Greg James
Strange Stories from the Sea

The Little Dove


The Little Dove is credited as being the first European vessel to touch land in Australia, when in 1606 she spent many months mapping and charting the coast at Cape Yorke Peninsula.

World fortunes were being made, lost and fought over as European Nations sought a monopoly over the spice and slave trades from Africa, India and countries beyond. The Little Dove was owned and chartered to the Dutch VOC (East India Company) and was light, fast, well-armed and built to sail in shallow waters, which would have been perfect for the seas in the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Arafura Sea.

A famous sailor by the name of William Janzoon was the skipper when this brave little vessel left Batavia and sailed east to East Java, on to New Guinea and finally into the mouth of the Pennefather River. The Dutch used The Little Dove to hunt and destroy Chinese Junks and Spanish raiders which were also seeking to muscle in on the highly lucrative trade of the time (gunship diplomacy)! The image above is of the replica built in Fremantle, Western Australia.

The Zanoni

The beautiful clipper-styled barque 'Zanoni' was built in Liverpool (UK) in 1865 as part of the East-India maritime trade that included such great ocean vessels as the 'Cutty Sark' and the 'Star of Greece'. She weighed in at 338 tons (unloaded) and was 139 feet (44 metres) in length.

Incredibly, the 'Zanoni' was one of those ships that was not only wrecked on its return maiden voyage, but also came to grief in perhaps what was normally the calmest of seas when compared to its run out to Australia from Great Britain! The Zanoni left Liverpool on 14 February 1866 and from here she sailed to Port Louis, Mauritius, with 400 tons of guano where after its discharge over 4500 bags of sugar were taken on board bound for Port Adelaide.

After taking on 15 tons of sandalwood and wheat at Port Adelaide, the ship proceeded to Port Henry (now known as Port Wakefield) to complete loading wheat. The Zanoni's fateful and final voyage was on 11 February 1867 under the command of a Captain Summers and a crew of 13. She was now fully laden with the sandalwood and 4000 bags of wheat. The weather was fine but at 1330 hours a fearsome electrical storm was observed rushing in from the north-west. The ship was thrown on her beam ends so quickly that the crew were caught off-guard as the ship rolled over keel upwards.

Within just 15 minutes after the storm had struck, the ship had disappeared. The Zanoni wreck wasn't discovered officially until 1983 when an abalone diver and local commercial fisherman from Port Vincent found the wreck site – about 5kms north-east of the original site!

The Clan Ranald

One of more intriguing of South Australia's shipwrecks is that of the SS Clan Ranald, a turret-decked cargo ship that sank in mysterious circumstances off the southern coast of Yorke Peninsula in February 1909. Being a 'turret' ship meant the Clan Ranald had a top-deck and structure designed for the bulk loading and transport of bagged wheat, flour and coal. Seen by many at the time as a modern maritime trend, the loss of the Clan Ranald can be clearly linked to over-loading as a dangerous practice that contributed to the ship's demise and loss of life.

After loading, the ship headed out from Port Adelaide despite already listing at 4 degrees to starboard (left) and I believe this was critical to her foundering in the rough weather of the time. As so many locals and sea-farers well know, the southerly winds in Investigator Strait during February are relentless, often packing 30 knots when breezes elsewhere along our coast are somewhat far more benign and favourable. As the Clan Ranald sailed south past Troubridge Point, the southerly winds threw wave after wave against her starboard side, so much so that her cargo shifted even more and alarmingly, crushing sailors inside the vessel and almost capsizing her in minutes!

The alarms and distress rockets were fired, but no assistance came. Within an hour the ship was sinking rapidly and men abandoned ship with little care for their mates or their cargo. In all, 40 men lost their lives that afternoon and only 24 made it back to Adelaide surviving after a horrifying shipwreck only a few hours from port!

To this day the cemetery at Edithburgh holds the graves of the men who perished, interestingly many of the crew buried in a mass site because their identities were never confirmed.

The General Grant

The story of the wreck of the General Grant in May of 1866 is by far my favourite! In an incredible story of incompetence, tragedy, dogged persistence & sheer good luck - only 15 people out of an original crew & passengers numbering 83 souls survived an ordeal off the Auckland Islands Archipelago that still makes my skin tingle!

