The Wreck of the Hydrabad
8: The fatal coast
8: The fatal coast
Sailing ship masters were always wary of a lee shore. Many preferred to avoid New Zealand's west coast altogether by sailing as far south as the Snares Islands and making their approach to port along the east coast. They treated Cook Strait with great respect because the westerly winds gathered strength as they funnelled through it and many a sailing ship spent days or even weeks trying to beat into Wellington. The entry to the strait from the west is marked by Kapiti and Stephen's Islands and if a captain made a mistake in recognising these in heavy weather the consequences could be disastrous. These three factors of lee shore, strong winds and difficult landmarks help to explain why the stretch of coast between Waikanae and Wanganui has seen so many notable shipwrecks.
Previous to 1878 the largest victims of this coast were the 442-ton schooner Manukau and the 493-ton barque Robina Dunlop. The former was wrecked near the Manawatu Heads on 4 October 1867 and the Robina Dunlop ten years later on 13 August 1877 at the mouth of the Turakina River. In both cases human error was the main cause of their going ashore.
A traveller taking a coach north along the coast from Wellington in October 1878 had the unusual and striking page 96 sight of three square rigged ships stranded on the beaches. At the mouth of the Otaki River lay the City of Auckland. Immediately north of her was the barque Felixstowe and a few miles beyond Hokio the coach passed Hydrabad. She was the only one of the trio to remain intact.
Felixstowe, a 379-ton wooden barque had gone ashore at 4 a.m. on Sunday 13 October 1878. As in Hydrabad's case a strong gale had blown throughout the previous day accompanied by heavy rain and terrific seas. The crew had been unable to shorten sail. The Court of Inquiry later found that Captain James Stuart Piggott had mistaken Kapiti for Stephen's Island in the thick weather.
The City of Auckland and Felixstowe ashore at Otaki — a water colour by J. T. Stewart (Wanganui Regional Museum).
The day after the wreck Felixstowe appeared undamaged and W. J. Taylor, the second mate, took the crew back on board. But within a few days the pounding seas had opened a gaping hole in the bow where the planking was torn from the ribs. Wreckage was soon scattered along the coast. The sails and spars were salvaged by men working for Mr Ardern of Patea and Mr Oates who purchased the wreck.
Felixstowe was only five years old at the time of her loss. She was owned by Mr Vaux, a Harwick ship-builder, and had only recently entered the inter-colonial trade. She was carrying a cargo of coal from Newcastle.
The Felixtowe [sic: Felixstowe] overwhelmed by the surf — a water colour by J. T. Stewart (Wanganui Regional Museum).
Once on land some of the migrants continued their unruly behaviour to the extent that rumours reached Foxton that they had pulled down the hotel. Three special constables were sworn in to help keep order. Two days later the government steamer Hinemoa took most of the migrants on board at Waikanae before continuing bad weather forced her to leave. The remainder were taken on by coach. Some settled in Wellington but most were ferried round to Napier. The ship was so high that drays could go alongside to recover passengers' luggage.
At the inquiry the nautical assessors failed to agree on why the City of Auckland stranded. The chairman, Wellington's resident magistrate, gave an independent judgement of no negligence and returned all the officers' certificates. However he said that Captain Ralls had misread his mileage scale from the longitude instead of the latitude, a mistake arising from practices 'reprehensible' but common in the merchant service.
Last remnant of the City of Auckland brought down in December 1936 (W. Thorley Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library).
Recovering the cargo and dismantling the ship occupied nearly every Maori in Otaki. They established a large camp on the beach. Several ships entered the Otaki River to ship out the salvaged material. These included the paddle steamer Lyttelton, the schooner Colleen Bawn and the ketch Elizabeth. The steamers Jane Douglas and Stormbird loaded in the roadstead. As at the Hydrabad this work was not without risk and on 23 April 1879 the Colleen Bawn was driven on to the beach.
Dismantling the wreck continued into 1881. Many of the ship's fittings and furnishings, including her figurehead of a woman in white with hands crossed over her breast, her ornate scroll and bell, were sold locally. What remained of the hull was soon buried in the sand to be occasionally uncovered by high seas. When W. F. Massey became Prime Minister some of her timber was recovered and carved into a walking stick for him as a memento of his arrival in Auckland on the ship's second voyage. One of the iron masts remained a prominent landmark off the beach until felled by a flood on 22 December 1936.
Though Felixstowe and City of Auckland disappeared, Hydrabad does have one companion wreck which has survived to the present. This is the 404-ton barque Fusilier which lies partly buried in sand-dunes near Santoft.
Fusilier arrived in Wellington from New York in December 1883 and sailed on 4 January 1884 with 160 page 103 tons of ballast on board to pick up a cargo of grain from Adelaide. Ten days passed before she rounded Cape Terawhiti for she was a slow and awkward sailer. A heavy gale sprang up and at times Captain J. N. Harkness could not see a hundred yards from the ship. The wind drove the barque inexorably into the bight and, after consulting with his officers, the master decided to beach her to save the lives of the crew. At midday on 16 January 1884 she drove into the sand five miles south of the Turakina River. Each tide carried her further up the beach and at low tide she was high and dry with four feet of sand around her hull.
