- A.N. Other
- Ship histories and stories, History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2012 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Both ships had arrived at Norfolk Island on 13 March 1790 experiencing terrible weather. Because of the conditions they could not risk the usual anchorage position off the settlement at Sydney Bay (modern day Kingston) and had sailed around to Cascade Bay. By 15 March all the people had been put ashore but the weather worsened. Captain Hunter wrote: “These people were no sooner on shore than the wind shifted to the eastward and the weather became hazy and blew strong so that I had no prospect of being able to land any part of the provisions… I knew the exhausted state of stores there … and considerations gave me much anxiety and uneasiness”.
While the convicts and marines who had been put ashore made their way by foot from Cascade to Sydney Bay, the ships were both scattered and driven out of sight of the island and would not re-appear for three long days.
By morning 19 March 1790 Supply had completed unloading. As Sirius returned from the southeast, Hunter then brought her across from Phillip Island to the south point of Nepean and into Sydney Bay. He brought the ship’s head to the wind – that is facing out to sea. Just as the loading of the longboats had been completed, Hunter noticed that his ship was rapidly drifting towards the shore.
Supply was already under sail and her captain, Lieutenant Henry Lidgard Ball called out to Hunter, waving his hat towards the reef to warn that both vessels were coming perilously close to it. Immediately Captain Hunter gave the order to sail windward on a port tack. At this point Supply was ahead, but leeward of Sirius. Just at the critical time as they sailed off – the wind shifted direction two points to the south. This wind shift was to spell disaster for Sirius. It was now impossible for the ships on their port tack to clear the rocks off Point Ross (the headland projecting at the west end of the bay).
Supply was able to pass just clear under Sirius’ weather bow by taking a starboard tack. Desperately, Hunter tried to do likewise. The ship failed to tack and fell off the wind – this would head her straight back again towards the rocks off Point Ross. Hunter now had no option. He had to change to a starboard tack by turning the ship’s head away from the wind, endeavouring to sail east past the landing point and off between Nepean Island and the eastern point of Sydney Bay. Hunter took this action, no doubt knowing that it was a forlorn hope. The wind and current were dead against him. Again, he desperately tried to change tack then frantically cut away the anchor, halyards and sheets in the hope that would slow them down. But the wind just blew the ship backwards until, as he describes in his Journal “she struck upon a reef of coral rocks which lies parallel to the shore, and in a few strokes was bilged”.
Today, standing on the water front at Slaughter Bay and looking out across the waves it is not hard to imagine the distress that would have gripped the entire community as they watched this disaster unfold. Amongst those watching on the shore was Norfolk Island’s Commandant, Lieutenant Philip Gidley King. Surely belying what he would have felt, his journal records the event with little emotion: “at Noon the Sirius having twice missed Stays & being Embayed, struck on the outer part of the Reef”. King would return to Sydney Cove on Supply to deliver the news to Governor Arthur Phillip. So critical was the loss Phillip thought seriously of closing both settlements and heading back to England. He wrote “You never saw such dismay as the news of the wreck occasioned amongst us all; for, to use a sea term, we looked upon her as our sheet anchor”. Luckily there had been no loss of life from the wrecking, however Sirius had been the main means of contact with the outside world for both settlements. Without her they must have felt hopelessly marooned on an alien shore far from the Old World and home.
On Norfolk Island the effects were felt immediately. With an ‘overnight’ doubling of the population, food and other supplies were now seriously short. Starvation was a real possibility. Within a week martial law had been enforced. Lieutenant Ralph Clark of the Royal Marines had been on board Sirius for the journey to Norfolk Island, and had been put ashore at Cascade before the wrecking. His diary entry expresses their fears: “Gracious God what will become of us all, the whole of our provisions in the ship, now a wreck before us. I hope in God that we will be able to save some if not all but why do I flatter myself with such hopes – there is at present no prospect of it except that of starving”. Starvation was averted by the arrival of over 200,000 migratory birds nesting on Mount Pitt in the following four months. Eventually hunted to extinction in Norfolk Island these birds were christened the Providence Petrel.