On May 13, 1866 the General Grant, in calm conditions on her way from Melbourne to London via Cape Horn, inexplicably ran into the cliffs of the western-most side of Auckland Is - situated south-west of New Zealand. The current pushed the ship into an above-water cave where the rising tide incredibly rammed her masts through the hull of the boat and sank her to the bottom of an icy, merciless ocean!

Only three of the ship's long-boats made it off with immediate survivors and then sailed their way to the uninhabited Disappointment and then Ross Islands. People continued to die from the cold, hunger and illness - and a long-boat that set out to reach the NZ mainland disappeared without trace to this day. The fifteen remaining survivors then moved to Enderby Island where they were finally rescued in November 1867, 18 months since the General Grant sank with an overall loss of 68 lives. Interestingly, in the cargo on-board the ill-fated ship there was over 2700 ounces of gold from the Australian goldfields - a value in today's terms of AUD$4m! Further intrigue has it that the manifest of 9 tons of zinc ballast was in fact gold bars destined for the UK Treasury! Attempts to find the wreck have not been successful...

The SS Admella

One of the more compelling sagas of shipwrecks off the southern Australian coast is that of The SS Admella, grounded and broken by a limestone reef and rocks in less than 2 metres of water at Carpenter Rock! The unique sadness of the ship's story is that it took some days for people to be saved and the news-papers of the time were able to run a serial-like series of what was happening to the poor souls stranded by the huge surf and unrelenting gales that pounded the stricken vessel.

The Admella was a 390 plus tonne steamer that worked the Melbourne/Portland/Semaphore/Port Adelaide routes with crew, cargo and passengers. In August 1857 she left Port Adelaide fully laden with copper (from the Kapunda and Hughes mines), 113 passengers, six valuable race-horses and other cargoes. Huge southerly swells were encountered immediately after the ship passed Kangaroo Island but otherwise conditions were oily, calm and generally good for steaming.

However, the serenity did not last long, when at 4am the next morning the ship - way off course - was lifted 4 metres up onto the rugged rocks and stranded high and dry above the water, incredibly with her engines still running at 4 knots! There was no grinding or violent collision, but the faulty rivets in the ship's hull popped and within minutes the ship broke into three pieces and the chaos began. Whole sections of the vessel fell back into the surging ocean taking crew, cargo and passengers alike. 89 people perished with only 24 survivors finally making it to safety.

Outstanding bravery was shown by the lighthouse keeper from Cape Northumberland , Benjamin Germein, who personally brought the survivors to safety after eight days stranded upon the wreck and their horrifying ordeal.

Captain John Smith & Pocahontas - an enduring romance?

One of the most enduring stories from early North American recorded history of British 'settlement' is that of the romance between explorer Capt John Smith and a native Potomac Indian woman who travelled by the name Pocahontas. John Smith was an unbelievably larger-than-life figure who arrived at Point Comfort near the entrance of Chesapeake Bay after five lifetimes as a soldier of fortune (fighting against the Ottoman Turks in Europe), a white slave, lover of famous Tartar women and trained killer.

The European settlement of Jamestown in present day Maryland (Virginia) was on its knees from deadly diseases, Indian attacks, internal disputes and religious bias when in 1607 John Smith set foot in the beleaguered colony, and there began a story I believe is one of the great sagas of American history. And it occurred well before the Mayflower pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. Using the gunboat diplomacy approach, Smith re-set the regional agenda with Indians and European settlers alike until taken captive by Chief Powhatan and threatened with a rather gruesome method of execution. Legend has it that Pocahontas intervened just as Smith was about to be relieved of his life, took him into her care and a romance blossomed. The Jamestown settlement again fell into disarray.

Pocahontas, deserted by Smith, took up with a local Indian warrior by the name of Kocoum. But again she was called upon to save the deteriorating situation between the white settlers and Poto-mac Indians during which she was taken captive, converted to Christianity and married to a widowed minister by the name of John Rolfe. Pocahontas took the name Rebecca Rolfe and sailed to London in 1616. She was in fact, spying for Chief Powhatan and secretly rendezvoused with John Smith after a decade apart. Pocahontas died a few months later, still in London, of tuberculosis. She had travelled across two continents, one of the world's most turbulent oceans (North Atlantic) and through at least two immensely contrasting cultures - from a time in recent history that to this day is still not understood.

