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White Wings Vol I. Fifty Years Of Sail In The New Zealand Trade, 1850 TO 1900

The Ocean Mail

page 315

The Ocean Mail.

Wrecked at Chathams—Only Five Days Out of Port.

In a previous article telling of a famous race to London between the Avalanche and the Crusader, mention was made of a third competitor, the Ocean Mail, flying the N. Z. Shipping Co.'s flag, which never got very far on the long trail round the Horn. This Ocean Mail was well known in New Zealand waters, having made four passages to the colony. On February 2, 1874, she arrived at Wellington from London, via Plymouth, which was left on November 15, 1873. She passed the Snares on January 27, 1874, was off Dunedin next day—only 74 days out—
the Ocean Mail Stranded At The Chathams.

the Ocean Mail Stranded At The Chathams.

and thence had calms and north-west breezes, but still did the passage to Wellington in 79 days. By the end of the year she was back again, this time visiting Nelson, for which port she had 400 Government immigrants. She arrived there on November 9, 1874, after a passage of 78 days. On both the above occasions she was commanded by Captain Watson. In 1875 she visited Auckland. Leaving London on August 15, the ship arrived in the Waitemata on November 23, doing the passage in an even 100 days. She was then in command of Captain Cawse, but in the following year, when she again visited Wellington, Captain Watson was in command. She left London on August 25, and reached Wellington on December 12, having taken 109 days on what proved to be her last voyage.

On the passage the Ocean Mail made to Auckland in 1875 she had an exciting experience in the English Channel. When she was about 15 miles below Portland, in a dense fog, she collided with an Italian barque called the Partitoe. the Ocean Mail lost her jibboom and starboard anchor, but sustained no other damage. The Italian lost his mizzen mast and sustained some other damage, but exactly what it was the people on the British ship did not know, as they were told no assistance was required. Another vessel on the loading berth for Auckland at the same time as the Ocean Mail was a vessel called the Star of Germany. Although she left the Docks a week before the Star of Germany, the Ocean Mail was seven days behind by the time the Cape of Good Hope was passed. In the run across the Southern Ocean, however, the Ocean Mail, which was a fast sailer, picked up a lot of leeway, and strangely enough the ships arrived in the Waitemata within an hour of one another.

page 316

Race to London.

After discharging at Wellington at the end of 1876 the Ocean Mail loaded up with wool, tallow, and the other usual colonial produce. She was ready for sea again the following March, and as the Avalanche was also a full ship, and the Crusader, which was loading at Lyttelton, was practically in the same state, the three masters made up a race back to London town. All unbeknown to her two competitors, the Ocean Mail dropped out of this exciting event very early, but communication between New Zealand and its off-lying islands was very spasmodic in those days. The first news was brought by a passing whaler, and subsequently the survivors of the wreck were taken to Wellington by a trading schooner.

The Avalance and Ocean Mail left Wellington on March 16, and the following day they were still in company, and there being no wind Captain Watson, of the "Mail," went on board the Avalanche, and remained aboard the best part of the day. That night the vessels parted company, and four days later the Ocean Mail was a hopeless wreck. The people on the Avalanche never knew anything of the disaster to the Ocean Mail until they got Home. In giving an account of the race in an earlier article dealing with the Avalanche and the Crusader, I spoke of the Ocean Mail being commanded by Captain Roberts. That, however, is a mistake, as the master's name was John Watson.

Struck French Reef.

The morning after the ships parted company off the Chathams the wind hauled into the south-east, and remained so until the night of March 20, when, after the ship had been caught aback a couple of times, the wind hauled suddenly to the south-west and began to blow hard. Sail was taken in during the night, and, the wind increasing, all hands were called at 2 a.m. to take in more sail. A couple of hours later the third mate reported that the ship was nearly ashore. The captain and mate were called at once, and though every effort was made to avoid the reefs under the ship's lee, it was soon seen to be hopeless. When morning came it was found that the ship was hard and fast on part of the French Reef, between Matarakau and Taupeka Point, Chatham Islands. At noon, the day before the disaster, the ship was about 25 miles west of the group, and laid a course to take her north and east of it, but it was subsequently stated that the chart and actual position of the Chatham Islands did not agree.

The boats were at once got out after the Ocean Mail struck, and passengers and crew got ashore. There were five passengers (Misses Harrison and Jenkins, Messrs. Cotter, Nathan, and Conway). Stores were also taken ashore, and carried up into the bush, where tents were pitched for the crew. The passengers and Captain Watson went to the house of a Maori, some couple of miles from the wreck. The weather, which had been fine, then broke, and there was so much surf that it was impossible to get off to the wreck. Eventually, however, the master made a survey of the wreck, and she was sold to one of the Chatham Island runholders for £945. Considering that she had a cargo worth £78,000 on board it was not a dear bargain, and it was not surprising that the other residents of the Group should protest that "the greatest indiscretion had been shown in disposing of the wreck." All the principal residents of Waitangi signed a protest to the insurance companies. There were nearly 5000 bales of wool aboard, and 400 tons of this was saved in a very short while, not to mention many casks of tallow.

Perjury Charge.

The vessel by which news was brought to Wellington of the wreck of the Ocean Mail also had on board three members of the crew, under arrest on a charge of perjury at the magisterial inquiry held at the Chathams. It seems that the master of the Ocean Mail objected to dead reckoning by log being kept, and at the inquiry the second and third mates and an apprentice swore that the log had been heaved, a statement that was afterwards admitted to be false. The three men were charged with perjury, and were brought up before the Resident Magistrate and some justices of the peace. Evidently the Chatham Islands Bench "did itself proud" over the rare event of such a trial, for the newspaper account speaks of "voluminous depositions," and says "they filled 89 pages of foolscap."

An inquiry into the wreck was held at the Islands, and after sitting for a week the Court found that the mishap was due mainly to negligence on the part of the captain and officers in not keeping dead-reckoning by the log. Captain Watson's certificate was suspended for nine months, and those of the first and second mates for six months.