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HMS OrpheusNew Zealand maritime historian Bill Deed wrote this story about New Zealand’s worst shipping disaster in 1963 when he was just 12 years of age. Today, with a few minor adjustments of historical accuracy Bill has given this story to Sea Breezes to record the sesqui-centennial of this horrifi c event when 189 people lost their lives, just outside the town of Waiuku where Bill lives.

During February many South Pacific maritime historians will be remembering New Zealand’s worst shipping disaster. It is 150 years since the HMS Orpheus struck the Manukau Bar on Auckland’s west coast and was wrecked shortly after with a loss of 189 lives.

It was the 7th of February 1863. Commodore William Farquharson Burnett in command of the Orpheus was a stranger to New Zealand’s coastal waters and since his chart had been made, the bar had shifted over three quarters of a mile. The HMS Orpheus left Sydney on 1st February and had enjoyed quite a fair passage to the Manukau.

At 11am on the 7th, the 21-gun steam corvette Orpheus of 1,706 tons and with a ship’s company of 258 officers, marines, seamen and boys lay just off-shore at the entrance to the Manukau Harbour. Particles of white cloud drifted in the blue sky, and a stiff breeze was blowing from the sou’ west. From the North Head was hoisted the Pilot Station signal to “Take the bar” and with steam and sail set, the Orpheus came on drawing quite confidently at 21 feet of water. At 1.30pm sudden and urgent signals were conveyed to the ship from the pilot station as watcher Edward Wing could see the imminent danger the ship was in. “Stand more out to sea” she was warned by the agitated semaphores.

It was reported after the disaster that at this time the sailing master of the Orpheus gave the order to starboard the helm, but Commodore Burnett countermanded that order — a most unheard of irregularity — saying that he intended to go by Captain Drury’s 1853 directions in the New Zealand Pilot and not by the prints of pamphlets and local instructions which the sailing master had in front of him. This irregular conduct by the Commodore was subsequently given as one reason for the cause of the disaster.

At the inquiry after the disaster, this grave accusation was also verified by two of the survivors. One of them, Mr Charles Sturtridge, said that when the Orpheus attempted to navigate the bar, the signal was against her. Also a gun was fired from the signal station as an additional warning, but the ship continued to stand on.

Mr Sturtridge continued, that on board was a captured deserter named Frederick Butler who had entered the Manukau twice before and was familiar with where the channel was. He happened to be on deck for an airing, and seeing danger ahead, gave a warning to those in command. “Put that man in irons,” stormed the Commodore. Butler’s prophetic retort was: “In five minutes we’ll all be in irons.” Five minutes afterward the ship struck.

Butler, the story goes, took French leave, jumped overboard, tied himself to a spar and was picked up by a boat nine hours later. But by now it was too late; the Orpheus had already struck heavily on the western end of the middle sandbank with a timber shivering crash. “Full speed astern,” the Commodore roared. But it was no use; she was stuck fast. Slowly she fell off broadside into the bluntnosed rollers and they came crashing on board knocking away the stern post, some of the port bulwarks and some of the ship’s boats. The topsail was lowered and others were clewed up.

Midshipman Fielding was dispatched to launch the cutter taking on board the ship’s books, records and other important items. Awkwardly the cutter cast off and was lost to sight. It was feared that it had been swamped, so the pinnace was launched and sent to the assistance of the cutter with orders to go to the Heads to obtain help from White’s lifeboat which was known to be stationed there. The lifeboat was found but there was no crew to man it.

Meanwhile, the launch was lowered with 40 men to try anchoring the ship down. But it was washed up under the bow and sunk. The crew, now desperate, climbed into the rigging and began cheering as they saw the little steamer Wonga Wonga bound south from Onehunga, coming to the rescue and approaching the doomed Orpheus as closely as she dared. Some sailors leapt into the wild raging seas and were picked up, but many who tried this were drowned. At 5.30pm the guns broke loose rolling dangerously about the decks. The masts stood for about an hour longer until the flood tide at 6.30, and then slowly they began to topple.

The mainmast was the first to go, and as it fell, the men clinging to it gave three ringing cheers in the face of disaster and death. They were answered back by the others on the foremast, and finally the mizzen mast. Those who were eventually saved managed to get down to the jib stay, on to the jib boom and then dropped into a fairly calm sea. They were picked up by boats from the Wonga Wonga. Many of them had broken bones, bruises and many had been crushed by the heavy guns when they broke from their shackles.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - March 2013 Issue
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