The Tragic Loss of RMS Quetta

In 1890 the Quetta sank bow first in just 3 minutes. Courtesy: State Library of Queensland.

In 1890 Queensland experienced one of its worst maritime disasters when the passenger steamer Quetta sank in Torres Strait in just three minutes with the loss of 133 lives.

The R.M.S. Quetta was a 3,300-ton coal-powered, iron-clad steamer measuring 116 metres (380 feet) in length and could travel at a top speed of 13 knots (24 kms per hour).   She was built in 1881 and on this voyage from Brisbane to London she carried nearly 300 people – passengers and crew.

At 9.14 on the evening of 28 February a sharp jolt and a shudder ran through the Quetta as she was being piloted through the Albany Passage.   Initially, the pilot and captain were more perplexed than alarmed.  The pilot was sure they were miles from any known hazards and it didn’t feel like they had hit anything substantial.  None-the-less Captain Sanders followed protocol and ordered the engines stopped, the lifeboats got ready and the carpenter to sound the wells.

The Quetta Saloon from The Illustrated London News, 1881.

Moments later the carpenter cried out “she’s sinking.”   Water was pouring into the ship at an unimaginable rate.    What no one realised at the time was they had struck an uncharted rock pinnacle right in the middle of the main shipping channel through Torres Strait.   A gapping hole had been torn in the Quetta’s hull from bow to midship one to two metres wide.  

The ship was already starting to settle by the bow as Captain Sanders ran aft encouraging passengers to make their way there.    At the time many of the first-class passengers were in the saloon rehearsing for an upcoming concert and were oblivious to what was taking place outside.   The crew were still frantically trying to get the lifeboats out when water began lapping at their feet only a minute or two later.

Then the stern reared up out of the water and the ship plummeted below the surface of the sea spilling scores of people into the water.   Many others were trapped in the saloon, their cabins or under the ship’s sun awnings and drowned.  

RMS Quetta showing the sun awnings covering the decks. Photo courtesy SLQ

The Quetta sank in just 3 minutes.   Most of those who survived were already on the aft deck when the ship sank or were lucky to swim clear as she slid below the surface.  

All was confusion in the water as people thrashed around in panic trying to find something to keep themselves afloat.  Eventually a measure of order was restored and one of the lifeboats, now floating free, was used to rescue as many people as it would hold.   A second lifeboat, though damaged, was filled with people and they all made their way to land a few kilometres away.

About one hundred people made it to safety on Little Adolphus Island where they spent an uncomfortable night but they were alive.   Captain Sanders was among them.   The next morning he set off in the lifeboat manned by some of his men and made for Somerset to report the loss of the ship and get help for those still missing.   Apart from the people he had left on the island without food or water, there were many others who had washed up on other islands or were still clinging to pieces of wreckage out in the Strait.

When the news reached authorities on Thursday Island a government steamer was dispatched to search for survivors.   Fishing boats from Somerset also combed the waters in the days that followed.    In all, about 160 people were saved, many had stories of lucky escapes.

The full story of the Quetta’s loss is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters, available as a kindle eBook or paperback through Amazon.

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

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The Norna and the Conman Commodore

The Norna’s sister ship Cornet.

In the early 1900s many hard-working sailing vessels saw out their days plying the waters between Australia and the islands of the South Pacific.   Few, however, would have had such a fascinating history as that of the Norna.

The Norna was built in New York in 1879 as a luxury ocean-going schooner rigged yacht.   She was lavishly fitted out and built as a fleet-footed racer.  For the next decade or more she held her own in many long-distance ocean races.  

Then, in 1895 she was purchased by self-styled “Commander” Nicholas Weaver, purporting to represent a Boston newspaper empire wishing to set up shop in New York.   He was, in fact, a brazen conman.  

A few years earlier Weaver had fallen foul of the law and only escaped gaol by turning state’s evidence against his partner.    He then hustled himself off to the west coast, where he no doubt perfected his craft.

Nicholas J Weaver, The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (Honolulu), 17 April 1900, p. 7.

Now back in New York he planned to take the Norna on a round-the-world cruise sending stories to be syndicated to the Sunday newspapers.   He found financial backers to cover his expenses for a share of the profits and then sailed for the warm climes of the Caribbean.  