The official inquiry established that the ship was well found and fully equipped, and attributed the stranding to the leewardly qualities of the ship, the hazy weather and the effect of the wind repeatedly heading her. Some of the crew gave evidence that the ship was deliberately placed in a dangerous position since she was losing money for her owners but this was denied and the officers' certificates were returned.
Fusilier was built in 1860 and owned by E. C. Friend and Company of Liverpool. She was sold for $500 and salvagers were soon at work. On 25 March the steamer Tui ran out a kedge anchor for a refloating attempt and on 12 May Fusilier had been shifted fifty feet. She was to get no further and the difficulties forced her abandonment. Her spars and one of her masts were sold and were used in various woolsheds and farm buildings in the district. The hull and two masts remained intact despite serving as a target for Ohakea pilots during the Second World War. However after 1949 the masts fell and the sand-dunes encroached over the hull, separating it from the beach.
Four years after the Fusilier stranded two more large sailing ships went ashore on the same coast but both were page 104 eventually refloated. In 1878 Hydrabad and Pleione had been in the same storm; in 1888 Pleione nearly shared Hydrabad's fate. A Shaw Savill and Albion ship of 1,139 tons she had made a fast passage of 84 days from London. Captain Culbert had sighted no land until Kapiti Island appeared through the haze. As many had done before he mistook it for Stephen's Island and shaped his course accordingly. It was a course which took his ship on to Waikanae Beach. 14 March 1888 found Pleione battling a strong north-westerly gale. Sails were reduced to topsails and jib. The night was very dark and at 2 a.m. on 15 March the ship struck the beach. The captain launched the boats at 4 a.m. but his own boat was capsized in the surf. Second mate Liddiard rescued Mrs Grundy and Mrs Foster, two of the passengers, but a seaman, Belcher, was drowned. The captain injured his back.
Pleione was an iron ship and she made little water. A few weeks after her stranding she was high and dry at low tide and was described as a lost ship. The cargo and passengers' luggage were safely landed and refloating attempts began. On the morning of 28 July Pleione was floated off by Captain Babot, Shaw, Savill's Marine Superintendent, and towed round to Wellington by the Omapere.
Captain Culbert was found to have committed an error of judgement in relying on his chronometer when it was found not to agree with the mate's and for proceeding at night without verifying his position by soundings. He was ordered to pay the costs of the inquiry.
The remains of the Fusilier today. The sea is behind the dunes (Frank O'Leary).
The Weathersfield 1888. The wind has shredded her sails (Wellington Harbour Board Maritime Museum).
After inspection the ship was condemned and was purchased by James Waller, an Auckland merchant. He resold her to Captain J. C. Cooper, of Wellington, for $950. Attempts to refloat her bankrupted her salvagors until a syndicate of T. G. McCarthy, a Wellington brewer, Joseph Saunders, contractor, and Frederick Bright, an Otaki sheepfarmer, acquired her. Under their direction and with tremendous efforts the waters of the Waikawa Stream were diverted by a wall of sand-filled bags on to Weathersfield's hull. Taking advantage of a high spring tide the tug Mana towed her off the beach at 1 a.m. on 25 October 1892. She was taken round to Wellington by Mana and Hinemoa.
The steamer Indrabarah close to the Rangitikei shore in 1913 (Wanganui Regional Museum).
Back in 1878, following the wreck of the City of Auckland, Captain Fairchild of the Hinemoa had urged the government to place a light on Kapiti Island. He claimed that a dozen ships a year mistook it for Stephen's Island and that the three strandings of Hydrabad, Felixstowe and City of Auckland had cost insurers $220,000. The Secretary of the Marine Department echoed his plea annually. He wrote in 1881: 'It cannot be said [Cook] Strait is well lighted until a light is placed on Stephen's Island. Strangers, it is alleged, on entering the strait from the westward at night are inclined in their anxiety to keep clear of Stephen's Island, to give it so wide a berth that they run the risk of being embayed in Wanganui Bight.' An inspection of both Kapiti and Stephen's Island was made but no action was taken until the stranding of the Weathersfield. Work commenced on Stephen's Island in 1892 and its light was lit for the first time on 20 January 1894.
However there were to be other strandings on this coast and even steamers were not immune to the effects of the current. The 7,595-ton Indrabarah was standing off Wanganui on 10 May 1913 when she got in among the breakers three or four miles north of the Rangitikei River. The weather was stormy and, despite the master's efforts page 110 to go astern, the wind and sea drove the steamer very close to the beach. Many thought she was lost but after jettisoning 2,000 tons of her tallow and hauling out on her own hawsers she struggled free on a high spring tide on 6 July. The tug Terawhiti stood by and accompanied her to Wellington. Indrabarah's cargo of frozen mutton was saved, but the ship herself was unlucky, and had several further accidents. In 1924, as the Port Elliot, she was totally lost near Horoera Point, East Cape. Better known is the total loss of the Port Bowen at Wanganui in 1939 when tremendous efforts could not free her from the grip of the western sands.