New South Wales hosts a wide variety of historic shipwreck sites. These range from large, fully exposed and intact hulls to smaller, largely disarticulated, dispersed, and buried structural components and artefacts. The environments in which these sites exist also differ significantly in terms of seabed composition, water depth and water clarity.
On 3 May 2016 Dr Kathy Abbass, Project Director from the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP), announced that, aided by a grant provided by the Australian National Maritime Museum and some previous research carried out by the museum’s Head of Research Dr Nigel Erskine, she had located a report by a Lieutenant John Knowles, the Agent for Transports at Newport, dated 12 September 1778 at the National Archives in London.
The Knowles report provided a breakdown of where a small fleet of troop transports had been sunk in Newport in August 1778. One of these transports was a 368-ton bark called the Lord Sandwich and it had been sunk, along with four other transports – the Earl of Orford, Yowart, Peggy and Mayflower – between the northern tip of Goat Island and the North Battery in Newport Harbor. Continue reading
I have just finished reading Geraldine Brook’s masterfully written People of the Book (Fourth Estate, London, 2008), in which Brook describes the fictional quest by an Australian paper conservator to track down the previous history of the Sarajevo Haggadah – an extremely rare and highly significant illuminated Jewish manuscript – that was written in Barcelona, Spain, around 1350.
This quest by Brook’s fictional conservator reminded me immediately of a Jewish object in our collection at the Australian National Maritime Museum which also has an intriguing story to tell.
The devastating wreck of the Dunbar on Sydney’s South Head on the evening of 20 August 1857, 158 years ago, was a disaster so appalling that it left a lasting emotional scar on the emerging colony of New South Wales.
In the pitch-darkness of that stormy winter’s night, Dunbar – only moments from safety at the end of an 81-day voyage from Plymouth carrying immigrants and well-to-do colonists returning to Sydney – missed the entrance to Port Jackson and crashed into the sheer sandstone cliffs just south of the heads. The heavy seas quickly pounded the ship to pieces, and all but one of at least 122 souls on board perished.
After having watched the waves pile up on top of the surrounding reefs for the last five days it was a great relief to finally get out from behind Waier Island and make our way slowly over to the western end of the Cumberland Entrance to commence searching for the wreck of the Hydrabad.
For the last five days (except for a brief trip over to Mer Island to allow six team members with pressing work or family commitments to fly back to the mainland) the expedition team have spent almost the entire time holed up on the southern side of Waier Island waiting for the strong North-westerly winds to abate.
However at long last the wind has started to drop off and the sea conditions have moderated enough to allow us to leave our sheltered anchorage to recommence our surveying work.
After a six hour voyage punching through 3-metre high seas created by the 40 knot North-westerly wind The Boss, with Maggie II in tow, passed through Hibernia Passage. We arrived at the anchorage on the north-western side of Mer Island at the eastern entrance to the Torres Strait. Mer is the largest of three islands (the others being Dauar and Waier) that were formed by the collapse of the crater of an extinct volcano many thousands of years ago.
Overnight, the wind from the north-west has abated a little and the swell on the northern exposed edge of Ashmore Reef, where the wreck site is located, has decreased. This allowed us to get dive teams on-site nice and early to take advantage of the calmer seas.
Led by Michael Gooding (Silentworld Foundation), Lee Graham (Australian National Maritime Museum) and Grant Luckman (Department of Environment) the dive teams have continued to plot the scattered remains of the shipwreck by carrying out additional 100 metre-long compass and tape transit surveys from the two main anchor clusters.
Although the Bureau of Meteorology had indicated that we were in for a long spell of great diving conditions — with blue skies and calm seas — the team woke up this morning to grey overcast skies and a stiff breeze from the north-west resulting in a considerable surf building up on the northern edge of the reef. After assessing the situation and finding conditions onsite a little bumpy but workable, the first groups of divers re-commenced work.
The first task today was to buoy the major features of the site including the two anchor clusters, the iron carronades and the various grouping of iron knees and riders and then plot the positions of these features onto a site plan with the help of a GPS.
Once that task was completed additional teams of divers — led by archaeologists Paul Hundley (Silentworld Foundation) and Peter Illich (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority) — entered the water to assess, measure and then record the features. At the same time the photographic team — led by Xanthe Rivett (Silentworld Foundation) and assisted by Grant Luckman (Department of the Environment) recorded the artefact assessment and survey work and supplemented the survey teams records by taking photographic close ups of various distinctive features, such as the anchor chain, anchor rings, carronade muzzles, touch holes and slides.