There he made himself a favourite among the members of the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club representing himself as the “Acting Commodore” of the prestigious Atlantic Yacht Club.    

The good people of Bermuda were not necessarily gullible, nor anyone else he separated from their money.

When someone sails into harbour aboard a 115-foot luxury yacht with a sailing crew of ten plus a cook and steward, they are bound to make an impression.    Weaver himself was handsome, self-assured and very charismatic.  

He was soon hosting Poker parties on his yacht and proved uncannily successful.   He funded his lavish lifestyle by forwarding bills to his backers, passing dud cheques and chalking up credit with local merchants.  

Then suddenly one morning, Bermuda awoke to find the Norna had cleared out in the dead of night.

Yacht Norna leaving Honolulu. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (Honolulu), 17 April 1900, p. 7.

His backers eventually realised they were never going to recoup their money and disbanded.   But that did not deter Weaver from continuing his round-the-world cruise.

He visited many ports over the next couple of years where he dazzled the well-heeled with his largesse, while taking them to the cleaners at the Poker table.    He did so in North Africa and ports around the Mediterranean always skipping out before debts became due.

At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, in April 1898, the American flagged Norna found herself in hostile waters.   However, Weaver, despite his many character flaws, was a superb mariner.   Realising his yacht might be seized he set sail at his best speed with the Spanish navy in hot pursuit.    Thanks to his skill and the luxury yacht’s fast sailing lines they outpaced the Spaniards and crossed into British waters at Gibraltar.   There he repaid their welcome by passing a fraudulent cheque for $5,000 and was soon on his way.

During his travels around Europe Weaver made the acquaintance of a man named Petersen, a fellow grifter.    Together, they would prove a formidable team.  

Weaver and Pedersen would arrive in a new city independently only to be introduced to one another by someone local, or they would meet by chance as strangers.  Regardless of how they met, the result was always the same.   They would get a high-stakes Poker game going where one of them would be spectacularly successful.   

When Weaver reached Ceylon, present day Sri Lanka, he was introduced to Petersen who just happened to have arrived by steamer.     They quickly got to work separating the wealthy from their wealth.   The pair repeated the same stunt at Sumatra, Hong Kong, and Yokoyama.  At each port they managed to fleece the local gentry and make off before alarm bells rang.   

In Yokohama Weaver passed himself off as the commodore of the New York Yacht Club and flew its pennant from his vessel.   Weaver and Pedersen befriended each other and enjoyed many Poker parties on the Norna.   Then, one morning, the yacht was gone.   Pedersen joined the chorus baying for Weaver’s blood, claiming he too was owed a large sum of money.   He quickly took passage on the next available steamer.   

The Norna made its way to Honolulu where Weaver and Petersen briefly reunited.   Weaver then went on to Samoa and then to New Zealand.   At Auckland he repeated his well-rehearsed con, though this time without the able assistance of Petersen who had remained in Hawaii.  

Schooner Norna circa 1911 now sporting a cabin on her aft deck. The Sun, 17 July 1911, p. 1.

Weaver racked up considerable debts but before he could make his departure the Norna was seized as surety.    Weaver caught the steamer to Sydney vowing to return with the funds to release his yacht.    Not surprisingly, he vanished.   The yacht was bought by a Sydney merchant and brought across the Tasman in June 1900. 

She was stripped of her luxurious fittings, and the cabins removed opening a spacious hold to befit her new working life.   The Norna passed through several hands over the next 13 years.   She served as a pearling lugger in Torres Strait and traded among the Pacific Islands.   She even salvaged copper and other valuables from old shipwrecks far out in the Coral Sea.  But, in June 1913 she, herself, was wrecked on Masthead Reef just 50kms northeast of Gladstone Harbour.   So ended the Norna’s fascinating and colourful career.

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

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The Huia schooner – Elegant and Fast

Huia topsail schooner

The New Zealand topsail schooner Huia has long been heralded as the best-looking vessel of her type and one of the fastest sailing.  

Launched at Kaipara Harbour New Zealand in 1894, the Huia was built using Kauri planks over a puriri timber frame.   Measuring 35 metres (115 ft) in length and registered at 196 tons, she was purpose built for the timber trade.   For the first few years of her long career she shipped lumber to Sydney and brought coal back from Newcastle.

