10 September 2011

Shipwrecks and Shopping

 It was a squally, blustery day, perfect for visiting the lighthouse and watching the breakers in Currie harbour.  
Currie foreshore is just as wild and rugged as anywhere else on the west coast; according to something I read, it is the only sheltered anchorage on the entire coast – and not too easy of access at that, with plenty of nasty sharp rocks lying in wait for the unwary sailor.  In fact, King Island must be one of the most deadly in the world – there were more than thirty ships wrecked around the island between 1862 and 1915. 

 Blencathra was on the way to Sydney from Glasgow when her captain mistook the Cape Wickham light for Cape Otway – a common, and deadly error. Everybody was rescued  with assistance  from a salvage crew working on the wreck of British Admiral, which hit the island a couple of miles further south the previous May.  Those on board the British Admiral had not been so lucky - of eighty eight people only nine survived, and cargo and bodies were strewn along twenty kilometres of beach.

The captain and crew from Blencathra hitched a lift to Melbourne with a load of cargo salvaged from the British Admiral, and the wreck of their ship was sold to another salvage company. Despite an armed guard, seventy five of eight hundred cases of whisky from  Blencathra vanished without trace the night after they were unloaded. A successful shopping trip for somebody.
These are the rocks that did for Blencathra on January 3, 1875. They are only just out of sight from where I am sitting typing this.

Nine years earlier and a few hundred metres further south  Netherby, carrying 452 passengers bound for Brisbane fetched up on the rocks after losing her bearings in bad weather.  Everybody managed to get ashore, and the second officer, Mr Parry, set out with eight men to look for habitation. Five days later he handed Mr W. Hickmott, the duty lighthouse keeper at Cape Wickham, a letter:

Send help and succour to 500 shipwrecked people from the ship NETHERBY – Owen Owens, Master.

They were tired, hungry and footsore, but after a brief rest Mr Parry and the four strongest of his men set out for Melbourne in the lighthouse whaleboat. Landing on the Victorian coast near Anglesea they were mistaken for bushrangers by the first person they encountered, but managed to convince him they were nice people, really. The old shepherd guided them to a nearby station where Mr Parry borrowed a horse. He rode fifty kilometres to Geelong and telegraphed his news to Melbourne. Then he probably slept for about a week.
Meanwhile, Mr Hickmott went down to the wreck site to collect the survivors, who now included a very new baby.  Small groups of people straggled up to the lighthouse all night. The lighthouse keepers’ wives housed and fed them until they were collected and taken to Melbourne where a good many of them decided they had had enough adventures and stayed. I’m impressed that the lighthouse women managed to cope with so many people –  they must have done some mega-serious grocery shopping. 

Cataraqui Probably the most famous wreck, one of Australia’s  worst peacetime  marine disasters, was in 1845 when Cataraqui, an emigrant ship with 369 passengers and a crew of 46, ran into horrible weather after about three months at sea. Captain Findlay could not get an accurate position, but believed he was about 50 miles southwest of Portland. He wasn’t. He was actually about sixty miles further south and the ship ran on to rocks in a heavy rain squall. 
Many of the passengers were trapped below decks and drowned immediately, but about two hundred clung desperately to the ship for more than ten hours until it broke in two. By the time the ship finally went to pieces late the following day only nine people managed to get ashore alive. They were discovered by a party of sealers and eventually taken to safety a month later.

I walked with some friendly King Island artists to the  monument marking where 342 bodies were  buried in five mass graves. It is a bleak and scary place. (above)

Having duly expressed our horror at the fate of Cataraqui we continued on our way along the shore until the rocks gave way to a windswept  beach where we all began hunting for bits and pieces washed ashore by the roaring forties. We soon had quite a collection of brightly-coloured sea-weathered rope, fragments of plastic, old brushes, a multi-branched sponge, bottle tops and similar treasures. “This is how we go shopping.” Alison said. Megan said “Tomorrow we’ll go to the tip”.

reference: Loney. Jack. Wrecks on King Island. Portarlington. Marine History. 1995

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