The whereabouts of the grave of Pocahontas is not known.

The Ferret – an unsolved mystery!

Many tourists and locals alike know of the skeletal remains of The Ethel, the wreck of a Norwegian sailing ship stranded high up on the sandy beach on the far south-west coast of Yorke Peninsula. Far less is known, however, of the wreck of The Ferret which lies in an unmarked, watery grave just metres from the Ethel on Reef Head. Constructed in 1871 in Scotland, The Ferret was chartered by London-based shipbrokers Henderson & Coy to ostensibly take a cruise to the Mediterranean.

Once she passed Gibraltar, The Ferret mysteriously jettisoned lifeboats & fittings, repainted the colour of her funnel and made other changes to her silhouette and sailed to Brazil! There she took on the name of The India, loaded with over E10k pounds of coffee and sailed to Mauritius and then on to Melbourne. Her ship's log remains undiscovered.

The Ferret was eventually 'found' by the authorities in Port Phillip Bay and her master and crew caught and sentenced to seven years in gaol for piracy. Sold to Mt Gambier Shipping and then the famous Adelaide Steamship Coy, The Ferret was the State's main 'tea and sugar' ship right up to the early 1900's, trading between the main ports in Spencer Gulf (Wallaroo, Port Victoria, Port Lincoln, Port Augusta, Port Pirie, Whyalla).

Sadly, The Ferret ran aground and was lost in a storm near Reef Head in 1921, after 50 years of an amazing and adventurous life as one of the 20th Century's true 'mystery ships'.

Murat Bay - Ceduna and Thevenard

I am constantly amazed at the origins of the European names many of Australia's coastal towns and settlements have been given by the early maritime explorers, notably Frenchman Nicholas Baudin and Englishman Matthew Flinders.

Murat Bay on SA's magnificent West Coast is a great example. Most anglers and fisho's know well of the coastal beauty, great fishing and camping, big noah's and much more. But the name "Murat Bay" comes from a famous person and time in modern European history ie the French Napoleonic Wars.

Field Marshall Joachim Murat was a brave and courageous French Army Commander who fought on the side of Napoleon, was a staunch Republican, took the gamble of marrying Nap's younger sister Caroline (who herself is worthy of celebrity status) and became a man known for not doing things by halves. Joachim was King of Naples in the early 1800's. When Napoleon was finally defeated in 1815 he was arrested, court-marshalled and then executed by firing squad.

So our townships of Ceduna and Thevenard have been for-ever endowed with a moment in history.

Murat, brave to the end, did not wear a blindfold and shouted to the firing squad:

"Soldats, Faites votre devoir! Droit au coeur mais eparnezle visage. Feu!"

"Soldiers, Do your duty! Straight to the heart but spare the face. Fire!"

The Raft of the Medusa - portrait of an unpleasant truth

It was July 1816 and following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, the French frigate Medusa was or-dered to depart Rochefort and set sail for the Senegalese port of Saint-Louis in a diplomatic mission to accept return of their (French) colony from the British. In an effort to make good time, the Medusa overtook other vessels and deviated from her chartered course by over 90 nautical miles. The ship ran aground on a sandbank off the West African coast and after frantic efforts to free the ship failed, the 400 passengers and crew made plans to leave the ship and travel the 50 nautical miles (97 km) to the coast in six surviving life-boats. The only problem with this plan was that the six life-boats could only carry 250 of the unlucky souls that made up the passengers and crew of the Medusa.

In an incredible story of cowardice, incompetence and sheer bastardry, the remaining 146 men and women were piled on to a hastily-built raft and set adrift in the South Atlantic! Seventeen crew members decided to take their chances by remaining on-board the grounded Medusa.

With sparse provisions aboard the raft, the Crew, crazed, parched and starved, mercilessly slaugh-tered the weakest. They then ate their dead companions as they violently took control of the drifting raft. After 13 days of hell on the South Atlantic, the raft was rescued by pure accident as no particular search effort had been mounted by the French for the survivors of the Medusa wreck.

