- A.N. Other
- Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2012 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Lieutenant Commander Tony Maskell, RAN (Rtd)
OVER THE YEARS since the arrival of the First Fleet there have been a number of notable shipwrecks. Examples can be found from the earliest times to the recent grounding of a container ship off the north island of New Zealand. While not related to our region, the tragic loss of a large cruise ship off the Italian coast on a fateful Friday 13th of January 2012 is a reminder to all of Dangers to Navigation.
The common denominator was that all went ashore, when this should not have happened. In the early examples of sailing vessels there is some excuse with their restricted manoeuvrability, unsurveyed areas and a lack of charts, but prudent seamanship might have saved some of them. In other cases, prudent seamanship was still a factor, though weather stress also played a part. In more recent examples, prudent seamanship was definitely missing, and in one case ‘too many cooks spoilt the broth’. In the 18th century, most ships relied on fairly simple navigation equipment -the compass, unreliable charts, a lead line, perhaps a barometer and a sextant. In addition, naval ships most likely had a chronometer, a larger and more experienced crew, and most importantly good lookouts. By the middle of the 20th century, there were gyro compasses, radar, radio beacons, echo sounders, very good charts, navigational directions, well trained and certificated watchkeeping officers, but still they needed experience and a good lookout. In the 21st century we have GPS -Global Positioning System -giving an instant location of a ship on the surface of the world to a very small tolerance of distance. But ships still founder. Here are a small number of them from our local region and all taken from peacetime experiences.
HMS Sirius – Norfolk Island – 20 March 1790
Sirius, the flagship of the First Fleet, had arrived in 1788 and remained under the control of the Governor of New South Wales. She was an ex-merchantman of 512 tons burden, fitted with 10 guns and a crew of 160 men, and commanded by Captain John Hunter, RN. Both Sirius and her consort the smaller HMS Supply had been sent from Port Jackson to establish a settlement at Norfolk Island. A total of 275 men, women and children were to form the new settlement which in turn would relieve the pressure on Port Jackson, which was running short on provisions. Arriving off Norfolk Island in bad weather they were unable to land at the intended settlement site of Sydney Bay, accordingly they sailed around to Cascade Bay where most of the settlers were landed over two days. However, the weather worsened, and the two ships put to sea, reappearing off Sydney Bay three days later. Here Supply managed to discharge her stores. Sirius came into the Bay and was brought head to wind, but did not anchor. Just as the longboats were being loaded Captain Hunter found his ship was rapidly being set towards the reefs. Sirius tacked to remain clear, but the wind shifted again moving her towards danger. The anchors were let go, to no avail, and she was driven onto the reef. As soon as she ran aground as much as possible was thrown overboard. A make shift ‘breeches buoy’ was set up by floating ashore a barrel with a rope attached, which was made fast to a Norfolk Pine, and all the crew scrambled ashore. No human lives were lost. In the following weeks she was stripped of everything including the above-waterline timbers, to be used at the settlement. The loss of this ship was very serious both for the settlement at Norfolk Island and that at Port Jackson, since she was the primary means of communication with the rest of the world and the provider of replacement food and stores desperately needed in both locations. A subsequent court martial at Portsmouth in 1792 held that Captain Hunter and his men had done everything they could to preserve his ship and he was honourably acquitted.
HMS Pandora –Great Barrier Reef – 29August 1791
Pandora was a 24-gun sixth rate ship of 524 tons burthen under the command of Captain Edward Edwards, RN. She had a complement of 134 men, plus 14 mutineers captured from HMS Bounty. While the new colony of New South Wales was grimly hanging onto the eastern seaboard of Terra Australis, the Admiralty had sent a ship to find and apprehend any mutineers from Bounty. Fourteen men were taken into custody at Tahiti and placed into a makeshift quarter deck prison known as ‘Pandora’s Box’. The ship then spent another three months searching islands in the south west Pacific without finding any other mutineers. Fletcher Christian and his accomplices remained relatively safe on the then unknown Pitcairn lsland. Pandora’s secondary mission was to chart Endeavour Strait between northern Australia and New Guinea. Heading west from the Solomon Islands they encountered the eastern edge of the Great Barrier Reef on 25 August 1791, and then headed in a southerly direction seeking an opening. Three days were spent in this search and at night the ship retired out to sea.