After an 18-hour trip, the expedition team arrived at the northern edge of Ashmore Reef on board the expedition vessel The Boss. Towed behind The Boss were one of two rigid hull inflatable boats (RIBs) and the Silentworld Foundation’s small survey catamaran Maggie II – also known as The Caravan of Courage because of its unique deck cabin that looks remarkably like a small 1970s caravan.
Ashmore Reef is a 30 kilometre long, isolated, lagooned coral reef system located more than 950 kilometres north of Cairns, Queensland, some 250 kilometres east of Thursday Island, Torres Strait and 30 kilometres offshore from the extreme northern end of the Great Barrier Reef in the Australian Coral Sea Territory.
The northern section of what is now called Ashmore Reef was first sighted by Captain Ashmore in the brig Hibernia in 1811 and unofficially called Hibernia Reef. The southern section of the reef was named the Claudine and Mary Reef an 1818 and the entire reef system called either Jones Shoal, Ormond’s or Great Ormond’s Reef by 1826. Continue reading
Over the last four years, the Australian National Maritime Museum’s underwater archaeology program has been uncovering evidence of Australia’s strong colonial trade links to Asia.
In January (2012), the museum’s archaeology team located the remains of the Royal Charlotte, wrecked in 1825. The Indian-built three-masted ship had just brought convicts to Sydney, and was en route to India with a contingent of British troops and their families when it ran aground during a gale on the inaccurately charted Frederick Reef, approximately 450 km off the Queensland coast.
The Royal Charlotte was the second wreck site discovered by the museum’s archaeology team in the Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef in recent years that demonstrates the strong trade links between Australia and India during the early years of the colony.
Previous expeditions to the Coral Sea and Great Barrier Reef by the museum discovered the wrecksite of the Indian built schooner HMCS Mermaid (in 2009) made famous by its circumnavigation of Australia in the early 1820 whilst under the command of Phillip Parker King and another expedition in 2010 re-surveyed the wrecksites of HMS Porpoise and the merchant ship Cato which had been lost on Wreck Reefs whilst on a passage to India in 1803.
In late October this year the Museum announced plans for a further expedition in early 2013 to continue this research.
The Indian built, three masted, armed, copper sheathed, teak, 555 ton ship Fergus(s)on was bound from Sydney (NSW) to Madras (India) in convoy with the Orient and Marquis of Hastings when it was wrecked on a reef in the vicinity of the Sir Charles Hardy Islands on April 27 1841 in the latitude of 12° 18’S and 143° 54E. The passengers (170 rank and file of the 50th Regiment of Foot) and crew were subsequently rescued by the crews of the accompanying vessels and the Fergus(s)on remained on the reef for a number of years acting as an informal beacon for those navigating this particularly hazardous section of the reef.
Because of its informal use as a navigation mark the reef overtime became known as Ferguson Reef and lies on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef approximately 60 nautical miles offshore from Fair Cape and 50 miles south of the Raine Island Entrance in Far North Queensland.
Wreckage consisting of chain and ballast stones believed to be off the Fergus(s)on were sighted in the middle of Ferguson Reef in 1986 and several expeditions by the Queensland Museum have attempted to survey the remains of this and other historic shipwrecks in the area.
The area of the Great Barrier Reef in the vicinity of Ferguson Reef and the Raine Island Entrance is a known wreck trap with over thirty vessels known to have been wrecked in the vicinity including eleven vessels voyaging to India such as Borneuf (1853); Chesterholme (1858); Charles Eaton (1854), Cornelius (1854); Eliza (1815); Elizabeth (1854); Fergus(s)on (1841); Frances Walker (1854); Lady Kinnaird (1861) and Martha Ridgeway (1842) and Undaunted (1863
The Royal Charlotte and proposed 2013 expeditions are part of an Australian Research Council project, a joint project between the Australian National Maritime Museum, the Silentworld Foundation and Sydney University.
* The Silentworld Foundation is a not-for-profit Foundation established to further Australian maritime archaeology and research, and to improve Australia’s knowledge of its early maritime history.
Recently Dr. Brad Duncan from the Heritage Office, Department of Environment and Heritage and Kieran Hosty from the Australian National Maritime Museum travelled to Woolgoolga on New South Wales mid north coast to examine the remains of the Canadian built 310 ton gross, wooden, three-masted barquentine Buster that had been exposed when winter storms had stripped away several metres of sand from the town’s main beach.