By this time only 15 men were still alive. The others had been killed or thrown overboard by their comrades, died of starvation, or thrown themselves into the sea in despair. The incident became a huge public embarrassment for the French monarchy, only recently restored to power after Napoleon's defeat in 1815. A replica wooden Medusa is now moored permanently in Marseilles, where it is used as a Royal French Navy training ship!

The Star of Greece

Launched in 1868, the Star of Greece was built on Queen's Island in Belfast Harbour, Northern Ire-land and a proud first member of the Corry line of ships inc Star of Italy, Star of France, Star of Per-sia, Star of Scotia, Star of Albion, Star of Denmark, Star of Erin, Star of Bengal and the Star of Russia. The Star of Greece was a classic three-masted clipper of her age and (unknown by most) holds to this day an equal record of the Cutty Sark in their races to carry grain from Australia to Great Britain - and in fact she still holds the clipper record from London to Calcutta.

The Star of Greece sailed from the UK in March 1888 to bring cannons to arm Glenelg against a pos-sible invasion from Russia. She set return sail in July of the same year, loaded with over 16,000 bags of wheat. A storm sighted off the coast prompted the harbour master to order the tug to tow her out of harbour to the free winds. Old and experienced sailors sensed the danger and deserted ship.

Along the coast of eastern Gulf St Vincent the Star of Greece ran into mountainous seas that hit her so hard from a westerly direction that her cargo shifted, resulting in water swamping her lower deck and wrecking her bridge. She was driven upon the reef just south of what is now known as Gull Rock, almost 50 nautical miles off-course from her route through Investigator Strait. Over 20 sad souls perished in the surf as they tried to escape the wreck - when the seas calmed the next day, low tide was a mere 50 metres from the wreck itself, still whole and high above the water!

The poet R.H. Shaw wrote in 1888:

"O, many a sad, sad wreck there's been,
Upon the raging main,
And many a noble ship's been lost.
We ne'er will see again.
But the saddest wreck and loss of life,
That's happened in one day,
Is that of the good ship Star of Greece,
Wrecked in Willunga Bay"

James Porter & The Frederick - The ship that never was!

In 1834, the colonial administration in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) closed the notorious penal colony on Sarah Island and began to transfer the inmates to the new prison at Port Arthur.

In a calculated and audacious bid for freedom, the ten remaining convicts on the island, including the wily and literate James Porter, commandeered the ship the Frederick, a 21 foot brig that the men themselves had built and, knowing what lay in store for them at Port Arthur, made their daring escape on the open seas!

James Porter was born in London around the very early part of the 19th century. He was sent to sea at a young age and lived for a time in Chile. Back in England he was convicted in 1821 of stealing and sentenced to transportation for life at the penal settlement in Macquarie Harbour. In 1834, Porter & nine other convicts seized the brig Frederick and sailed her over 6200 nautical miles (11500kms) to freedom in Chile. They landed at Valdivia where they assumed new identities as shipwrecked sailors. Relentlessly pursued by Governor Walpole, Porter was arrested in 1836, re-turned to England, tried and transported all the way back to Tasmania, incredibly arriving in 1837 on a ship called the Sarah! He was sentenced to death for piracy, had the sentence commuted and then transported to Norfolk Island.

After four years of good behaviour he was returned to mainland Australia. In May 1847 he absconded from Newcastle on the brig Sir John Byng (which itself was wrecked 5 years later in 1852). He was never heard of again.

USS Oregon

The USS Oregon was one of the first United States battleships with the thirteen inch guns of her massive size making her the largest in the US fleet. In 1898 after the loss of the USS Maine in Havana harbour tensions rose between the United States and Spain - so it was decided that the Oregon should be with the main US fleet needed to defend possible attacks from the North Atlantic. The distance between San Francisco & Florida was formidable as the Panama Canal had not yet been constructed. The shortest route for the Oregon was southwards around the bottom of South America, via the notoriously dangerous Straits of Magellan!

