1887 Lost on Uncharted Reef Hard

Hard Times Foster Heroism - Sea Breezes June 1927

Palmyra Lost on Uncharted Reef Sea Breezes p20
Palmyra Lost on Uncharted Reef Sea Breezes p20

[A novel is based on this true disaster/near miracle. In 1887 four Maryport men were part of the crew on the merchant ship Henry James its voyage transporting cargo between various places around the world – until …. What they went through has become part of local legend. The account below was published in the magazine for professional sailors “Sea Breezes” in 1927. For a good read with facts woven with imagination, purchase “MacDonalds’s Choice“, a novel based on this true story that rivals Captain Blyth’s survival epic; by local author John Little ISBN 9781692477073]

The account of crew member J. R. Wilson.

After spending many years in thrashing across the Atlantic in Captain John Suiter’s Maryport fleet of wooden ships, among them the Callixene, Clyde, Gladstone and Mersey, which traded to Quebec in the season and to American lumber ports at other times, I decided to try a voyage in an iron vessel by way of a change.

At this time the Henry James, a trim little barque of 945 tons register, built on the Clyde in 1882, Captain Ralph Lattemore in command, was loading a cargo of railway material for the Queensland Government in the Senhouse Dock, which had been opened only three years before. I joined her on 13th July, 1887, set forth on voyage to Bowen, Port Denison, towing as far as St. Bee’s Head; but ere reaching that point a dozen stowaways were discovered and sent back by the tug when she let go. Very soon afterwards we found there had been a baker’s dozen of the gentry as evidenced by a lad named Drummond, 16 years of age, who left his hiding place and threw himself on the captain’s mercy. We were favoured with a fair wind down channel and had an uneventful passage, if the bad weather incidental to running the Easting down be excepted.

Sverre barque outside Maryport harbour like the Cutty Sark Sea Breezes June 1927
Barque 'Sverre' making sail outside Maryport Harbour. A contemporary of the 'Cutty Sark', she, like her famous sister, was composite built. Photo by Mr. J.B. Hodgson Sea Breezes June 1927

One dog too many in Bowen.

Arrived at our destination on 7th November and had not been long in port when Drummond, our stowaway, was fortunate enough to meet a lady who took pity on him and gave him a job at her stables. As he was a likeable lad I have no doubt he made good in Australia. While at Bowen one of our A.B.’s, John Kennedy, fell overboard and was drowned, and his loss cast quite a gloom over his shipmates.

Another incident which occurred at Bowen concerned the captain, who owned and carried with him a fine big dog which unwittingly caused his master to be fined to the tune of £10 and costs for an offence under the “Animals Act” for allowing it to land from the vessel. A local journalist, apparently amused by the incident, wrote the following ditty in his paper:

“Captain Lattemore is the owner of a big dog. Now this dog is a very intelligent animal, and like all intelligent beings, he had heard of Bowen by repute as being a good place and a pretty one; what more reasonable, then, than that he should come ashore and see for himself whether all he had heard about us was correct? Accordingly he did come, he followed his genial master up the town, saw what there was to be seen, looked down upon the Bowen doggies with that supreme contempt which only a new chum can show for anything colonial, then barked, wagged his tail and went on board again.”

Bolt from the blue.

“But matters did not end here. The doggies who had to put up with the sneers and slights of the Henry James doggie took great offence and they reasoned among themselves and said, ‘He has not paid his footing here, why then should he triumph over us? Truly his laughter shall be turned into mourning.’ So reasoning they turned up the Act, which distinctly said that any dog coming from a far countree must pay his footing in a sum not less than £10 and not exceeding £50. Then the local doggies shut up the Act and acted upon it and they made the poor Henry James doggie pay £10 and other expenses, and he does not laugh now but will bite any J.P. within a radius of three miles of the Post Office.”

Haddon Hall barque at South Pier Maryport with steam tug Sea Breezes June 1927
The South Pier, Maryport, with the barque Haddon Hall just getting clear with her tug ahead. Sea Breezes June 1927

After a long lie we completed discharge, ballasted and sailed for Newcastle, N.S.W., where we were chartered to load a cargo of coal for San Francisco. Arrived in due course and, as was customary in those days, soon had prospective passengers trying to secure berths in our packet, although she was not a passenger ship by any means. Eventually the captain fixed up passages for a Mr. Taylor, his wife, their two children, and Mrs. Taylor’s mother, also two male passengers.

