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Islands of Despair

Seven — The Wrecks of the Invercauld and the Compadre

page 62

The Wrecks of the Invercauld and the Compadre

On Wednesday, 10th May, we were still working on various jobs preparatory to leaving for field camp again when a radio message came from New Zealand advising that the coast-watching station in Carnley Harbour was to be closed down. The personnel were to be returned to Wellington as soon as possible, except that I was authorized to retain any of them that I might be able to employ on the survey party. All the camp stores were also to be shipped except for such as would be useful to us when working in the southern area. In the morning I flashed the message by Aldis lamp to the Ranui, which was anchored in Erebus Cove, and she picked me up and we proceeded to Carnley Harbour. The men there were greatly surprised by the news, and although some of them were anxious to return to New Zealand, others were equally keen to join forces with the survey party.

It took us a couple of days to sort out the surplus stores and load them aboard the ship. The camp was well back from the landing place, and we had a long way to carry the cases. Then the "official" photographs had to be taken of the closing of the camp, and of the camp pets. These included two young pigs, who slept under the camp building, and would willingly have slept inside had they been allowed; also a number of cats. All of these animals had been captured when young and they had soon become domesticated. The oldest cat had an engaging habit of climbing up on one's shoulders by the simple method page 63of walking up one's clothes. Arrived there, he would coil himself round one's neck and purr noisily.

Having got everything aboard we sailed for Port Ross, and as there was a stiff southerly blowing we had a very lively trip up the coast.

I had decided that while the Ranui was engaged in the work of returning the Carnley Harbour party to New Zealand the survey party would camp at the head of Port Ross in what is known as Laurie Harbour. From this camp we hoped to be able to cover most of the Hooker Hills, which occupy the north-western part of the islands. I had also decided to retain Bob Pollard as an extra man, but agreed that he would make the trip to New Zealand as an additional deck-hand for the Ranui. The Hooker Hills also have their historical associations, the best known being the wreck of the Invercauld.

The Invercauld, of 888 tons, commanded by George Dalgarno, was bound from Melbourne to Callao in ballast. She sighted the Auckland Islands when about twenty miles off, but as night fell a thick fog descended and the breeze dropped to a dead calm so that the ship was at the mercy of the strong ocean currents prevalent in this locality. The barometer was falling rapidly, and about midnight a violent gale sprang up. Sail was crowded on the ship, but it was not long before the islands were again sighted, and at 2 a.m. on 10th May 1864 the ship struck. The crew all struggled towards a small rocky cove nearby, and nineteen of the twenty-five men managed to get ashore. They got what shelter they could among the rocks till daybreak, when they visited the scene of the wreck. The ship had broken up in a matter of minutes, and all the food they found was a little salt pork and some sodden biscuit. They also found the bodies of the other men.

Sufficient timber was salvaged to enable the castaways to build a rough hut and to light a fire. Four days were spent in this refuge, and then the men decided that there was little hope of obtaining more food from the wreck, so they resolved to try to scale the cliffs in search of food. They reported the page 64climb as being extremely difficult, as the cliffs were about 2000 ft. high and almost perpendicular. On reaching the summit they found themselves little better off. However, they did find fresh water and some roots that they were able to eat. After spending the night in an improvised shelter they pushed on towards Port Ross, but found that the thickness of the scrub resulted in the journey requiring several days. The cook and three seamen died during the journey, and all the others were weak from hunger and cold.

On reaching the harbour they ate shell-fish, and occasionally managed to kill a seal. It was at this time that the castaways separated into several parties, thinking that they would have a better chance of survival in this way. The captain, the mate, and four seamen remained at Port Ross for some time, but there appears to be no record of what happened to the others. It is, of course, necessary to understand that it was not until later that the provision depot was erected at Port Ross.

The shell-fish were soon finished, and it was only rarely that a seal was seen, so the captain's party constructed a primitive canoe from seal-skins and three branches, and in this they crossed to Enderby Island. Here they found plenty of rabbits to add to their diet. They also built a tiny wooden hut and four grass huts "like the cabins of the Eskimos". At Enderby Island three of the seamen died and were buried in the sand. From time to time the survivors crossed the harbour in their canoe to look for seals and to see if any of the other parties had returned.