At last finding a gap, the ship’s yawl was launched to take soundings in a place now known as Pandora’s Entrance, some 200 km south of Cape York. As Pandora had already lost two boats with 14 crew, she could not afford any further risks and as dusk approached Captain Edwards ordered the return of the yawl to his ship. As this was being done the ship struck a coral outcrop, however with a rising tide the ship was released and was able to anchor at about midnight. The hull was badly damaged and despite attempts at lightening ship and making repairs she quickly sank, with the loss of 31 crew and 4 prisoners. The remainder made their way safely to Timor, using the ship’s boats. At a later court martial Captain Edwards and his officers were exonerated from the loss of HMS Pandora.
HMS Porpoise and the ship Cato Great Barrier Reef – 17 August 1803
Following his great work in exploring and charting the Australian coastline, Matthew Flinders intended returning to England in his ship HMS Investigator, but as she was considered incapable of the voyage he transferred as a passenger in Porpoise, sailing in convoy with the ships Cato and Bridgewater. On the night of 17 August 1803 Porpoise grounded on an uncharted Barrier Reef shoal. To warn her consorts she fired a gun, but this was too late for Cato who also grounded. Bridgewater managed to veer clear but continued on her voyage; on reaching India she reported the loss of the other ships. Both stranded vessels quickly broke up, but their crews scrambled on to the sandy cays. With no sign of rescue Flinders and the master of Cato, together with 12 seamen, took the largest of the salvaged ship’s boats (named Hope) in which they reached Port Jackson. A rescue mission reached the reef on 8 October and saved the crews from both ships, with only three lives being lost. Flinders was given command of the colonial schooner Cumberland to resume his homeward passage. With this small 29-ton vessel, in poor condition and running short of provisions, they were forced to put into the Île de France. The French Governor repudiated the safe conduct of Flinders and he, his crew and ship were placed under arrest. It was another five years before the release of Flinders, with Cumberland having the distinction of being our first ship lost as a prize of war.
SS Runic –Middleton Reef – 19 February 1961
Runic was a large well found twin screw refrigerated cargo ship of 13,587 grt of the Shaw Savill & Albion line, normally employed on voyages from the United Kingdom to Australia and New Zealand. Under the command of Captain Sendall she had a crew of 72, plus two passengers and the wives of two officers. The ship sailed from Brisbane for Auckland; the Captain was determined to arrive in Auckland before a competing German vessel could take the single available berth. The weather at the time of sailing was heavy drizzle and ominous clouds. These conditions precluded the taking of any sights of the sun or stars so that the ship was running on ‘dead reckoning’ to determine her position, but she was heading straight for Middleton Reef, roughly 120 miles north of Lord Howe Island. Travelling at 17 knots, she hit the edge of the reef with her bow held fast and the after part of the vessel in deep water. A ‘MAY DAY’ distress call was sent out, however a quick survey indicated that the hull was relatively undamaged. Unfortunately over the following days the weather deteriorated and the ship began pounding onto the reef. Another merchant ship, Brighton, stood by for three days but was unable to close the reef because of storm conditions. Later HMAS Vendetta and two tugs from Sydney arrived in an attempt to salvage the vessel. Up to this stage the crew had stayed aboard and assisted in trying to salvage the ship. Other Shaw Savill & Albion ships Alaric and Illyric brought pumps and supplies and fuel from Newcastle. Five weeks after the grounding kedge anchors had been laid and tugs secured to pull her off the reef at the next high water. Before this was possible another storm arrived and dashed all hope of refloating Runic. Huge seas swung her further on to the reef, tearing open the hull. Over the years further storms have taken their toll and only a small portion of her remains above the sea. However, her presence did not stop the trawler Fuka Maru grounding on the reef and becoming a total wreck.
HMS Nottingham – Lord Howe Island – 7 July 2002
Nottingham, a Type 42 destroyer of 4,820 tons displacement under the command of CMDR Richard Farrington, RN with a complement of 285 sailed from Portsmouth on 18 March 2002 for a nine month Far East deployment. Since work up a number of recent changes had been made to key personnel; the Executive Officer (XO), Navigating Officer (NO) and three bridge watchkeepers were all new.
Nottingham sailed from Cairns for Wellington with passage planned to transit the Great Barrier Reef with an en route recreational visit to Lord Howe Island. Planning for an anchorage at Lord Howe lacked detail and little account appears to have been taken of the nearby Wolf Rock. This rock is named after the ex-Royal Naval brig Wolf which, working as a whaler, sank after striking the then uncharted reef in August 1837.
