Wrecked in the Pacific


Ships and shipping are a lifeline for communities stretched across the South Pacific Ocean. From early vessels such as the thedrua and proar and the wind-powered barques and schooners of the 19th century, to the high-tech ships and ferries of today, all manner of vessels have traversed the various seas of the Pacific carrying people and goods. But sea travel has never been without risk. For a variety of reasons such as bad weather, unseaworthiness, human error or sheer bad luck, not all journeys have ended safely and happily.

Indeed, the Pacific is littered with shipwrecks. We know a lot about some of the ships that met an unhappy end, for example the Bounty destroyed by fire at Pitcairn Island in 1790, from reading through ships’ logs or from eyewitness accounts. But of other ships, such as the Admiral Karpfanger that foundered somewhere between New Zealand and Cape Horn in 1938, we will never know what happened as they took the story of their destruction with them to the bottom of the sea.

Bad weather has often been the cause of shipwrecks,especially during the Pacific cyclone season between October and April. One of the more dramatic wrecks caused by a cyclone took place in Apia harbour on 15 March 1889 during the‘Samoan Crisis’, the naval standoff between German, American and British warships. Germany was seeking to expand its colonial and commercial interests and had intervened militarily during the Samoan Civil War. The British and United States governments sent warships to Samoa to protect their commercial interests, resulting in seven warships jostling for space in Apia harbour. As the weather worsened none of the foreign powers wanted to be the first to leave the harbour for the relative safety of the open sea and the ships therefore remained at the mercy of the impending hurricane.

SMS Olga, SMS Adler, SMSEber, USS Trenton and USS Vandalia.

The storm lasted 36 hours and was catastrophic. The3800-ton USS Trenton was tossed onto the beach by the violence of the winds and then blown back into the water where it collided with the German SMS Olga.Two German ships, SMS Adler and SMS Eber, were caught at the mouth of the harbour and such was the strength of the hurricane they were smashed together. Eber sank and Adler was turned on her side on the reef in the western part of the harbour. More than ninety sailors from both ships perished during the storm. The Americans too suffered fatalities and lost two of their ships, USS Trenton and USS Vandalia. USS Nipsic was beached with the loss of eight crew but she was eventually salvaged by the US Navy and repaired in Hawaii.Only one warship survived the cyclone, the HMS Calliope, whose powerful engines enabled her to leave the exposed harbour and ride out the storm at sea.


The Anjou, a French steel barque, left Sydney Harbour on 5 February 1905 for Falmouth, England. She struck rocks at Bristol Point on the Auckland Islands, south-west of New Zealand, around 8.30pm and began to list. With waves breaking over the decks, Captain Le Tallec instructed the crew to launch one of the lifesaving boats. The boat was destroyed. The captain, sensing it was better to wait until dawn, ordered the crew to stay on board. The weather calmed and the remaining three boats were launched early in the morning and carried the full crew of 22 to shore safely. The crew discovered a boatshed at Cape Cove two days after coming ashore. It must have been some relief ten days later when they came across the island’s castaway depot and read the sign informing them the depot received regular visits from the New Zealand Government steamships. Not knowing how long it would be before the next visit of the steam ship, the crew set about building rudimentary huts from grasses and bush scrub. They survived by hunting and eating local wildlife such as seal, mollyhawks, snipe and teal. OnMay7th, the crew was rescued by NZGSS Hinemoa.

Lady of St Kilda

The Lady of St Kilda had more than one mishap in her maritime career. I have always been interested in this schooner as its most unusual mishap was to drift ashore in Port Philip Bay near Melbourne. It grounded on a sandbank that become known as St Kilda beach, giving rise to the name of the suburb where I live. The Lady of St Kilda had earlier been damaged while making the voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. They say bad things come in threes, and this certainly applies to the Lady of St Kilda. After the schooner was advertised for sale ‘in exchange for sheep’ in 1841 she was re-registered in Sydney and set sail eastwards sometime in 1843. The shipping register records she was wrecked on a date unknown, though sources suggest the shipwreck was off Tahiti in 1844.

SS Norwich City

The SS Norwich City was a steam freighter that started life as the SS Normanby and ended her life aground and wrecked on a small atoll in the Central Pacific. In November 1929, Norwich City left Melbourne and made her way for Vancouver via Honolulu. About half way into the voyage,it ran aground in darkness on one of the reefs that fringe Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro Island in present-day Kiribati.The weather was particularly bad with torrential rain and high winds. Fire broke out in the engine room and the order was given to abandon ship, but not before the wireless operator managed to get a message through to Apia which led to the despatch of the SS Trongate. Having left the dangerous situation of a ship on fire the crew were confronted by an even more lethal threat: they had to make their way to the island across the treacherous coral reef pounded by stormy seas. Eleven crew members died trying to get ashore. One can only imagine the horror of being repeatedly swept out to sea and tumbling through the surf centimetres from the razor-sharp coral of the reef, and the presence of sharks. The wreck of the Norwich City served as a landmark for location references and its sighting is recorded in the logs of various ships that passed nearby for the next 50 years.

Astrolabe and Boussole

In 1785 Jean-Francois Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse, was appointed by Louis XVI to lead an expedition around the world with two frigates, Astrolabe and Boussole. They sailed out of Botany Bay on March 10th, 1788 bound for New Caledonia, Santa Cruz and the Louisiades but both ships disappeared. In 1826, Captain Peter Dillon commanding the merchant ship St Patrick, purchased some swords he thought had belonged to officers of the Astrolabe and Boussole on Tucopia Island, between present day Vanuatu and the Santa Cruz group of the Solomon Islands. On further investigation, he was informed by local inhabitants the items had in fact come from Vanikoro Island. He returned a year later and discovered that the surviving crew had indeed landed on Vanikoro. It appears the frigates had been anchored near each other and had been driven ashore in a gale. The crew of the Astrolabe dismantled the ship after unloading and some of the sailors built a small boat from the wreckage and, according to local accounts sailed westwards, never to be seen or heard of again. The remains of the frigates were located in 1962 by New Zealand engineer and diver Reece Discombe and for his efforts he was awarded the French National Order of Merit by President de Gaulle.

One might be tempted to see an adventurous drama in the plight of shipwrecked survivors struggling with nature first on the water and then on land in the battle to stay alive. But I tend to think of the fear and panic that must have gone through their minds when it became apparent the ship could not withstand the brutal combination of bad weather and treacherous geography, and in some cases bad luck, that was leading to the destruction of their vessel and perhaps to their death. We might spare a thought for the souls below the water as we travel around the South Pacific. Pondering the fate of those lost in shipwrecks certainly makes one grateful that today’s modern technology means travelling the seas is a much safer undertaking than in times past.

By Anthony Bailey.