The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 6 (September 1, 1938)
Wreck of the “Benvenue” — and its Tragic Aftermath — Grim Battle Against the Sea
Thanks to a central location, a mild climate, and its claim to possess “the safest bathing-beach in New Zealand,” Timaru holds especial favour with holiday-makers. In between their tennis and their bathing, most visitors find time to stroll to the summit of the Benvenue Cliffs. These once rugged cliff heights, now thoroughly tamed by trim lawns and elegant shrubberies, command a superb view of the spires and the towers of Timaru, and look down upon the long, lazy rollers that trail a fringe of lacey foam on the white sands of Caroline Bay.
But there is another view from the top of these cliffs which is missed by most people. Just peer over the edge and look down on to the rocks below. See how the rocks are stained a rusty red: see how the waves are lapping a tangled mass of old iron which looks like the ribs of a ship—they are the ribs of a ship. That chaos of seaworn iron tells more eloquently than any book why a harbour was built at Timaru; why the safe beach of Caroline Bay came into being; why these cliffs received the name “Benvenue.” For fifty long years and more, those iron beams have withstood sea-erosion, rock-pressure and sand-encroachment—stolidly resisting the forces of obliteration as though determined to abide there as the stark memento of a far-off, fateful day in May. I pointed out this debris to a distinguished Cambridge historian once, at the same time telling him the story. He replied, “I have been all over New Zealand, and I have been charmed with the scenery, but this is the first time that I have had anything like an historic thrill in your land.”
A Nor' West Day.
May 13th, 1882. It is a beautiful sunny Saturday with a light haze drifting over the horizon, while above the distant hills a sapphire-blue arch etches itself in the western sky—a day of nor' west sunshine that only Canterbury knows. Riding at anchor in the open roadstead are three stately ships. Golden grain from the newly broken-in farms is being loaded into their holds from lighters towed out from the shore. On the morrow these vessels will be leaving Timaru. Not even the famous China Clippers hold better speed records than these wheat-wool greyhounds that soon will billow their sails to favouring trade winds and race to Mother England. As the day draws to its close, the ships finish loading.
At the sunset of that day a slight swell began to make itself felt, and as the evening drew on the sea became perceptibly rougher. Towards midnight the sea increased rapidly in force, but still there was little wind. The tide was now at its maximum, and those who knew the weather signs prophesied that at ebb tide the sea would increase in violence—a prophecy only too true, for with the dawn a heavy swell was running and the roaring of the surf could be heard for miles inland. All through the night Captain Mills, the Harbourmaster, kept constant watch on the ships riding in the roadstead. Daylight revealed these ships riding heavily, so he deemed it prudent to fire the signal gun, summoning the rocket brigade.
But look! a signal of distress comes from the ship.
Just at that moment, when things were looking blackest, gusts of nor' west wind began to blow from the land. Responding immediately to the wind, the Benvenue swung round and glided out of danger. The Harbourmaster then ran up signals from shore to instruct the ship to trim its cargo of coal and to prepare to put to sea. Answer came from the ship that the rudder was out of order, and repairs would have to be effected before it could depart.
Taking advantage of the breeze from the nor' west, the City of Perth loosened topsails and made ready to put to sea. Seeing what the City of Perth was about to do, the Benvenue decided to follow its example, and ran up the signal “sailing.” To the signal from shore, “Is there anything wrong?”, the City of Perth replied “All right,” and page 30 page 31 the minds of the anxious watchers on shore were set at ease by the movement on both of the ships which indicated they were about to put to sea.
It was now eleven o'clock in the morning and many of the spectators who had been there for some hours were making for home. Suddenly the Benvenue, to the astonishment of all concerned, ran up the signal, “Drifting.”
The Rocket Brigade asked, “Do you want an anchor?”
Quick came the Benvenue's reply, “Yes.”
The Harbourmaster, fearing that no boat could live in those angry waters, was against the launching of the lifeboat. What with bells, warnings and signals that had been going on all the morning, the whole town was by this time in a ferment, and the waterfront was crowded with Timaru's almost entire population.
The light nor' west wind that had sprung up earlier in the morning continued to blow until mid-day, then suddenly it dropped and the air became still and sultry. In spite of the drop in the wind, the ships seemed comparatively safe. At one o'clock, the Benvenue started to drift. At the same time a boat was lowered from the ship, the crew clambered into the boat and made for the City of Perth. Those on shore, not knowing what was happening on the ships, were mystified by these proceedings, and, as a measure of precaution, the rocket brigade hastened to the cliffs at Dashing Rocks, in order to make ready to rescue the crew of the Benvenue with the aid of lifelines.
Very steadily and very quietly the ill-fated ship drifted to the rocks—had it been guided into dock by an expert steersman it could not have sailed a straighter course. Nearer and nearer she drifted to the cliffs—one hundred—seventy—fifty yards from the shore—then she grounded, turned broadside on to the sea and was soon hurtled on to the rocks and left there, high and dry, with all spars standing. And all this time, from the clifftops above, throngs of people looked down in helpless consternation at this noble ship glistening in the brilliant sunshine as she drifted, inch by inch, to her doom.
On Board Ship.
What had been happening on board the ship all this time? The captain of the Benvenue stated that towards one o'clock on Sunday morning, the sea became very heavy and the vessel, which was lying stern to it, began rolling and lurching heavily. Numbers of blind rollers came aboard, breaking-in the stern windows and sweeping the poop. All hands were called. Soon afterwards a heavy sea struck her, and it was thought the ship had struck the ground, but an examination revealed that her rudder had been broken and the remainder of her stern ports staved-in. Continuing their fearsome attack, the seas then swept a boat off the skids. A second anchor was let go, and the ship then fell into a trough of the sea; the cargo of coal in the hold, although held by shifting boards, was thrown over to starboard, resulting in a dangerous list.
Daylight was anxiously awaited, the boats meantime being made ready for lowering. At 9 a.m. the starboard cable parted from the ship. A third anchor was got up and a steel wire hawser bent on. At the same time efforts were made to trim the coals, but no sooner had the crew shovelled one way, than the rolling of the vessel lurched the coals back again. By 12.30 p.m., the third anchor was ready, but the pitching of the vessel made the task of getting it over the side difficult and dangerous. By one o'clock in the afternoon, the second anchor parted, and it was soon seen that the vessel was drifting and gradually heeling over. The crew were ordered to the boats, the ship was abandoned, and the crew made for the City of Perth.
In those days there was no harbour in Timaru. Cargo for the ships was taken to the landing service station, loaded on to lighters or open boats and then towed to the awaiting ships that would be standing some distance from the shore. It was from this landing service station that a landing service whaleboat and another boat were launched and set out for the City of Perth. These two boats, which together contained a crew of fifteen men arrived at the derelict vessel in safety.
Series of Tragedies.
From this point began a series of catastrophies unparalleled in the history of Canterbury. The crew of the vessel had brought the report to shore that the ship was hanging to a stout hawser only, her cables having parted. This hawser was plainly visible from the shore, the rope standing out at times taut and rigid as an iron rod. It was only a matter of time before this, too, would snap, leaving the vessel to founder on the rocks.
It was only a matter of time—and time was against them. About three o'clock the cry went up, “She's gone!” Three boats could be seen coming away from the ship. The tide was between half and quarter ebb, and the shoaling of the water made the sea much more dangerous. Waiting their opportunity, the boats pushed bravely through the surf, while the hearts of those on shore beat high with anxiety. Taking advantage of every opportunity, the boats battled on. Soon they would be out of
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