After anchoring, the XO and a number of the ships’ company went ashore using boats and the ship’s Lynx helicopter. A long swell coming from the south caused difficulties in operating the Lynx and the helicopter was waved off three times when trying to land on deck. At 1941 the Lynx did land and returned the XO to the ship, when the CO then decided to proceed ashore giving temporary command to the XO. The Captain had spoken with the PWO and the OOW before going ashore about the possibility of weighing anchor to reduce the roll of the ship in order to recover the Lynx. Later the XO made his way to the bridge, to commence weighing anchor and getting underway. The NO gave instructions to the OOW to run a track in the vicinity of the anchorage while awaiting the return of the helicopter. After running at 12 knots for 28 minutes the ship altered course to join the track to Wellington; the new course was not checked for hazards, either visually, by radar or on the chart.
With the Lynx now approaching and after discussion between the Bridge and the Operations Room it was decided to alter course 90 degrees to recover the helicopter. The ship was now 2 nm away from danger, the helicopter landed at 2153 and minutes later the ship went aground. Immediately following the stranding, the Captain was on the bridge with the XO close behind. The ship took a list of 10 to 15 degrees to starboard, engines were rung for full astern for one minute then slow astern. When judged safe, just before midnight, the ship was anchored.
On 9 July HMNZ Ships Endeavour and Te Mana arrived off Lord Howe and an RAN Clearance Diving Team was flown in, all rendering valuable assistance. After extensive survey and emergency repairs, with a badly damaged bow, the ship was towed stern first to Newcastle and later to Sydney Harbour where she was loaded onto a semi-submersible heavy lift ship for a voyage to Portsmouth. Repairs took more than one year at a total cost of £40M. An inquiry was held onboard HMNZS Endeavour, followed by a court martial in England where the Captain, XO, NO and OOW all pleaded guilty to their part in causing the ship to run aground, and various sentences were issued.
MV Pasha Bulker–Newcastle – 8 June 2007
Of all the ships mentioned the Pasha Bulker will be remembered as she potentially could have caused serious disruption to our largest exporting port but thankfully she was ‘the one that got away’.
Pasha Bulker was a 76,741 dwt Panamax bulk carrier built in Japan in 2006 by Sasebo Heavy Industries. While Japanese owned she was operated under a Panamanian flag by the Danish company of Lauritzen Bulk Carriers. She had a crew of 22 men.
The ship was one of 56 moored off the coast awaiting coal loading berths when a storm warning was issued suggesting they proceed to sea. Pasha Bulker, together with 10 other ships, did not heed the warning. When the storm hit she started to drag her anchor and was unable to raise power quickly enough to clear the coast. The ship ran aground off Nobbys Beach near the entrance to the major coal exporting port of Newcastle. With the help of a salvage crew this nearly new ship was refloated on 2 July and towed into Newcastle Harbour for emergency repairs and then towed to Japan for major structural repairs. Perhaps with a touch of naval irony the ship has been renamed Drake. Charges against the Master did not proceed as there was reasonable doubt that negligence could be proved.
MV Rena – Astrolabe Reef – 5 October 2011
Rena was a Panamax container ship of 38,788 grt, built in Kiel Germany and since 2010 owned by Daina Shipping and registered in Monrovia; she had a crew of 25 men. Her engines were coupled to a single propeller providing a speed of 21 knots. On a five-year charter to the Mediterranean Shipping Company the ship had sailed from Napier for Tauranga with 1,368 containers, eight of which contained hazardous materials. The ship was carrying 1,700 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and 200 tonnes of diesel oil. In clear conditions on the evening of 5 October 2011, proceeding at full speed, Rena struck Astrolabe Reef in the Bay of Plenty only a few miles from her intended destination.
The Captain and Second Officer, who was the officer of the watch at the time of the grounding, were arrested by New Zealand authorities and charged with operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk. It is believed that for some unexplained reason the ship had deviated away from its planned route, a factor which should have been known to an experienced watchkeeper.
The incident aroused considerable media attention regarding possible damage to local beaches, fauna and fishing grounds. Most of the oil was successfully removed from the ship and some containers were recovered. Following storm action on 8 January 2012 the ship broke in two and a few days later the stern section sank.
Rena aground – Asrolabe Reef New Zealand Herald
Human error appears a factor in all the incidents mentioned in these examples of Dangers to Navigation and in many instances prudent seamanship could have saved a ship. Perhaps the lessons learned from the Nottingham court martial should ring in our ears where the President stated: ‘The most important message from this court martial is that the highest navigational standards must be maintained at all times to ensure safety at sea. They are ignored at our peril.’