km).   Such a small scale provided him with little detail and no doubt less comfort that they would reach Townsville unscathed.

With a lookout above watching for submerged hazards the Maria gingerly made her way west and soon became entangled in the massive maze of coral reefs and shoals.   Thinking they were approaching Magnetic Island and the safety of Cleveland Bay, the captain was unknowingly approaching the coast some 90kms further north.   Then, in the early hours of 26 February, their luck finally ran out.   The Maria ran onto Bramble Reef off Hinchinbrook Island and began taking on water.   A few hours later she sank with just her masts showing above the surface.

Before that happened, Captain Stratman, with a handful of others, had already left the ship in one of their three boats leaving everyone else to their fate.    The class divide among the expedition members made it almost impossible to coordinate their efforts.   No one would take orders from anyone else. Some eventually made it to Cardwell in the two remaining boats, others got ashore on makeshift rafts.   But of the 75 people who left Sydney, 35 lost their lives.  


There were several times when different decisions might have prevented the tragedy.  While determination to overcome obstacles is often applauded, it needs to be tempered with a degree of prudence.

[1] Forster. W, Nautical Magazine, Sept 1872, p. 809.

The full story is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters available through Amazon.

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

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No Charts, No Worries

A schooner of the early 1800s. Courtesy State Library of Queensland.

When Captain George Browning sailed the small schooner Caledonia from Sydney in December 1831, he intended to follow the coast north as far as the Tropic of Capricorn.   There he was to collect salvage from a ship that had been wrecked in the Bunker Islands and return it to Sydney to be sold.   But on the way, he was to call in at the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement to collect a whaleboat the crew had used to escape the wreck.   That was where things began to go wrong for the young master mariner.

While anchored in Moreton Bay his ship was seized by a band of convicts who sent the crew ashore and ordered Browning to take them to the tiny South Pacific Island of Rotuma some 1,500 nautical miles or 3,000 kilometres away over open ocean.   See my blog “The Caledonia’s perilous last voyage,” for a more detailed account.

Among the many challenges he faced, he had no charts covering the South Pacific.  Yet, Browning had to find a way to deliver his unwanted passengers to their destination if he was to have any chance of saving his ship and preserving his own life.   He consulted his “Epitome of Practical Navigation,” a book all master mariners kept close at hand.   The regularly updated volume was considered the standard text on maritime navigation and was packed with charts and tables to help mariners navigate the world’s oceans.   

Example from The American Practical Navigator, 1837. There were several such books used by master mariners.

Browning referred to a table of South Pacific Islands with their corresponding geographic coordinates.  With this information, he flipped over one of his coastal charts and drew a grid labelling the key lines of longitudes and latitudes for the waters he would be sailing and marked the various known islands and features identified in the table, albeit with many reefs, shoals and other hazards left unrecorded.   Notwithstanding its limitations, he could now take observations and plot his whereabouts and relate that to his destination – Rotuma – and any other islands in the course of his travels.   

Using his makeshift chart, Browning navigated from Moreton Bay to New Caledonia where they stopped to collect fresh drinking water.   From there he charted a course to Rotuma and when he was directed to leave that island at a moment’s notice and make for Wallis Island he did that too.  

Perhaps the chart’s greatest value came as they sailed towards Wallis Island.   A couple of the convicts warned Browning that their leader intended to scuttle the Caledonia and do away with its captain once they had arrived.   He knew Wallis Island lay a short distance over the horizon and they would likely arrive late that afternoon.  

He shaped the sails to slow the ship’s progress until nightfall.   Then, during the hours of darkness, he picked up speed again and was able to slip by Wallis thereby prolonging his life a little longer.   A couple of days later they pulled in at the Samoan island of Savai’i.   There the Caledonia was scuttled but Browning was befriended by a local chief and escaped the convicts’ clutches.  He eventually returned to Australia to tell his amazing story.

The full story is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters available through Amazon.

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

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