The journey of 'Capt McKinley's Bulldog' and its crew is a worthy addition to Greg James Strange Stories from the Sea. The Oregon reached the Magellan Straits on the night of April 15, 1898 and when she made the passage the next morning, sailed into one of the worst storms of the decade. The fierce currents & unrelenting gales drove her against the steep cliffs & her engines were no match for the weather. The Oregon survived only by repetitively firing 5000 metre steel chain anchors that were then continuously winched in to keep the vessel off the rocks!

Other interesting details from this voyage include:

  • The crew did not drink the fresh water on board (so as to save time not needing to re-supply) but lived off the warm water from the ship's boilers!
  • Over 14000 nautical miles were travelled in the then world-record time of 66 days!
  • The average speed was 11.5 knots!

Like many tough battleships of the time the USS Oregon lived on & on, surviving storms off Guam & World War 2 munitions duties. Greg James has experienced the good fortune to visit the location of her sole remaining mizzen mast at Portland on the shores of the Columbia River - and was moved by what little has survived from the history of a proud ship's past.

The MV Krait

The M.V. Krait is a wooden hulled vessel that has a name & reputation forever etched in Australian wartime history. Z Special Unit employed The Krait against the Japanese in World War II to ferry Australian commandoes on successful missions to attack & destroy enemy shipping, especially in Singapore harbour.

The Krait takes its name from a poisonous Malaysian snake & incredibly started its career as a Japanese fishing boat (The Kofuku Maru)! The Krait was first used to evacuate over 1000 people from Sumatra to escape the Japanese invasion & then began hunt & destroy missions that were crucial to slowing the Japanese advance against Australia in those darkest of days in 1942 & 1943. Often operating out of Darwin harbour or Exmouth on the WA coast, her most famous mission was Operation Jaywick which resulted in the loss of 40,000 tonnes of ships & their cargo in one night of chaos & mayhem.

The Krait was present at the surrender of the Japanese forces on the island of Ambon in September 1945 & one may still see her to this day - berthed at the Australian Maritime Museum, Darling Harbour in Sydney! The Australian Commando Units have honoured the tradition of the Krait & her extraordinarily brave passengers & crew by naming all their vessels after venomous snakes, such as Coral Snake & Viper.

The SMS Wolf

It is July 1917 and Australia and New Zealand alone have lost over 40,000 men killed in the bitter, horrendous World War I battlefields of the Middle East & France. To make matters even worse, a number of ships are disappearing in a mysterious fashion off the two countries' joint coasts. Then a young Sydney woman (Mary Cameron), her American husband & family foolishly set sail from her home in San Francisco and become unwitting, unwilling prisoners-of-war in the most challenging of environments - aboard the German freighter turned warship, The SMS Wolf!

The SMS Wolf had been ingeniously converted from a commercial vessel to one of a menacing & supremely effective commerce-raider with a vast armoury of over 400 mines, 20 torpedoes, six inch cannons, a kit seaplane and a captain & crew on a suicide mission to inflict havoc and loss on the allied shipping lanes and harbours of the Indian and South-West Pacific oceans. In one continuous voyage of over 65,000 nautical miles, The SMS Wolf and her 350 man crew launched the war's only direct attacks on Australia & New Zealand and became one of the century's most extra-ordinary Strange Stories from the Sea.

The SMS Wolf captured and/or sank over 30 ships from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, United States, Spain & France that amounted to an incredible 150,000 tonnes! When the war was finally over The SMS Wolf was taken by the French as reparation and renamed The Antinous and returned to the Pacific. In 1924 the famous French surrealist poet Paul Eluard wrote one of his classic works against the backdrop of the ship's dark history and the Pacific cruise as he escaped from a broken heart and a ménage a trois........

'Days so slow, days of rain,
Days of eyes closed to the sea's horizon,
Of hours all alike days of captivity...'

Magellan

Ferdinand Magellan's expedition of 1519-1522 became the first expedition to sail from the Atlantic Ocean into the Pacific Ocean (named by Magellan meaning peaceful) via the Strait of Magellan at the very bottom of South America. It also completed the first circumnavigation of the Earth, although Magellan himself did not complete the entire voyage, being killed during the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines. Of the 237 men who set out on five ships, only 18 completed the circumnavigation and managed to return to Spain in 1522. So, on August 10, 1519, the five ships under Magellan's command - Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción, Victoria and Santiago - left Seville and descended the South American Guadalquivir River to Sanlúcar de Barrameda, at the mouth of the river.