Having shipped our black diamonds we sailed on 15th March on what was destined to be an eventful passage. After a trying time in getting to the eastward owing to contrary winds we eventually met with fine weather and had a pleasant run through the Islands of Polynesia. We had crossed the Equator, passed Christmas and Fanning Islands, which lay to the east of our course and, standing on past Palmyra, which we expected to pass during the evening, were congratulating ourselves during the dog watch that we were now clear of the dangers of the Pacific and had a clear run before us to ‘Frisco. However, that same midnight -10th April, 1888 – while making five or six knots under all sail, the barque ran up on a coral reef; our peace and security were thus rudely disturbed. Owing to the heavy ocean swell which beat upon the reef, the ship was creaking and grinding ominously.

Back to Palmyra.

Soon we discovered that she had been seriously damaged, whilst seas began to break on board flooding the decks. Orders were given to abandon ship and, despite the darkness, this was done in an orderly manner. The lifeboats were provisioned, oil was poured on the waters to make a “smooth” and so aid us in passing the boats astern, for which purpose coils of rope had been got up from the fore peak. The boats were lowered but, notwithstanding the use of oil, one was smashed against the ship’s side and lost. The other was all but swamped. The small boat was then got overside.

During quiet periods our seven passengers were lowered into the boats from the poop, now the only dry place on the ship. The crew followed. The captain, true to the best traditions of the sea, was the last man to leave the wreck, and in doing so fell into the surf, being rescued with great difficulty more dead than alive.

The boats stood by the abandoned ship until dawn, when sail was set for Palmyra Island, situated in Latitude 5 deg. 51 min. N., Longitude 162 deg. 23 min. W., about 35 miles from the position of the doomed vessel. This island, surrounded by coral reefs, we reached safely the same afternoon, but were in sorry plight as our provisions, for the most part, had been spoiled before getting away from the wreck and we had only what clothes we stood up in, plus one pair of blankets. Nevertheless we counted ourselves fortunate in having terra firma under our feet once more.

Palmyra Lost on Uncharted Reef Sea Breezes p20
Palmyra Lost on Uncharted Reef Sea Breezes p20

Safe but miserable.

We soon discovered that we weren’t the first castaways to land on Palmyra as we found the remains -albeit scanty- of several huts and a quantity of cut and piled wood which were soon turned to good account. Sustenance was our first concern. There was an abundance of coconuts, as well as birds and their eggs and a species of land crabs, to say nothing of eels; but of water, that most urgent necessity of man, there was not a trace on the island.

However, we were able to catch sufficient rain from the torrential downpours which fell at infrequent intervals to quench our thirst between times. A hut was built at once to shelter the women and children, whilst the men made shacks for themselves.

But, even then, we had little peace or comfort as the island was overrun with leeches which attacked us after every shower of rain. These unpleasant creatures are very small, scarcely one inch in length and no thicker than a stout thread of wire, but are able to penetrate the meshes of the finest stocking, so we, with little or no covering on our legs, were an easy prey at all times.

Captain Lattemore set regular watches from the first and started a beacon fire. This was fed constantly until, one night, it was extinguished by the incessant tropical rain. As our last match had long since been used, the captain next day, when the sun had gained strength, made use of the lens of his telescope, which had been saved, and so re-kindled the fire after the manner beloved of small boys with a burning glass. This fire we kept alight until we were rescued.

Maryport harbour sailing coasters n steam tug come and go Sea Breezes June 1927
Sailing coasters entering and leaving Maryport in the days before steam became the paramount power. The steam tug is towing vessels into the wind, with their sails aready set. Sea Breezes June 1927.

Slow starvation.

The lack of water was most inconvenient, but by dint of much prospecting a copious supply was eventually found on an adjoining islet about two miles distant. Fetching it involved considerable difficulty owing to our physical condition as the unaccustomed diet had caused much sickness amongst us. This was aggravated by the want of clothing and the burning rays of the tropical sun, then nearly overhead.

