Storm at Oamaru

From Gavin McLean's
'Oamaru Harbour - Port in a Storm'
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Early sailing ships did not have engines. This may sound an obvious thing to state but along with that critical lack comes a whole set of rules. For instance it means they could not simply sail into and out of ports but needed assistance in the form of small steam vessels that towed them in and out. Once far enough out where there was plenty of sea room the Captain would undertake a series of steps to get his vessel heading in the right direction. Enclosed ports like Port Chalmers and Auckland were no problem but ports like Oamaru were completely unprotected and ships were obliged to anchor in the 'roadstead' which was several hundred meters off shore, transporting goods and people back and forth by means of lighters.

Most weather systems move from west to east and so vessels moored at Oamaru had reasonable warning of impending weather changes and could get themselves further out and away from shore, willing to sail back and forth for days if required. Smaller vessels usually employed fore and aft sail systems like a modern yacht and so could sail close to the wind, meaning they could face withing a few degrees and still get forward motion. Square riggers, however, had few sails in this configuration because they wanted to go fast over immense distances and so getting away from an anchorage was a bit trickier.

When the weather system came the other way, from the east, these ships were in great danger because they were trapped against the coast on what is called a lee shore. This means the Captain needed as much time as possible to edge his vessel out on his tiny manoevering sails until he had enough sea room to turn and use his mainsails. The shore people understood the risks as well as the Captain and in the case of Oamaru there was a signal flag system that allowed the Port Captain to give the Ship Captains information and instructions without actually going out to bellow a message. The year was 1868 and Oamaru had grown with significant production of wool and so a need to get the produce away to England. There were no meaningful roads and it was necessary to use smaller coastal vessels to carry wool and other produce down the coast to Port Chalmers where the clippers would be loaded. Of course this was double handling and there was great motivation to instead bring the large sailing ships up to where they could be loaded in one step.

On the day of February 3rd in 1868 there were four vessels in the makeshift port. 'Water Nymph' and 'Star of Tasmania' were square riggers anchored in the roadstead while small lighters were drawn out on special cables with the bales of wool that had to be lifted aboard and stowed in the hold. The ships needed the cargo because without it they had to load rocks or sand or something to ensure that on the long voyage they'd be stable with that immense press of sail in use. Leaving empty was not an option.

The other two vessels in port were coasters 'Emu' and 'Otago', also using lighters to transfer cargo. Their captains were well familiar with the port and its associated risks and on many occasions they would shelter behind the promontory at Moeraki, a little further south. On this occasion the weather change was very quick and by noon large rollers began to come into the bay, tossing the smaller vessels around as they tried to move cargo, the skies quickly darkening with rain. Captain Sewell was the Port Captain and he realised the danger and ran up the Blue Peter on the signal mast, indicating that all vessels should leave the anchorage immediately.

The 'Emu' left first, close-hauling (running as close to upwind as was possible) her way out of sight, to be followed by the little schooner 'Otago', her sails straining as the wind increased in strength to storm conditions. Incredibly neither clipper responded to the flag signal and Sewell raised more alarm flags to tell them the matter was urgent. Apparently none of the signals were seen on either ship and soon it was too late for the strength of the wind was too much to allow either ship to get out of the bay.

By then it was too late and the 'Star of Tasmania' was the first to go. Her mooring chain snapped and although she put out two anchors they too failed. Captain Culbert gave the order to make sail but the decks were already unworkable with great wave washing over the deck, moving all loose cargo and equipment and forcing the crew into the rigging. Normally a sailing ship uses ropes that run from above down through blocks where teams of men heave on them to tuen the great horizontal crosstrees and hence the angle of the attached sails, but with no chance of working on deck the ship was doomed.

At about 7 PM she ship struck the beach broadside on. Now in that lattitude at that time of the year (summer) 7 PM is not late and there was a lot of daylight left for horrified watchers to see the vessel beging to fall apart. Each successive wave pounded her on the shingle and in minutes the copper sheathing on her hull was torn away and soon afterwards the masts fell. Of course the crew and passengers were still aboard but there was no way to get off the ship even though it was disintegrated under their feet. They made their way to the bow which was relatively elevated and its projecting nature gave some protection from the huge waves coming in square on to the stricken vessel.

The passengers of course had boarded at Port Chalmers and it had been intended that with the wool loaded the ship would then leave directly for London. They were all cabin passengers because on the return voyage from the colonies it was normal to remove the temporary partitions the majority of the immigrants had used on the three month trip out. They were relatively well-to-do people who could afford a ticket back 'home' from the 'colonies'

Now they were going to die along with the crew if they couldn't be got off the stricken ship. On the shore hundreds watched, horrified, as attempts were made to get a line aboard but they were working directly against the gale and the destructive waves and lacked more sophisticated rockets or similar devices. Eventually several lines were at last made and people began to be pulled to shore, one by one.

Meanwhile 'Water Nymph' had her own problems. She had been a fraction closer to shore than 'Star of Tasmania' and had had no more warning that the weather was about to go insane. No doubt the crew and passengers had watched what was happening with great trepidation. They had no chance of sailing clear of the mess so Captain Cabot risked all on one throw of the dice; he raised full sail and turned the ship towards land and ran her straight up on the shingle beach some three hundred meters north of the 'Star of Tasmania'. In so doing he saved the crew who were able to scramble to safety over the bow.

Meanwhile the two coasters had appaently managed to get clear and headed for the open sea where they had room to manoevre but the schooner 'Otago' wans't so lucky; she lost her rudderhead (the mounting for the rudder itself) which meant she was unsteerable except with sails and that mean she was driven back to the coast where Captain Campbell managed to run her straight on shore, much as had been done with 'Water Nymph' but she began to break up almost immediately and three minutes after the crew reached shore she was being dismembered.

So in the one afternoon they lost two clippers, a coaster, many of the lighters, and the lives of five people. A truly memorable day...