Brazil was Portuguese territory and so Magellan avoided it and on December 13 anchored near present-day Rio de Janeiro. There the crew was resupplied, but bad conditions caused them to delay. Afterwards, they continued to sail south along South America's east coast, looking for the strait that Magellan believed would lead to the Spice Islands. The fleet reached Río de la Plata on January 10, 1520.

On 30 March the crew established a settlement they called Puerto San Julian in Argentina. On April 2 a mutiny involving two of the five ship captains broke out, but it was unsuccessful because most of the crew remained loyal. Reportedly the bones of those killed for the crime of mutiny were found by Sir Francis Drake in his first voyage chasing the Spanish El Dorado!

Magellan also gives his name to the Magellanic Penguin, which he was the first European to sight and the Magellanic clouds, now known to be nearby dwarf galaxies.

La Perouse

Within a year of James Cook's return to England, Australia was claimed by the French on two occasions! In 1772 Marc-Joseph du Fresne lead two ships (Le Mascurin & Le Marquis De Castries) on a voyage that followed the route of Abel Tasman & actually interacted with the aboriginal people in Frederick Henry Bay, Tasmania. In 1785 Jean-Francois de Galaup, the Compte de La Perouse, sailed direct to Botany Bay in an attempt to head off the establishment of an English colony by The First Fleet. La Perouse had two ships (La Boussole & L'Astrolabe) & explored much of the earlier work of Cook. La Perouse arrived at Botany Bay on the morning of January 24, 1788 and panicked The First Fleet into sailing into Port Jackson Bay! La Perouse then set sail for New Caledonia and was never heard of again. His fate remained a mystery for over 200 years.

There is a beautiful small French restaurant in Honiara on the island of Guadalcanal, the capital of Solomon Islands that bears the name of La Perouse to this day!

It is said that when Louis 18th was before the guillotine he was heard to ask "Before I die, is there any news of La Perouse?"

Torres

The suspicion and envy of the main seafaring & often at war nations of Europe caused King Philip III of Spain to send Luis Vaez de Torres from Peru in 1606 to find the Great South Land (Australia). Originally the expedition was under the command of a Portuguese born Captain Pedro de Quiros, but when the crew mutinied well into the voyage in Vanuatu, Torres was left to carry on & chart his way through the narrow stretch of water (Torres Strait) between Cape York & New Guinea. This amazing journey actually sailed from Peru in the South Americas westward through the Pacific ocean & the islands of the South West Pacific!

How Torres & his crew navigated their way through the maze of shoals & islands (Vulcan, Monserrate, Las Cantarides) & on to the Arafura Sea in large, unwieldy Spanish ships was that of white-knuckled sailing! The shoals in & around Prado at low tide would have surely scraped the bottom of the bigger vessels.

Torres returned safely to Manila in the Spanish Philippines in May 1607, where they found that Quiros had survived & returned, unbelievably, to Mexico! The Spanish, eager to protect their newfound knowledge of an east to west passage to Batavia & the spice trade, kept Torres discoveries secret until 1762 – an incredible story of subterfuge, counter intelligence & master discovery!

Abel Tasman

Abel Tasman, born in 1603, was forever destined to play a major role in the discovery of the Great South Land. Tasman had been a ship's master for many years when he was finally given a chance (by the governor of Batavia in 1642) to determine a passage from the West that would allow Dutch ships to reach South America un-impeded from Batavia. Tasman set out in August 1642 with two little ships (Heemskerck & Zeehaen), sailed direct to Mauritius & then incredibly went due south before turning east! The late winter storms took the ships on a roller-coaster run east towards Van Diemen's Land, a remarkable sea voyage of 10,000 kms that lasted just over 2.5 months. Tasman's navigation & dead reckoning was superb!

On the southern tip of Tasmania lies a rocky island peril called the Maatsuyker Group, named after the governor of Batavia who commissioned the voyage. Tasman took refuge in Frederick Henry Bay & after taking on water left to go even further east. Little did he know he was the first known European to put foot on the Great South Land in any shape or form. Tasman then sailed on to sight Staten Land which became known as New Zealand's South Island.

