White Wings Vol I. Fifty Years Of Sail In The New Zealand Trade, 1850 TO 1900
The Blue Jacket
The Blue Jacket.
Handsome American-built Craft—Brief but Brilliant Career—Her Tragic End.
Notwithstanding the many beauties of her day, the 1,790-ton ship Blue Jacket, stood out in such a marked manner when she paid her first visit to Melbourne in the year 1855, that shipping people took practically a holiday to admire the new-comer. And when one thinks of such boats as the Lightning, the Oliver Lang, the James Baines, the Marco Polo, and the White Star, it means much when we know that even in such company she was admittedly a "beauty." Built at East Boston, United States, for the original White Star line of sailing packets, she was one of the speedy craft that the American builders turned out to the order of British shipping people before the latter had changed their old fashioned methods that were exploded by the experiments made by the Yankees during the struggle for supremacy in the China tea carrying trade. the Blue Jacket arrived at the Mersey on October 20, 1854, after a fine run of 12½ days. She made her first appearance in Melbourne on May 13th, 1855, under the command of Captain Underwood, after a remarkable run of 68 days from London, whence she sailed on March 6th. One cannot help thinking what a contrast was such a smart passage to the performances of some of the old tubs that were sent out to Auckland and Wellington in those eariy days.
On her return journey to London from Melbourne, the Blue Jacket took only one day longer than her outward passage. She and the other fast clippers I have mentioned above, were put on the Australian trade during the great rush to the Victorian goldfields which started in 1852. And a very profitable trade it was, naturally attracting the best and fastest shps.
During the eighteen months following the discovery of gold at Ballarat, the population of Melbourne jumped from 23,000 to 70,000. Basil Lubbock in writing of this golden era says: "In the five years 1852-57, when the rush to the diggings was at its height, 100,000 Englishmen, 60,000 Irishmen, 50,000 Scots, 4,000 Welsh, 8,000 Germans, 1,500 Frenchmen, 3,000 Americans, and about 30,000 other nationalities of the world, including 25,000 Chinese landed at Melbourne."
In The New Zealand Trade.
Mr. Frank Hull, of Auckland, who was a passenger by the Blue Jacket on this voyage to the Waitemata, gives me some interesting details about the trip. "We had no sooner been towed out into the Channel after leaving Liverpool," he says, "than it came on to blow a gale, and during the night the tow rope between us and the tug parted. We were then off the Welsh coast, not far from where the Royal Charter had been lost six months before. There was no sail on the ship at the time, so she was consequently at the mercy of the sea, and I well remember the awful racket on deck as the crew made all haste to set some sails—it was a perfect bedlam. When we got out of this tight corner we were soon in fine weather, the Blue Jacket skimming the seas like a yacht, and at times we logged sixteen knots.
"An interesting event in the early part of the voyage was our meeting with a waterspout of great size, which was coming right across our bows. Some of the passengers got out firearms and fired at it, as they were told that this would cause it to burst away from the ship. Fortunately the spout just missed the ship, but while it was passing it caused great excitement among the passengers.
A Wild Goose Chase.
"On another occasion," continues Mr. Hull, "when we were three months out the man on the lookout cried, 'Vessel on the port bow!' He followed this up by saying that the vessel was a wreck, and that the people on board were waving their shirts on oars to attract attention. the Blue Jacket was immediately hove-to, and a boat manned by volunteers was lowered away. It was two o'clock in the afternoon when the boat crew were sent away, and it was not until half-past ten at night that they were alongside again. When night came on the Blue Jacket was getting further away from the boat and the wreck, and blue lights were burning all the time, and rockets were sent up to guide the boat back.page 328
"On board the Blue Jacket there was much excitement and speculation as to the nature of the wreck. Hot water was ready for the survivors, and in fact every preparation was made to welcome the unfortunate people our boat had gone to rescue. At last the people in our boat were heard calling out in the darkness. Soon they were on board again, bitterly cold and quite exhausted. They were alone, and when asked about 'the wreck' they said it had been only a dead whale, and what had been taken to be people waving signals were albatrosses flapping their wings. The men in the boat said the smell of the dead whale reached them a mile off!
"Our captain had a very anxious time when navigating Bass Straits, as there was no wind and there were many dangerous rocks to avoid. When we were outside Rangitoto Captain Burgess, so well known in Auckland for many years, was the pilot that boarded us and brought the ship to an anchorage in the harbour, where we were soon surrounded by Maori canoes laden with peaches, grapes and melons, and we all agreed that we had come to a 'Land of Goshen.' We landed on St. Patrick's Day, the day the first shot was fired in the Taranaki War."
the Blue Jacket visited Auckland on one occasion only. She made several voyages to Lyttelton, one of which was remarkably fast. This was in 1867. On this occasion she left London in command of Captain White, on June 13th, and arrived at her destination on August 30th after a fine run of 75 days from London, or 70 days 12 hours from the Lizard to Stewart Island. The voyage out and back on this occasion occupied only six months and twenty-six days, including seven weeks at Home discharging and re-loading. Other passages made between London and Lyttelton, with Captain White in command, were:
1865.—Left London August 5, arrived November 14th, 101 days from the docks.
