Wreck Reefs expedition: history of the area

1803 map of Wreck Reefs.

Wreck Reefs (022d 11’S/155d 20’E) are a narrow, 18 nautical mile long chain of low lying coral reefs and sand cays – West Island, Hope Cay (Whalebone Cay), Porpoise Cay and Bird Islet. They lie approximately 180 nautical miles NNE of Sandy Cape on the northern tip of Frazer Island, and approximately 230 nautical miles east of Gladstone.

The Wreck Reefs gained their name through the wrecking of HMS Porpoise and Cato, which were wrecked together on what were then uncharted reefs on 17 August 1803.

Porpoise was a 308 ton, wooden, three masted, Spanish-built vessel captured by the Royal Navy and commissioned as a 10-gun sloop. Cato was an English built, wooden three masted, armed ship.

On 10 August 1803 Porpoise, Cato and East India Company Extra Ship Bridgewater left Sydney bound for England via India travelling around The Great Barrier Reef. The three vessels travelled together with Porpoise leading, Cato port stern quarter (side rear) and Bridgewater starboard (right side).

Seven days later Porpoise struck the southern edge of an unchartered reef and was driven up onto the reef platform by prevailing weather. Fortunately the vessel heeled over onto its starboard side with its hull facing towards the south –  protecting the decks and offering shelter to its crew and passengers.

Cato was less fortunate. Seeing Porpoise go up onto the reef, Cato tacked to the east at the same time Bridgewater tacked to the west. Both vessels were on a collision course and would have been lost if Captain Park had not ordered Cato to come off the wind. While Park’s decision averted the collision, it resulted in Cato also going up onto the reef approximately two cable lengths (370 meters) from Porpoise. Unfortunately for Cato’s crew, the vessel turned side onto the surf and rolled into the direction of the prevailing winds – exposing the decks to pounding surf. The vessel quickly broke up and by morning the vessel had almost disappeared with just the bow and foremast chains exposed above the surf.

Despite being wrecked at night only three lives were lost in the double wrecking. Bridgewater failed to lend assistance and continued its voyage to India. The combined crews from the wrecked vessels, including Matthew Flinders, camped on the cays until 26 August when Flinders, Captain Park and a select crew of sailors departed Wreck Reefs in a ship’s boat, Hope, bound for Sydney Cove.

For six weeks the Wreck Reefs survivors salvaged what they could from the wrecked ships and began constructing a small boat, The Resource. The survivors were later picked up by a ship Rolla and schooners Cumberland and Frances.

Significance of the wrecks

Porpoise is a significant vessel in Australia’s early maritime history because of its early role as a Royal Navy vessel operating in Australian waters from 1800 – 1803. During this time Porpoise was involved with charting the coast, supplying colonial outposts and voyaging to various Pacific islands. The vessel is also closely associated with Matthew Flinders who was a passenger on board the ship when it was wrecked. The wrecking of Porpoise, along with Cato, lead to Flinders losing his geological and botanical reference collection plus his eventual imprisonment in Mauritius by the French.

Lying across the main outer reef sailing route from New South Wales to China and India, the Wreck Reefs (as their name suggest) quickly gained the reputation as a ship trap.

Historical records indicate that at least the following ships, excluding the site of Porpoise, which has been identified, have been wrecked on the reef but their identification, location and archaeological significance has not been assessed.

Cato, 430 tons, 17 August 1803
Echo, ship, 21 April, 1820
Mahaica, barque, 30 May 1854
Jane, ship, 30 November 1856
Lion, 300 ton American whaler, 4 December 1856
Harp, brigantine, 14 June 1861
Lone Star, schooner, 10 September 1870
Wolverine, brigantine 1 August 1879
Annie, brigantine, 17 July 1882
Guichen, barque, 5 September 1886

It is also possible that the reefs and Porpoise Cay could be the site of an unidentified pre-1803 shipwreck that was mentioned by Lieutenant Fowler, Porpoise captain, in his journal written on Wreck Reefs in 1803. No pre-1803 vessels are known to have been wrecked in the area covered by the Coral Sea Territory –and the identity of the vessel has been debated amongst historians.

Although a declared historic shipwreck, the actual location of the Cato shipwreck is in doubt. It is believed to lie 400 meters due east of the Porpoise site on the southern edge of the reef in five to 15 meters of water.

A third unidentified wreck site lies almost 400 meters due west of the Porpoise site on the southern edge of the reef in three to 10 meters of water. This site was located by Ben Cropp in 1965 and identified by him as being Cato. However, subsequent work by the Queensland Museum indicated the vessel is of a later date.

– Contributed by Kieran Hosty, Curator Technology, Archaeology

More information

Wrecks Reef expedition

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