A few days after landing, a boating party was sent to the wreck in the hope of salving something, but it returned the following day and reported the wreck submerged. Surprise was frequently expressed at the entire lack of flotsam on the island and reefs in our vicinity, as it is an accepted idea that such spots are usually strewn with them. Time passed, the days and weeks were mounting up, and we began to think we were in for a long spell on our island retreat. The chief mate, Mr. D. McDonald, was most anxious to set off for Samoa to seek help before the few provisions saved from the wreck, which had been jealously guarded against this contingency, were completely consumed or spoiled.

Heroic attempt succeeds.

As Samoa lay 1,300 miles distant, the captain was not at all keen on risking the lives of his chief mate and the volunteers who wished to join him, of whom there were many. Eventually he yielded to their entreaties and the boat finally set off with the solitary breaker filled with water, a few ship’s biscuits, a little “tinned mutton, a bottle of whisky and two or three hundred coconuts. The mate, bosun and two men, who comprised the boat’s crew, set off on their long trail inspired by the God-speeds of those they left behind.

They successfully accomplished their remarkable voyage in the space of 19 days, thus averaging nearly three knots on the trip, but it was achieved at the cost of much privation owing to scanty water and food supplies-the coconuts proved a delusion and a snare as they soon turned sour under the burning sun.

Their object attained they were satisfied, though they had to be lifted and carried from their boat. They were in kindly hands, and had the satisfaction of knowing that by their endeavours their erstwhile shipmates would soon be succoured also. Such a feat deserves to rank as an epic in the annals of the Mercantile Marine to which the plucky fellows added fresh lustre.

Small boat voyages -apart from the stunts of adventure- are mostly compelled by dire necessity, usually the sequel to an abandoned vessel, but here we have a volunteer crew risking all in the interests of others, as did Shackleton and his five gallant companions in their memorable small boat voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia thirty years later. They, too, were merchant service men.

Peter Iredale returns to Maryport where she was built Sea Breezes June 1927
Peter Iredale returns to the port at which she was built and launched broadside, as was the prevailing custom. Consider the size of this ship sliding broadside into the River Ellen where the Wave centre now awaits renaming. Sea Breezes June 1927.

In kindly hands.

The Oceanic Steamship Company’s Mariposa, en route from Sydney to ‘Frisco, called in at Samoa, and her captain, on learning of the plight of the Henry James survivors, stated that he would call at Palmyra on his way north and rescue them if still there. He was as good as his word.

On the forty-second day of our sojourn on the island we were overjoyed to sight smoke on the horizon, and to note the steamer steering steadily towards us. Our captain sent the remaining boat to meet the approaching steamer, which turned out to be the Mariposa. She lay at a safe distance and sent her boat to meet ours. There was “joy in Israel” when it was learned that Mr. McDonald had got safely through. Soon the evacuation of Palmyra was accomplished, and we all clambered up the side of the hospitable American ship, amongst the passengers of which speculation had been rife as to our fate. We found solicitude on all sides. Our sores and wounds were tended, food and clothing were provided, whilst the two women and the children were once more able to enjoy the amenities of civilisation. The passengers of the Mariposa, not content with fitting us all out with clothing – needless to say, some of us looked very quaint in the rigs we donned- collected no less than £ 120 for our benefit.

Soon we reached Honolulu, where we bade adieu to our new-found friends also to our Henry James passengers, who had shared our vicissitudes with great fortitude and camaraderie and were now looking forward to reaching San Francisco.

Exonerated from blame.

At the Nayal Court -held on board H.M.S. Carthage, if I remember rightly- our captain and officers were exonerated from all responsibility for the loss of the Henry James, it being found that she had struck an uncharted reef.

This adventure decided me to finish up with sailing ships, so I worked my way home and, on reaching Maryport, joined Messrs. Hine Bros. Holme Line steamers, where I spent a dozen years, until in 1900, I secured a post on shore which I still hold.

The crew of the Henry James dispersed at Honolulu, and of all my shipmates I know of only two who are now living, viz., Captain J. F. Crone, Maryport, who was second mate, and Mr. S. Young, of the neighbouring town of Workington, who was ordinary seaman at the time we became castaways on the Pacific Islands.