Then one day when they were crossing the harbour they saw the Portugese ship Julian entering the port. They paddled furiously towards the ship, which had called to have a leak repaired, believing that ship repair facilities were available at the town of Hardwicke, of which more will be heard later. The three survivors were taken aboard the Julian and safely transported to Callao. They had spent twelve months and ten days on the Auckland Islands.

It should be mentioned here that on 3rd September 1865 page 65the small vessel Flying Scud visited Erebus Cove, where Captain Cross found the body of a man lying beside the ruins of a house. The house was one of the Enderby Settlement buildings, but the identity of the body was a mystery. A roofing slate beside the man had some almost illegible scratches on it, the only definite word being "James". Also alongside the body were two bottles of water and a small heap of mussel shells. The man had clearly died of starvation, and fairly recently, too, as some flesh still remained on the body. One foot was bound up with woollen rags, and the implication was that he had realized he was no longer able to seek his daily food and had resigned himself to death. There can only be conjecture as to the identity of this man, but it is believed that he may have been James Rigth, who was one of the Invercauld who separated from Captain Dalgarno. The body was buried by the crew of the Flying Scud, and a board was subsequently erected over the grave by the crew of the tug Southland.

The Invercauld was not the only ship that met her doom in the northern part of the islands. In fact there were two others, of which the first actually occurred in the same year as the Invercauld. In this case the ill-fated vessel was the Minerva, but nothing further is known except that the ship was wrecked in 1864 and four survivors were rescued on 25th March 1865. This record is reported to have been seen on a stave found on the coast of Port Ross by the survivors of the General Grant, which was wrecked in 1866.

The third casualty was the Compadre, and although the location of this wreck has not been definitely established it was probably in the vicinity of the detached rock off the northern coast which we named the Compadre Rock. This vessel was an iron barque of 800 tons, bound from Calcutta to Chile with a cargo of bags. On 16th March 1891 a fire was discovered in the after hold, and although water poured into the hold continuously from 10 a.m. till 6 p.m. it was obvious that the fire could not be extinguished, and the captain decided to make for the nearest port, which was Bluff. The page 66ship made fair progress for two days, but then a westerly gale blew up with violent squall.

At 7 a.m. on 19th March land was sighted about twelve miles off on the starboard bow. The Compadre was labouring heavily, and one particularly heavy sea burst in the forecastle ports and also the cabin. This allowed air to reach the fire, which rapidly became uncontrollable. The decks were constantly being swept by the heavy seas and it was impossible to work the pumps. The carpenter sounded the well and reported eight feet of water in the hold. The ship was now in a sinking condition, and the captain abandoned hope of saving her. It was hopeless trying to launch lifeboats in such a sea, so the master squared the mainyard and steered for the coast. Just before striking, oil was poured astern, and although this proved a great help the vessel still struck very violently. All hands had meantime climbed out on the jib-boom, and at the critical moment they all leaped or were thrown off on to the rocks. There was no loss of life, although some of the men were injured. The ship was completely destroyed within ten minutes.

The castaways then scaled the cliff, which was several hundred feet high, and made for a high peak from which they hoped to get a better idea of their surroundings. On reaching their objective they saw a flagpole close to a beach, and at once made towards it. When night came on they decided to head for a handier beach, where they found some shell-fish. They were already suffering badly from hunger, as they had had only one meal since the fire had started. It was then discovered that a Norwegian, Peter Nelson, was missing. An immediate search was unsuccessful, the night being very dark, with unceasing rain and occasional snow. The search was resumed in the morning, but without success. However, the men did locate the provision depot at Erebus Cove, and there they lived for two weeks. A note in the depot informed them that the Government vessel Hinemoa had called there a month before.