Now known for the largest Sikh / Punjabi population in regional Australia and its annual Curry Festival towards the end of the 19th century Woogoolga (the name was not officially changed to Woolgoolga until 1966) was the heart of a thriving sugar, timber-getting and sawmilling district.
Although first gazetted as a town in 1888 it was the construction of a 1557 foot long government jetty in 1891 that saw several sugar mills and timber mills open in the area. Whilst the sugar industry never really developed the timber mills, connected by bullock tracks, tramways and light rail to the densely forested Jesse Simpson Ranges, saw Woogoolga mill owners take advantage of the insatiable demand in Brisbane and Sydney for grey gum, white mahogany, tallowwood, grey box, turpentine and Australian cedar. In only a few short years millions of feet of sleepers, sawn timbers, piles, logs and fence palings were being exported from the port and Woogoolga was rivaling Coffs Harbour as the principle shipping port along this section of the coast, it was even considered – for a short time – as being capable of coping with significant overseas trade.
Although the jetty at Woogoolga was given some protection from the south by Green Head, its roadstead was open to storm driven seas and swells from the east and north, making the loading of timber difficult if not impossible at times. During these occasions the waiting vessels would tie up at one of the offshore moorings before coming alongside the jetty.
The barquentine Buster (a barquentine is a three masted vessel which is square rigged on the fore mast and carries fore and aft rig on its main and mizzen masts) departed Sydney for Woogoolga in mid-February 1893 to load timber at Woogoolga for various New Zealand ports. The vessel arrived safely at Woogoolga but due to the blustery conditions could not get alongside the jetty and put down two anchors and ran several hawsers to one of the offshore moorings whilst waiting for the conditions to moderate.
Unfortunately over the next few hours conditions deteriorated rapidly and early on the morning of Friday 17th February the port anchor cable parted followed shortly afterwards by the starboard – for the next nine hours Buster rode out the waves moored by the hawsers alone to the mooring buoy but shortly after 7.00pm a huge sea struck the vessel, and first one then the other hawser parted.
Pushed by the howling gale Buster drove through the breakers crashing onto the beach stern first with its bow facing towards the south. The crew, seeking safety from the breaking seas, climbed into the rigging and come dawn found themselves wet, cold, shaken but safe almost high and dry on the beach a mile or so to the north of the town.
Although the vessel had not broken up in the surf it proved impossible to salvage and after several attempts was given up as a total loss with the sand slowly covering over the vessel’s remains until only a few of its timber frames and iron riders poked above the surface of the beach.
Due to severe winter storms over the last one hundred or so years the sand covering the Buster has been scoured away from time to time revealing what appears to be an amazing jumble of well-preserved timbers lying on top of the beach just below the high water mark.
Looking through the eyes of an archaeologist however this jumble can take on new meanings offering insights into late 19th century wooden ship construction.
When you first sight Buster as it lies on the beach only a few metres away from the Lakeside Caravan Park at Woolgoolga you see what you first believe to be the bow of the 129 feet (39.31m) long barquentine facing towards the north with several rows of timber appearing above the sand on either side of the bow and then running south towards the smooth curve of the stern.
But looks can be very deceiving – generally speaking in 19th century timber shipbuilding the lower down in the hull you go the blunter or rounder the bow becomes as it takes on the shape of its bow or cant frames and the stern becomes finer and narrower as it runs back towards the rudder. Following a quick inspection the correct position of the bow and stern can be confirmed – by examining the way the vessel has been sheathed in copper (a necessary precaution against the fouling of the timber hull by marine organisms) with the overlap facing towards the northern end rather than the south and the presence of the anchor chain locker at the southern end of the site.
The rows of timber also take on a more ordered appearance – they are in fact the remains of the port and starboard lower floors and first and second futtocks – which make up the frames (or ribs) of the vessel – held in place by the vessels inner and outer planking and secured by numerous fastenings. Lying between the port and starboard side of the vessel and running almost the entire length of the site are several massive timbers some 11 inches (280mm) wide by 12 inches (304mm) high sitting on top of an even larger partially exposed timber.
That the Buster was massively built is an understatement – usually vessels in the vicinity of 350 to 400 tons have floors and futtocks approximately 10inches (254mm) square – Buster’s are 12inches (304mm) and the space between the futtocks is negligible giving the spectator the impression of an almost solid wall of timber an impression supported by the intactness and size of its internal planking – called ceilings – which are at least 8 inches (200mm) thick.