The Huia soon earned a reputation as a very fast sailer on the notoriously dangerous Trans-Tasman route.   In 1895 Captain McKenzie reportedly made the run from Newcastle to Kaipara Harbour heads in four days and six hours.   For most of the passage she was pushed along by gale force winds while the seas continuously swept over her deck.   

Topsail schooner HUIA

On another voyage she was said to have logged 510 nautical miles (944 kms) in the first 48 hours after clearing Newcastle.   With every square inch of canvas out she clipped along at 14 to 16 knots.    That is a staggering 26-30 kilometres per hour.

Her fast Tasman Sea crossings, however, did not come without risk.   After one “tempestuous passage” the Newcastle Herald reported, “the gales met by the little vessel were from south-west and south, and they were accompanied by heavy seas throughout, the decks being kept in a chronic state of flood.   Whilst diving bows into the seas on Tuesday last Huia lost her jibboom, and a day or two previous her fore shroud was carried away.”(1)

In 1897 the little ship was fitted with an auxiliary engine and continued making record breaking passages between New Zealand ports and across the Tasman.   In 1912 she was sold to the Nobel Explosives Company.   And, through the first few decades of the 20th Century her classic lines made her a favourite vessel in many Australian ports from Cairns to Hobart, and from Melbourne to Fremantle.

By the 1930s the age of sail had past. The beautiful “white-hulled” sailing vessel was one of only two top-sail schooners working out of Melbourne.

Huia schooner. Photo courtesy State Library of Victoria.

In 1950 the ship began carrying cargo and passengers between islands in the South Pacific.   Her time came to an end in 1951 when she was wrecked on a coral reef in New Caledonia.  

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

(1) Newcastle Herald, 8 June 1895, p. 4.

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Diving for the Gothenburg Gold

Wood engraving published in The illustrated Australian news for home readers. Photo courtesy SLV.

On 24 February 1875 the steamer Gothenburg ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef and sank during a ferocious storm with the loss of over 100 lives.   A fortune in gold also went to the bottom.

That the Gothenburg had sunk with 3,000 ounces (93 kgs) of gold belonging to the English, Scottish and Australian Chartered Bank did not go unnoticed when the ship was reported lost.   Brisbane salvage diver James Putwain partnered with the owner of the small coastal steamer and the two started steaming towards Bowen as quickly as they could.  

There, Putwain hired a small fishing boat and some local men to help with his air pump.   By noon on 7 March, they were at the wreck site, only six days after hearing of the disaster.  The steamer continued north, leaving Putwain and his team to bring up the gold. 

Putwain first tried diving from the fishing boat but a strong current prevented him from reaching the wreck.   He then built a platform attached to the wreck’s mainmast and set up his diving apparatus on that.   Donning his heavy diving suit and helmet, he climbed down the rigging to the sunken ship’s deck and soon made entry into the captain’s cabin.   On this first attempt his air hose became entangled in the wreckage.   Putwain had some anxious moments until he cleared it and returned to the surface to give more explicit instructions to his new and inexperienced assistants.  

S.S. Gothenburg docked at a wharf. Photo Courtesy SLQ

His third descent met with success.   Putwain found the safe containing the gold in the remains of the  cabin and had it hoisted to the surface.   Before leaving the wreck he tried descending further into the ship but only got a little way before running out of hose.   But there, he saw the haunting vision of two women suspended in the water seemingly embracing.   Unable to get close enough to identify the bodies, he returned to the surface with the macabre image burned into his memory. 

With the gold secured he returned to Bowen to report his find to the Harbourmaster and deposit the precious metal in the local bank.

Then the enterprise got mired in legal wrangling.   The English, Scottish and Australian Chartered Bank offered James Putwain and his partner £1,000 for retrieving the £9,000 worth of gold.   Putwain and his partner felt £4,000 was more appropriate compensation.   The case went to the Vice Admiralty Court in Brisbane, where Putwain claimed he had spent nearly £500 in the salvage operation, that it had been a risky endeavour and that the box was found in a precarious position where it could have easily plummeted into deeper, inaccessible, water to be lost for ever. 

The bank argued that the amount demanded by the salvors was excessive and Putwain’s account of the salvage operation was exaggerated.     Nonetheless, the judge found in favour of the salvors, awarding them approximately one third the value of the gold, £3,000.   

