The Indian Queen had a well-deserved reputation as a fast sailer on the England-Australia run. So much so, that in Melbourne its captain had bet the master of the equally fast, and appropriately named, Greyhound, to a race back to England. But the wager would cost Captain Brewer far more than he bargained for.
On 13 March 1859 the 1040-ton clipper left port bound for Liverpool with a cargo of wool, gold and 40 passengers, a day ahead of the Greyhound. Once outside Port Phillip Heads, Captain Brewer bore south-east to pick up the strong westerly winds swirling uninterruptedly around the Southern Ocean.
So intent on beating the Greyhound, Captain Brewer threw caution to the wind and took his ship below 60° latitude, much further south than was prudent.
The ship sliced its way through the sea at 12 knots (22 km/h) and made as much as 200-270 nautical miles (300-500 kms) per day. After a fortnight of good sailing, they were halfway to Cape Horn and many thousands of kilometres from land.
Then the weather turned foul.
It was already bitterly cold that far south. But now the deck was being lashed by freezing rain and sleet. Visibility was much reduced by the rain and a persistent fog, but Brewer kept all sail up in his quest to reach Liverpool before the Greyhound. His only concession to the conditions was to post lookouts forward to warn of any impending dangers.
Then, about 2 o’clock in the morning on 1 April, when they were about 58° S and 151° W, the Indian Queen crashed into a towering mountain of ice. It suddenly loomed from nowhere and the ship struck hard and came to rest broadside to the iceberg before anyone knew it was there. The impact tore away the bowsprit and a long section of the starboard bulwark. Tons of ice crashed down on to the deck, destroying the starboard lifeboat.
The collision also sheared off the foremast just above the deck, felled the upper portions of the mainmast and strew the deck with a tangle of rigging, timber spars and billowing clouds of canvas. More debris hung over the portside into the inky black water. Amid this scene of carnage, only the aft mast remained standing.
By the time the first of the passengers made it on deck to see what had so violently awoken them, they found a scene of utter devastation. “So dark was it we could only see a spectral blueish white mass,” one passenger recalled, “and the black waves washing up its sides.”
Perhaps more alarmingly the poop deck was deserted. The portside lifeboat was missing, as was the captain and most of the crew.
When the ship slammed into the iceberg the captain and most of his men rushed the only undamaged boat, fearing for their lives. No one could live for long in those icy waters had the ship sunk. Gone was any notion of getting women and children off first or the captain remaining with his ship. It was every man for himself.
Captain Brewer, the first mate, 13 sailors and two stowaways immediately put off in the undamaged lifeboat and pulled away from the stricken vessel, expecting it to sink below the surface at any moment. Brewer even left his own 16-year-old son, one of the ship’s apprentices, to his fate in his undignified haste to save his own skin.
When the ship’s carpenter, Thomas Howard, got on deck he immediately sounded the pumps and found they were not taking on any water. The hull had not been breached by the impact. Meanwhile, the Second Mate, Philip Syratt, took charge of the few remaining sailors and got them to work. He and Howard then called out through the howling wind and murky mist for the captain and the others to return.
But, as the lifeboat appeared to draw towards the Indian Queen a large wave swept over its stern and filled it with ice cold water. Panic overtook the crowded boat and they lost their oars in the confusion. Ropes and life buoys were thrown towards them but to no avail. The lifeboat with 17 souls onboard was soon swallowed by the mist and was never seen again.
Syratt organised the crew and passengers into work parties and cleared the tons of ice from the deck and cut away much of the rigging still dangling over the port side. They then jury-rigged sails and bore north to get clear of the ice.
Forty days later the Indian Queen limped into the Chilean port of Valparaiso with no further loss of life.
© Copyright C.J. Ison, Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2021.
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