In my last post I touched on the shipwreck of the Dundonald on Disappointment Island in 1907, and the rescue of its survivors by the Hinemoa when she was taking scientists to the Auckland Islands. The Auckland Islands were on a major shipping route, but the available charts were not always accurate, and several ships were wrecked there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The twelve Dundonald crew who survived spent eight months on the islands during a freezing sub-antarctic winter, eating what they could catch, and making shelter without any equipment.
Smashed on the cliffs
The Dundonald was sailing from Sydney to England with a cargo of wheat when she ran aground on the 6th of March, 1907. Some survivors gave their story to the newspapers when they finally returned to the mainland. These extracts from Charles Eyre’s account were published in the Auckland Star on 2 December 1907.
” The weather on the night of the 6th of March was very thick and heavy … Suddenly the land was seen right ahead. We tried to wear the ship short round, but she would not stay, and went stern first into a crevice of the cliffs. Orders were given to clear the lifeboats, but it was found to be useless, as there was a big sea, and rocks all around us … One tremendous sea washed clean over us, and although we managed to hang on, the next one washed us all away … I caught hold of one of the shrouds and climbed up (the mast)”.
The next day Eyre found that several other men had spent the night clinging to the mast. Eventually they struggled to shore. “There were sixteen of us out of 28 that got ashore, which left twelve to be accounted for as drowned … we were all very much exhausted when we got ashore, being very hungry and cold … Later on we discovered there was no depot (of emergency supplies) on that island. This was a great disappointment to the mate … he sank rapidly and died the twelfth day after the wreck.” The mate was an elderly man called Jabez Peters, from Glasgow. Among those who died in the wreck were Captain Thorburn and his young son, and sailors from around the UK and Scandinavia.
“The first day after getting ashore, we subsisted on raw mollymawk. … We managed to scrape through the winter all right by living on sea hawks, mollymawks, and seals … we did not know how to kill (the seals). At first we used to whack them with a stick, but one of the fellows happened to hit one on the nose, and it rolled over, so after that we had no difficulty in dispatching them.”
The men soon realised they would need some form of shelter to survive the snows of winter. ” We then decided to dig holes in the ground, which we did with our hands. Above the holes we built up sticks and put sods on top, forming huts about six feet long and four feet wide”. One of their huts was used as a cook-house by the scientific expedition which eventually discovered and rescued the men.
A desperate plan
“(We) knew the depot was on the other island, which was about six miles distant, but we did not know how to get across. … In July three men built a boat of canvas and sticks. To do this we had to put pieces of our clothes and blankets and sew them together, and the task was all the harder as the ship’s sailmaker and carpenter were both drowned.”
The first boat made it to the main island, but the men couldn’t find the depot, and returned empty handed after several days of searching. A second boat was smashed as it left shore. “We build a third (boat) in October … we got to the large island, but as we reached the shore we struck a rock and the boat was smashed, sending us all into the water … the mishap put out a fire we had carried in the boat on a sod. We had carried it in order to save matches, of which we had only two. These got wet, and even after drying them for three days we could not get a light.” Without a fire, the men subsisted miserably on raw seal meat.
The men walked fifteen miles across the island to locate the depot. “There was a good boat at the depot, but no sails, so we cut up our clothes to make a sail … we had found clothes at the depot and exchanged them for what we were wearing, and we had also cut each others’ hair and beards, which over the seven months we were on the other island had grown so long that we looked like a lot of ‘spring poets’. As we got near our old camp our mates did not know us in our new ‘toggery’ and they thought we were sealers.”
The survivors then moved over to the main island and kept close watch for the Government steamer which called at the islands every six months. The small amount of biscuits and tinned meat they found in the depot was carefully rationed in the meantime – the butter, coffee, tea and sugar which should have been there had been stolen.
Charles and the others were finally rescued when the Hinemoa arrived on 16 November. Before they left the islands, they retrieved the first mate’s body from Disappointment Island and buried him at the small cemetery at Port Ross, alongside other shipwrecked mariners. The ceremony was attended by all the survivors, the crew of the Hinemoa, and the members of the scientific expedition.