Not happy with the verdict, the bank appealed the decision before the Privy Council in London.    Almost two years after the Gothenburg sank the Privy Council found in favour of the salvors and upheld the original judgement, ordering the bank to pay Putwain and his partner.

A second salvage operation was mounted in the weeks after the Gothenburg was lost.     The diver Samuel Dunwoodie arrived on the wreck on 14 March, a week after Putwain, unaware that the gold had already been retrieved.    Nonetheless, Dunwoodie recovered much of the cabin luggage and many of the personal effects belonging to the passengers.   His team also removed the ship’s two steam winches before the weather turned foul, forcing them to abandon the wreck.

The tragic story of the Gothenburg shipwreck is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters, available as an eBook or paperback through Amazon.

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

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The Countess of Minto’s brush with Disaster

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In 1851 two men pulled off a sailing feat few thought possible.   They had been the only hands on board the Countess of Minto when it vanished during a violent storm stranding the rest of the crew on a remote desert island.    Everyone thought the ship had foundered but four weeks later it sailed into Sydney Harbour.  To everyone’s astonishment, the two men had survived and saved their ship.

On 25 August 1851 the 300-ton barque was anchored off Lady Elliot Island on the Great Barrier Reef to collect guano, a valuable commodity at the time.    John Johnson and Joseph Pass had just returned to the ship having taken the captain and the rest of the crew ashore when the weather started to turn.  

By midday the wind was howling, high seas raged around them and torrential rain was lashing the deck.   It was now far too dangerous to take to the jolly boat to join their shipmates on the island.  They would have to ride out the storm as best they could. 

Johnson and Pass let out the anchors as far as they could and hoped they would remain firmly dug into the seabed.   The ship surged and the chains strained with each powerful swell, and for a time they held. 

Then, around 11.30 that night a very thick squall struck.   The force of the wind and the seas were too great, and the anchors started dragging.   The barque was swept out into the deep water of the Coral Sea, somehow missing the island and surrounding reefs.   Johnson and Pass could only pray they survived the night.

Johnson was the ship’s carpenter and Pass the steward.   Neither were part of the regular sailing crew but it is clear that one or perhaps both men possessed a wealth of sailing experience.  And, at least one of them could navigate using sextant and chronometer.

The next morning, Johnson and Pass found nothing but deep blue ocean extending from horizon to the horizon.   By now the wind had eased and the men took stock of their situation.  

The two men were relieved to find the Countess of Minto had survived the storm with only superficial damage.    The hull, masts, and sails were intact, but they were now drifting aimlessly under bare poles at the mercy of the wind and current.  

Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Sept 1851, p. 2.

Both anchors were still dangling at the ends of their 45 fathoms (90 metres) of chain.   The deck was littered with ropes and other gear that had broken loose but escaped being washed overboard.   The longboat had been swept off the forward hatch and was now being dragged along behind the ship, full of water.   The jolly boat, likewise, was trailing behind.

They let go the anchors being unable to haul them up by themselves.   They set up a boom with block and tackle and retrieved the two boats.   Then they tidied up the deck.   At midnight they pumped eight inches of water from the bilge and continued working through til dawn.

They finally hoisted some canvas and bore towards the south-east.   For the first time since being swept from their anchorage nearly 36 hours earlier, they had control of the ship.     

On Wednesday evening, 27 August, the winds picked up having dropped off for most of the day.   They now tried to set a north-westerly course to return to Lady Elliot Island and rescue their shipmates.  But in the face of contrary winds and hampered for want of manpower, they struggled to get back.  

For over a week the pair battled to return.    But despite their untiring efforts the ship continued drifting southward and away from the coast.    By the following Friday, 5 September, the men were utterly exhausted and further away than ever from their shipmates.

Approximate course of the Countess of Minto.

They finally decided to go with the wind and make for Sydney to get help.   Four days later they were off Port Macquarie and only 300 kms from their destination.    There they met with another ship who lent some hands to help the exhausted duo the rest of the way.

On 20 September the pair sailed into Sydney Harbour to be greeted by their captain who had just arrived and reported his ship lost.   Johnson and Pass were commended for their “meritorious conduct” and each rewarded with £10 by the insurance underwriters.

The Countess of Minto’s incredible story is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters, available as an eBook or paperback through Amazon.

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

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