Tasman eventually returned to Batavia in June 1642 via the Solomon Islands, Tonga & Fiji. In doing so he had circumnavigated the entire continent of Australia but had seen only a fraction of its shores!

The Lucette

At 10am on June 15, 1972 the 19-ton & 15-metre schooner Lucette, a private yacht skippered by Scotsman Dougal Robertson was sunk by a pack of Killer Whales west of the Galapagos islands. The boat sank in less than a minute and so began one of the more incredible stories of survival ever told.

With a 2.5 metre fibreglass dinghy & an inflatable rubber raft a group of 5 people set sail for Costa Rica without maps or any navigation instruments or compass – a trip of over 1000 nautical miles and only 3 full days of emergency rations on hand!

Their courage & personal self-sacrifice became a way of life until they were miraculously rescued 38 days later, having travelled an exhausting 750 nautical miles to be rescued by a passing fishing trawler!

The First Fleet

A story of incredible hardship & suffering, the story of Australia’s first fleet is also one of irony, incompetence, bravery & good luck. Approx 1500 people sailed from Portsmouth (UK) in 1777 to arrive 8 months later in January 1788, sailing on 11 tiny ships that leaked, creaked & clunked their way to Botany Bay, after a request for convict labour from Lord Sydney. Two amazing events occurred on the morning of January 24th, 1788 when Governor Phillip awoke in Botany Bay, being:

• Two French ships, the Astrolabe & the Boussole under the command of La Perouse turned up in a northerly storm that had blown them south – they had only been in the area for up to 3 years, having left Europe in June 1785!
• The 11 ships then panicked & attempted to leave Botany Bay to get to Port Jackson before the French, resulting in several of them crashing into each other causing death, injury & damage to both the crews & the boats!

Mary Bryant and her husband William were passengers on that very First Fleet – the only convicts to ever successfully escape from Sydney – see Greg James story in this section.

Napoleon Bonaparte and the everlasting daisies

Napoleon Bonaparte lived an extra-ordinary life and was fascinated by the prospect of discovery and settlement of the Great South Land, having been overlooked for the French expedition of La Perouse in 1776 – and didn't that change the course of modern history!

Nicholas Baudin named much of South Australia from the sea with French names before Matthew Flinders, such as Golfe Bonaparte for Spencer Gulf & Golfe Josephine for the smaller Gulf St Vincent. <

Baudin also took many flora & fauna specimens back to Josephine's maison de grande in rural France, among them was the gorgeous Australian everlasting white daisy. Napoleon was so besotted with these little flowers that he ordered his entourage to carry them with him everywhere.

Today, one may find these iconic Australian daisies growing wild and free on the island of Elba, where Bonaparte was imprisoned during one of his incarcerations after defeat at the hands of the English.................an 'everlasting' tribute to his memories of happier times and an empire won and lost!

Mary Bryant

Mary Bryant holds a special place in the early years of Australian seafaring history. Transported to Australia as a female convict in 1789, Mary escaped with her daughter from Botany Bay in NSW & single-handedly sailed a small cutter with two other escapees to Jakarta/Batavia – an incredible journey of 5600 kms through the Great Barrier Reef, the Coral Sea, the Timor Sea & into Dutch Batavia. Arrested as a pirate, Mary finally got a passage back to England on the very same ship that carried William Bligh and his surviving crew from the 'Bounty' mutiny!

Feighted in the UK, her cause was picked up by a famous solicitor & Mary was pardoned for her crimes. Perhaps the fact that Mary was the daughter of a Cornish fisherman gave her the knowledge needed for her famous seafaring journey!