1866.—Left London July 15, arrived October 14 (90 days).
1868.—Left London August 7th, arrived October 30th (83 days).
Captain Stevens reported on the voyage out to Lyttelton in 1865, the Blue Jacket left Gravesend on August 5, and anchored in the Downs during boisterous weather until the 6th, taking her final departure from Ushant on the 13th. A week after sailing a serious mutiny broke out (the cargo having been broached previously), which was promptly repressed, and the ring-leader secured, not before the second mate had received a fearful gash on his head, 4½ inches long with a sheath knife, nearly bleeding to death before the arteries could be tied and the wound sewn up. The first officer also received a severe blow on the face from an iron belaying pin by the ruffian who had tried to kill the second mate. The Snares were passed on November 8th, when light winds were experienced until arrival in port. the Blue Jacket during this voyage covered in 31 consecutive days the extraordinary distance of 7,538 nautical knots, an average of over 243 miles daily; quite one-half of the whole distance from England to New Zealand.
During the year 1862 the Blue Jacket brought over 400 diggers from Melbourne, bound for the West Coast goldfields of New Zealand, and on another occasion she brought a cargo of sheep for the goldfields.
This beautiful ship had not a very long career, and met her doom in 1869. On February 13, 1869, she left Lyttelton for London with seventy-one passengers and crew, and a cargo of wool, flax, and other produce, and fifteen boxes of gold, valued at £48.000, and when she was off the Falkland Islands she was totally destroyed by fire under tragic circumstances. The fire, which was supposed to originate in some wool that was damp, was discovered at half past one on the afternoon of March 7th, and though strenuous efforts were made, it was soon seen that nothing could be done to save the ship. Beats were got out and provisioned, and it was hoped that the crew and passengers would be able to stay on board until the morning, but the heat became so intense on board that all hands had to take to the boats at 10 p.m.
Captain White in the cutter had all the passengers with him, there being 39 souls in the boat. The two lifeboats, with the rest of the ship's company on board, were instructed to keep company, and did so for two days after the catastrophe. On the third day the life-boats got out of sight, and though the captain's boat sent up rockets and searched for them there was no response.
Days Of Agony.
The people in the cutter endured terrible privations, and during five of the nine days they were adrift there was a very high sea knocked up by a strong westerly gale. One of the passengers, telling of the awful experience, wrote:page 329
"The last we saw of the Blue Jacket was a bright speck on the horizon on the evening of the second day. The third day it was decided to appoint some person to fill the disagreeable duty of serving out the rations, Mr. Williams, chief officer, accepting the responsibility, and fulfilling the task with unflinching courage. . . . . A small silver cup was used for serving out the water, and had marks cut in it to measure the daily allowance—two small tablespoons full. One tin of preserved meat or soup was shared daily among the 39 people in the boat. The biscuit was all spoiled by the sea water. . . . . The most pitiful sight of all was the children vainly crying for a drop of water. To add to our troubles, three of our crew were dying, and one was delirious. On the ninth day a sail was seen bearing down on us, and help came. It proved a difficult task getting us out of the boat, as we had lost the use of our limbs and could not help ourselves. After the rescue we still suffered frightfully, our hands and feet breaking out with large boils and blisters."
It was a barque called the Pyrmont that picked up the castaways. She was not prepared for such a large accession to her company, but her people gladly gave of their best. Just as the Pyrmont's supply of fresh water was giving out, the Blackball liner Yorkshire hove in sight, and when the case was put to her skipper (Captain Anderson) he immediately sent off 600 gallons.
The three members of the Blue Jacket's crew spoken of as dying by the passenger quoted above, succumbed to exhaustion after they were rescued.
Fate Of Other Boats.
Another account of the disaster tells how one of the life-boats was swamped, and the third life-boat (in charge of Mr. Webber, third mate) was picked up by a vessel and the men taken to the Falkland Islands. They were adrift for twenty-one days, and suffered terribly. To save themselves from starvation the men in Mr. Webber's boat killed the ship's dog, a retriever, and they drank its blood. Eventually only three men survived. On board the boat was also several boxes of gold that had formed part of the Bluejacket's valuable cargo. Whether this was taken into the lifeboat for ballast is not known, but the men broke open one of the boxes and sucked the ingots to allay their thirst, just as men suck pebbles.
When the boat was picked up the rescuers, seeing the bloodstains, and also the gold, came to the conclusion that there had been foul play, and that there had been mutiny and murder. They disbelieved the story told by the castaways, and clapped the men in irons. Eventually news came through of the saving of the passengers and others in the Bluejacket's cutter, and Mr. Webber and his men were released.
This Mr. Webber, afterwards Captain Webber, later came out to Sydney, where he commanded several vessels, and then became secretary of the Royal Shipwreck Relief and Humane Society, and he died there in October of 1921.
About two years after the disaster the figurehead of the Blue Jacket was washed ashore on an island off Fremantle, West Australia. On each side of the figurehead was a scroll saying, "Keep a sharp look-out."