The castaways then decided that they would divide into two parties, and the mate, Mr. Bales, left with one group for page 67Carnley Harbour. It was a gruelling journey, as they had no boots and only inadequate clothing, their idea being to leave as much clothing as possible for the use of Captain Jones and the other members of his party. After six days they reached the provision depot at Camp Cove in Carnley Harbour, but they were in a sorry state with cut and swollen feet, and many of them were suffering from rheumatism.

The stores in the depot were found to be complete, and the men also found an old whale-boat. Although this was in poor condition they used it a great deal until they were caught in a gale and broke both oars. They made a safe landing on Adams Island, but the boat was smashed. However, they knew there should be a boatshed on the island and after two days' searching they found it and were able to recross the harbour to the depot. Whilst at this depot the men constructed two further shelters for their use, these being built mainly of turf and rata branches.

In the meantime Captain Jones and his men seemed to be living reasonably well at Port Ross, and they are reported to have caught and killed eight sheep and three goats. These sheep were evidently those landed at Erebus Cove by Captain Fairchild in the Government steamer Stella in 1888.

Both parties were, picked up by the sealing vessel Janet Ramsay after they had spent three and a half months on the islands.

It was on Wednesday, 17th May, that the Ranui transported us to Laurie Harbour. The head of the harbour proved to be largely mud-flats, and we could not find a very suitable camp site. Also with the much shorter period of daylight now available we had to work very hard to get our tents up before dark.

We did not have a spare man this time, and next morning Les was left to construct the camp furniture and to assemble the boxes of stores in some sort of order, while George and I tackled the familiar job of track-clearing. We worked to a system now, and the leading man would just cut enough scrub page 68to enable him to move ahead, while the following man would cut out the smaller bushes and shift all the cut branches to the sides of the track. Periodically we changed positions. By nightfall we had reached the top of the valley side, and found we were alongside a great overhanging rock which would serve both as a temporary shelter and as a landmark to indicate the position of the track.

Then followed the normal spell of bad weather, which was even more unpleasant than usual on account of our poor camp site. The water supply was very indifferent as the main stream was too far off and was inaccessible except at low tide. The tents were very cold and damp, although burning a hurricane lantern in them all day helped a little. It was 17th May when we pitched camp, but it was not till the 27th that the weather improved enough for us to start work, and even then we were driven home by low cloud, high wind, and bitterly cold rain squalls before we had done more than erect two trig signals. One of these was alongside an old post which had undoubtedly carried a signboard indicating the direction to the provision depot.

The 28th was much better, and I carried out observations at the two trigs. There had been a hard frost and crossing the tussock meadow was noticeably more difficult as all the foliage was frozen and had to be forced apart.

We were beginning to find the shortness of the days a serious inconvenience. It was 8.45 a.m. before there was enough light for us to see the track, and that meant it was usually about midday before we could reach our working area. At first sight the solution would seem to be to camp in the higher country, but in view of the extremely few days when it was possible to work, and the difficulty of getting tents and provisions to such a site, a scheme of this nature was not worthy of consideration. Living conditions during bad weather would be miserable in the extreme—we thought it was cheerless enough when we had the shelter of the bush and could go for a walk without running the risk of getting lost in the dense page 69swirling fog that would almost always envelop a high-level camp. Actually I had originally planned to establish camps in the high country, but that was before I became so intimately acquainted with the islands and their peculiar problems.

The next two days we climbed the hill only to be driven back by fog and rain without any work being done. The over-hanging rock provided welcome shelter for us, as we always waited some time in the hope of an improvement. One day, just before dark, I saw a big boar investigating our rubbish pit, and I shot him with the revolver, but he was too old to be fit for eating.

At tills time of year we had no opportunity of assessing the weather before we left, as we had to be on the track as soon as it was light enough to see, unless of course a gale was blowing and survey work automatically became impossible. However, our patience was rewarded on Wednesday, 31st May, by a very good day, and I managed to complete the triangulation observations, although interrupted by periods of rain. George and Les had a long tramp towards the north-west cape to carry out topographical work.

We all returned to the main camp at Ranui Cove that evening, leaving our tents standing in Laurie Harbour. George and Les were to return there later, but my work in that area was finished.