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Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Coracle of Disappointment Island — A Story of Sea Heroes

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The Coracle of Disappointment Island
A Story of Sea Heroes

ON the wall of the main hall in the Canterbury Museum there was fastened some years ago the sea-battered framework of a singular little craft, a kind of round-ended flat-bottomed boat made of the gnarled and twisted branches and trunks of shrubs. It was nothing more nor less than a coracle such as the ancient Britons made thousands of years ago; such craft, called curragh, are still in use on some remote parts of the West Coast of Ireland. This coracle frame, stripped of its original tattered canvas covering, is a relic of as inspiring a deed of dogged perseverance and courage as ever was recorded in the long story of maritime adventure. To my mind this pitiful makeshift canoe was the most significant and epic-laden, human thing in the whole range of collections in that museum. It was the coracle in which the survivors of the lost ship Dundonald made their escape after many months from the isle of starvation fitly called Disappointment, in the sub-Antarctic Aucklands, and reached the depot on the main island, with its food and clothing and shelter.

One black midnight in March, 1907, the four-masted barque Dundonald, a beautiful steel clipper of 2,200 tons, British built and British owned, was plunging through heavy seas, in half a gale of wind far to the southward of New Zealand. She was on the first long slant of her great circle sailing across the Southern Ocean; she was bound from Sydney to England, deep-laden page 280 with wheat. The master, Captain Thorburn, knew he must be somewhere near the Auckland Islands, those uninhabited blizzard-swept rocky places of peril that lie athwart the course of the homeward-bound ships, but the weather had been thick all day, there had been no sight of the sun, and the compass was not altogether dependable. Under such conditions it was an anxious night. The captain had taken in his royals and topgallant-sails early, and under topsails and foresail he was laying his course as nearly as the stormy contrary winds would allow.

That dreaded cry, “Land ahead!” came through the blackness from the look-out on the foc's'l-head. The captain, who had been bending over the chart, rushed out and shouted, “All hands wear ship!” Mr. Jabez Peters, the sturdy old mate, yelled for the watch below, and the men came tumbling out from their quarters to join the watch on deck already singing out at the braces.

But the despairing manoeuvre failed. The ship missed stays and drifted broadside toward the awful cliffs, which could now be seen defined by the flash of breakers crashing at their base.

Hopeless now, with the towering seas taking her irresistibly in to that lee shore. She struck stern first on a rocky buttress, then swinging in until nearly the whole length of her doomed hull was grinding on the jagged rocks, where a fissure indented the black precipice.

The boats? It was impossible to launch them. Heavy seas thundered over the ship. Most of the crew, under the chief mate, got forward to the fo'c'sl-head. The page break
Disappointment Island, and The Wreck of the Dundonald.In 1907 the British four-masted barque Dundonald was wrecked on Disappointment Island, on the west side of the Auckland Islands. The survivors, after great sufferings in winter on the desolate Island, reached the N.Z. Government boat and provision depot in Port Ross, near the north end of the main island. Sketch map by A. H. Messenger. (See pages 279–285.)

Disappointment Island, and The Wreck of the Dundonald.
In 1907 the British four-masted barque Dundonald was wrecked
on Disappointment Island, on the west side of the Auckland
Islands. The survivors, after great sufferings in winter on the
desolate Island, reached the N.Z. Government boat and provision
depot in Port Ross, near the north end of the main island.
Sketch map by A. H. Messenger. (See pages 279–285.)

page break page 281 captain and his young son were washed overboard and perished, and eight men went with them. Five of the survivors clambered off, watching their chances between the seas, and the others took to the fore-rigging, most of them huddled in the foretop.

As the first dull gleams of day struggled through the darkness, a Finnish sailor, Michael Pul, contrived to struggle on to a rocky ledge in the cliff from the top of the jigger-mast. He crept along the cliff, feeling his way in the gloom, until he was opposite the foremast. He called out for a line. One of the men who had been on the fore-topgallant-yard returned to the foretop and cut some of the running gear below and threw a line to the scarcely visible figure ashore. It was made fast at both ends and by this means all the men forward managed, after a desperate struggle, to get on to the cliff edges.

Of those on the jigger, three managed to follow the Fin safely; one who had earlier swung on to the rocky wall was numbed and stiff; he lost his hold and dropped helplessly into the drowning surf.

Bruised, wet and shivering, the survivors clambered to the top of the cliffs of their desolate place, and the chief mate mustered them in the raw early day. There were sixteen saved out of a ship's company of twenty-eight. They were scantily clad; few of them had coats or caps. They had a few dry matches; on these few in one of the men's boxes their lives depended in that dreadful solitude, with the southern winter coming on. They kindled fires; they kept them going night and day. Their first thought then was salvage from the wreck; but of that there was faint hope.