Corny Point

Corny Point was the name given to the north-west point of Yorke Peninsula in 1802 by Matthew Flinders, taking 'corny' as to mean remarkable, from a word of middle English & Yorkshire origin. Other interesting names given to coastal locations by the French explorer Nicholas Baudin before their English names are:

  1. Port Lincoln → Port Champagny
  2. Cape Jervis → Cap Dupleix
  3. Yorke Peninsula → Presqu'ile Cambaceres
  4. Spencer Gulf → Golfe Bonaparte
  5. Gulf St Vincent → Golfe Josephine
  6. Murat Bay → Cape Rabelais
  7. Investigator → Detroit de Lacepede
  8. Port Wakefield → Baie Caroline

William Dampier

Born on an English farm in 1652, William Dampier was orphaned and ran away to sea at 19. He always kept a journal and arrived in Australia (New Holland) via Guam, aboard a stolen vessel in January 1688, the Cygnet. Dampier made detailed notes of the life & habitats of the Aboriginal Australians in Arnhem Land. Escaping from the Cygnet on Nicobar Island his diary was later published in 1697 'A New Voyage Around The World' – it was an instant best-seller & he became a celebrity in Britain.

Dampier's adventures in HMS Roebuck are a novel in themselves, but when this tough little ship floundered in the Atlantic in 1701 he survived, was court martialled (for losing a Navy ship) & lost all his buccaneering monies & royalties from his book. Incredibly he returned to sea as a navigator for a private expedition & was on board the Duke when it rescued Alexander Selkirk from the island Juan Fernandez in 1708.

Nicholas Baudin

In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte had defeated the English everywhere but on the sea, and still holding a fascination for the South Land over the fact that he was not selected for La Perouse's expedition in 1776 (forever changing the course of history), he ordered Nicholas Baudin (Le Geographe) and Emmanuel Hamelin (Le Naturaliste) to the South Seas. Matthew Flinders still was finishing his publication 'Observations on the Coasts of Van Diemen's Land' in England and so the race began.

Baudin was already on the New Holland Coast when Flinders finally sailed and he had found the plate on Dirk Hartog Island of earlier explorer Willem de Vlamingh. The story of European mapping of the Great South Land from the sea actually concluded on April 8, 1802 when Baudin met Flinders at Encounter bay in SA. It had taken 196 years.

Baudin's discoveries of native flora and fauna & subsequent specimens are still revered as a masterpiece of discovery, preservation, description & botanic science.

Matthew Flinders

In 1791 at the age of 17 Matthew Flinders went to sea with Capt William Bligh in HMS Providence and within a month was put in charge of the ship's timekeepers. In 1801 a sloop HMS Fram was refitted and renamed as the HMS Investigator & the rest is history. However, the Investigator was a floating disaster waiting to happen as the ship took in close to 1 foot of water every hour when running against the wind!

Flinders first actual landing on the mainland of SA was at a spot now known as Port Wakefield and he mapped the eastern side of Yorke Peninsula as he left Gulf St Vincent en route to Kangaroo Island.

This amazing seaman also survived the wreck of HMS Porpoise & HMS Cato on the Wreck Reef, 700 miles off Port Jackson in NSW & among his fellow survivors was one John Franklin, a midshipman who later became enormously famous in SA, Tasmania and the North West passage adventures.

Portugal and Spain

Incredibly, one man in particular from the 15th century had a major impact on the early explorers seeking the Great South Land from the sea. Pope Alexander VI (to keep the peace with two great Christian nations – Portugal and Spain) made an arbitrary line on the maps of the time which gave everything west of the Cape Verde islands to the Spanish & the remainder to the Portugese.

And guess where the longitudinal demarcation line concluded? Although unknown at the time, the Pope's line finished at the foot of the Mount Lofty ranges, over 300 years before they were formally claimed by Matthew Flinders!

The following extra-ordinary adventures of Columbus, Magellan & Torres will be covered in Greg James short but strange stories from the sea in weeks to come.

Captain William Bligh

Sometimes wrongly scorned as the coward from the Rum Rebellion in NSW, Capt William Bligh was a remarkable seaman and survivor of his times. Three times under British Naval Board review or court-martialled:

  1. For the loss of his Captain James Cook, killed in action in Hawaii
  2. For the loss of the British navy warship the 'Bounty'
  3. For the loss of the NSW colony in the Rum Rebellion

Each time Bligh was found not guilty & pardoned by the Court. He had exceptional seamanship skills & was a man loved by most of those who served under him. After being abandoned to the elements by Fletcher Christian, Bligh & 20 odd sailors piloted a small 19' open row-boat from Tahiti to Batavia (Indonesia) without a man lost – a open sea journey against the odds over 11,000km to safety!