Besides its massive construction the vessel is substantially fastened with its outer and inner planking secured to the frames by a series of regularly spaced timber fastenings, called treenails, copper alloy nails and occasionally spaced iron bolts – The presence of iron bolts is a surprise given the significant corrosion problems that occur between iron bolts coming into contact with the copper sheathing until you realise that the iron bolts are only present above the copper sheathing and were used to secure iron straps – called riders – to the internal planking.
Although well built there are also several indications that construction at the Canadian yard was also a little hurried at times – with a number of the floors and futtocks being butt jointed (end on end) rather than having scarph joints – an altogether much stronger if slower method of construction – We also observed that on a number of occasions the shipwrights either missed the frames when driving home the fastenings, managed to drive the fastenings through the edge rather than the centre of the internal and external planking or neglected to put a fastening into the frame or outer plank altogether.
Usually, as a maritime archaeologist, all my wrecks lie submerged underwater and wholly or partially buried under deposits of sand, coral and rock – to get the opportunity to visit an exposed site such as Buster is a great experience and testament to the craft of Canadian shipbuilding, the preserving nature of the sand which covers the site for most of the year and a testament to the people of Woolgoolga – who proud of their maritime heritage are eager to protect the site for future enjoyment and study.
The wreck of the Buster is a protected historic relic under the NSW Heritage Act.
I would like to thank David Greenhalgh, Projects Officer, Marine Park Authority and Dr. Brad Duncan, Heritage Office for giving me the opportunity of examining the remains of this historic shipwreck.
All good expeditions must come to an end, equipment must be returned to its owners, expedition members returned to their families, friends and employers, charter vessels have to be cleaned, resupplied, the crew changed over and then sent back out to sea with a different set of passengers seeking different diving locations and sites.
The same applied to the Mermaid 2009 expedition. On Thursday morning we had to have everything and everyone of the vessel by 8.15 to allow the crew and the vessel to prepare for its afternoon departure.
After a hasty breakfast the packing of gear continued and cabins, storage areas, the dive deck and saloon were checked for left items, books, electrical cables, cameras, misplaced T Shirts and lost toothbrushes. While all this was going on I organised a vehicle to pick up all the offloaded equipment and arranged accomodation for those expedition members who were staying over nght in Cairns.
Peter Illidge said his goodbys and commenced his drive back to Townsville ferrying equipment we had borrowed from James Cook University and the Museum of Tropical Queensland. We also said our goodbys to Dr. Nigel Erskine and Dr. Lloyd Fletcher who were also leaving us today in Cairns.
Whilst the remaining crew were seeing the sites of Cairns – Paul Hundley, Lee Graham and I were playing material conservators – packing the artefacts recovered from HMCS Mermaid in absorbent gel and protective boxes – before they made their long trip to Sydney and into the care of the conservation section at the Australian National Maritime Museum.
In the evening the remaining crew members got together for a final meal before flying out to their respective States. Like all good things expeditions must come to an end BUT as the evening meal progressed talk moved onto other wrecks on other reefs off the coast of Australia.
Expeditions such as this one are only as successful as the crew are experienced, innovative and hard working. A very big thankyou (in no particular order) to Peter Illidge, Warren Delaney, Ed Slaughter, Wayne Morris, Grant Luckman, Lloyd Fletcher, Elaine Cuzens, Alice Lafferty, Megan Blacker, John Mullen, Jacqui Mullen, Jenni Mullen, Stephen Day, Lindsay Birley, Greg Tanner, Scott Northcutt, Anne Northcutt, Christina Koh, Andrew Turner, Grant Bowering, Xanthe Rivett, Nikki McNicole, John McNicole, Lesley Howlett, Laurie Carrico, Mark Stewart, Cathy Stewart, Meyric Slimming, Fred Pakoa, Lee Graham, Paul Hundley and Nigel Erskine.
and a big hats off to Trevor Jackson, skipper of Spoilsport, Kerrin Johns, Spoilsport Cruise Director and all of the crew at Mike Ball Dive Expeditions including Craig Stevens, Stirling Robertson, Warren Boast James, Richard Kennedy, Alex Mitchael, Tristan Brighte, Bre Jenkins and Katrina along with the crew of Nimrod and Pirate for all their hard work, professionalism and sense of humour.
I would also like to thank the expeditions sponsors the Silentworld Foundation without whose assistance this expedition would not have been possible.