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Jabez Peters, the mate, had reckoned the ship struck on the main Auckland Island, where there was a provision depot maintained by the New Zealand Government for the use of shipwrecked crews. But an exploration of the place soon convinced him that it was the small island charted as Disappointment Island. The main island, with its store of food and clothing in a hut, was separated from the isle of the wreck by five miles of ocean.

There they were on the most forlorn place in the range of the seven seas. They were fated to live for seven hard months marooned on that dismal gale-swept isle in Fifty South, where the only sounds but their own voices were the whistling winds, the growling surf, and the shrieking, screaming and squabbling of innumerable flocks of seabirds.

In most stories of castaways on lonely islands the sailors contrive to save some food and a variety of useful articles from the wreck. But the Dundonald's unfortunates were destitute of everything, except a few matches, which enabled them to start a fire and keep them going once they established a camp of a kind. All they saved from the wreck when they returned to it for salvage before it disappeared was some ropes and canvas, two or three of the lighter sails on the foremast, with all the cordage they could get. They made canvas shelters, but presently they burrowed shallow dug-outs and roofed them with tussock-grass, and in these they crouched from the bitter gales, the hail, snow, sleet and rain of those stormy latitudes. They lived on the birds and hair-seals, they drank cold water. The most plentiful of the birds were mollymauks. It was difficult to page 283 cook anything; they ate their seafowl and seal-flesh half raw. They made caps, clothes and rough moccasins of sealskin. Only one man gave way under his privations. The poor old mate, Mr. Peters, dying in his camp where he could see the shore and ocean, said to his companions:

“I'd like to be lying under that seaweed; it's a proper old sailor's grave. I can't live much longer. When I'm dead just put a few sods on top of me, so that the birds can't get at me.”

The two surviving officers, D. McLaughlin (second mate) and K. Knudsen (third mate), knew that there must be a provision depot for shipwrecked crews on the main island of the Aucklands, and that a New Zealand Government steamer visited the group periodically, on the look-out for castaways. They must cross the four miles of stormy strait to that main island, but how? There were no tools to build a boat, and the only wood was the short crooked veronica shrubs that grew on the island. They discussed the problem with their comrades and decided to attempt the almost hopeless task.

With vast industry and ingenuity they made a primitive boat, nine feet long, three feet wide and three feet deep, using the tough and twisted veronica trunks and branches for the framework, and frapping it tightly with canvas, the sailcloth saved from the ship, and some of their canvas trousers. Their craftsmanship was of the stone age; they had to use sharp stones from the beach to hack the scrubby timber and burn off portions in the fire. Needles made from the wing-bones of page 284 petrels were used to sew the canvas covering; some of the sailcloth was unravelled for thread.

In this determined way, overcoming all difficulties, they finished their coracle. Three men—an Australian, a Spaniard and the Russian Finn—crossed to the main island in the crazy craft, using paddles made of sticks and bits of canvas. But the little craft had to return. Another boat was begun; the first one was swamped and smashed. The second boat built was more successful. Its crew of four men made a safe crossing and after a search of four days found the provision depot huts. In the Government boat they discovered there they returned to Disappointment Island and rescued the remainder of the castaways. They had spent seven months on that awful desert island. Now they all revelled in the fare that was luxury to them after starvation camp, though it was only tinned meat and ship's biscuit, and in the comfort of clothes, with a rainproof roof over their heads.

There was a further wait of a month until November, when the Government steamer Hinemoa called at the Island on her annual round of the southern outlying islands, and was joyfully hailed by the sailors. She brought the Dundonald survivors up to the Bluff, and the coracle which was the means of saving them from starvation was brought up too, and was presented to the Canterbury Museum, to tell its silently eloquent story of hardships and difficulties overcome far more formidable than any which confronted Robinson Crusoe on his tropical island.

Those rescued castaways were men of many nations—English, Scottish, Irish, New Zealand, Australian, page 285 Norwegian, Russian, Spanish-American. Presently, after the brief wonder their adventures created, they were scattered again over the seven seas, to brave the very dangers they had just escaped in the stormy ocean that washes New Zealand's islands. For, as the old song says, “that is the sailor's way,” and peril and risks in the way of daily duty, indeed, are the spice of life.

There was a favourite poem in the old school-readers, “Napoleon and the Young English Sailor.” It may be too old-fashioned for present-day anthologies, but look it up and read that story of the poor little craft in which the British tar was prepared to venture the passage of the English Channel in his essay for liberty. His material was a barrel; he interlaced the staves with wattled willows:

“Heaven help us! ’twas a thing beyond
Description, wretched: such a wherry
Perhaps ne'er ventured on a pond,
Or crossed a ferry.

For ploughing in the salt-sea field,
It would have made the boldest shudder;
Untarred, uncompassed and unkeeled,
No sail—no rudder.”

You must multiply many times the troubles and difficulties of that sailor of Napoleon's day before you can appreciate to the full the plight and the achievements of those resourceful castaways of Disappointment Island, in the roaring seas and icy gales of Fifty South.