Sea Bird: A ghost ship story to shiver yer timbers

Ghost ship – Self steering and completely intact, the Sea Bird appeared to onlookers as being guided by a ‘mysterious power’. Image: <a href=""> Unsolved Mysteries in the World</a>.

Ghost ship – Self-steering and completely intact, the Sea Bird appeared to onlookers as if it was being guided by a ‘mysterious power’. Image: Unsolved Mysteries in the World.

One of the upsides of the eerie Halloween season is that you can let yourself dwell on the macabre. Even if the rest of the year you envision yourself as a hard-nosed cynic, on Halloween you are allowed to drop your scepticism and ponder the impossible ‘What if…?’

For maritime folk, there is no end of unnerving tales to scare yourself with. Oceans are vast and humans have sailed the seven seas long enough that you can take your pick of myths or unsolved mysteries that will keep you awake with chills, well into the night. Leaving aside sea monsters, murderous pirates or alien encounters, it is the appearance of ghost ships that can really raise the hair on your neck. The thought of these silent and abandoned vessels aimlessly making their way across oceans is disconcerting, to say the least.

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Old Wrecks, ‘Black Reefs’

Invasive corallimorphs have colonised a modern shipwreck at Palmyra Atoll in the Line Islands. The corallimorphs have benefitted from a phase shift in the reef’s ecosystem brought on by the shipwreck’s iron components leaching into the water column. Image: Susan White/US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Invasive corallimorphs have colonised a modern shipwreck at Palmyra Atoll in the Line Islands. The corallimorphs have benefitted from a phase shift in the reef’s ecosystem brought on by the shipwreck’s iron components leaching into the water column. Image: Susan White/US Fish and Wildlife Service.

This past January, a collaborative research team comprising maritime archaeologists from the Silentworld Foundation and the museum conducted a shipwreck survey at Kenn Reefs in Australia’s Coral Sea Territory. The team relocated a number of historic shipwrecks documented by the Queensland Museum in the 1980s, as well as four new wreck sites. The Kenn Reefs complex is a seamount system located within the ‘Outer Route’, a seaway used by nineteenth-century mariners in an effort to avoid the Great Barrier Reef when travelling to and from Australia’s east coast. The discovery of multiple shipwreck sites of nineteenth-century vintage at Kenn Reefs demonstrates the hazards faced by mariners as they transited through waters that were insufficiently charted. Field investigations included reef-top inspections, metal detector and magnetometer surveys, and diver-based ground-truthing of observed features and buried anomalies.

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Monsters of the deep: Tall tales of the high seas

St Brendan saying mass on the back of a sea monster, 1621. ANMM Collection 00019658.

St Brendan saying mass on the back of a sea monster, 1621. ANMM Collection 00019658.

Whilst Halloween slowly approaches, its pretence of horror and worn out ghoulish clichés appear again. Pumpkins and cobwebs adorn houses and plastic skeletons dance limply off front fences. No doubt witches and vampires have their earned their scary credentials but the forced spookiness of the season only makes it feel like a poor cousin to where real horror exists. Offshore.

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Meanderings in the Murk: Diving on the wreck of the Centennial

ANMM Shipwright and diver Lee Graham inspects a collapsed iron frame on the Centennial site that has been colonised by sponges. Image: James Hunter / ANMM.

ANMM Shipwright and diver Lee Graham inspects a collapsed iron frame on the Centennial site that has been colonised by sponges. Image: James Hunter / ANMM.

The museum’s maritime archaeology team recently visited the shipwreck site of the late nineteenth century steamship Centennial. The dive was part of an ongoing initiative to document selected historic shipwreck sites within Sydney Harbour with digital photography and videography. Still images and video footage collected during the project will be used to generate 3D digital photo-mosaics of these sites and test the usefulness of this recording method in a variety of environments.

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Barbarism and brutality: surviving the Batavia shipwreck

A depiction of the massacre among the marooned survivors of the Batavia. From Pelsaert's published journal, 1647. ANMM Collection: 00004995.

A depiction of the massacre among the marooned survivors of the Batavia. From Pelsaert’s published journal, 1647. ANMM Collection: 00004995.

A shipwreck turns to tragedy

Almost 400 years ago, in the hours before dawn on 4 June 1629, a flagship of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was wrecked upon Morning Reef near Beacon Island, some 60 kilometres off the Western Australian coast. It was the maiden voyage of the Batavia, bound for the Dutch East Indian colonies of modern-day Jakarta, but the tragedy of shipwreck would be overshadowed by the subsequent mutiny among the survivors on the isolated Houtman Abrolhos Islands.

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Artefacts as windows to the past: Answers from #AskAnArchaeologist

Archaeology on the Great Barrier Reef. Image: ANMM.

Archaeology on the Great Barrier Reef. Image: ANMM.

In the spirit of National Archaeology Week 2016 we took the opportunity to open the floor to you, our audience and community, with the hashtag #AskAnArchaeologist. This was a chance for you to ask your questions about all things archaeology and maritime heritage to our team.

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Lost at Sea: Finding Longitude with Ships, Clocks & Stars

Ships, Clocks and Stars.

Ships, Clocks and Stars.

The problem of longitude – how to determine your location in an east-west direction at sea – plagued sea travel for centuries. The lack of reliable methods to determine it led to dangerous, long and costly voyages. The loss of cargo, ships and lives was high and demanded an immediate solution.

Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude commemorates the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act of 1714. The Act lead to the greatest scientific breakthrough in maritime history: the ability to determine a ship’s position at sea. This discovery brought together two solutions to calculate longitude: developing accurate timekeepers for seafaring and tracking the movement of celestial bodies.

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Death, destruction and the Dunbar: Sydney’s worst maritime disaster

'The Dunbar New East Indiaman', <em>Illustrated London News</em> (24 December 1853). ANMM Collection <a href="">00000957</a>.

‘The Dunbar New East Indiaman’, Illustrated London News (24 December 1853). ANMM Collection 00000957.

Shipwreck on a stormy winter’s night

The devastating wreck of the Dunbar on Sydney’s South Head on the evening of 20 August 1857, 158 years ago, was a disaster so appalling that it left a lasting emotional scar on the emerging colony of New South Wales.

In the pitch-darkness of that stormy winter’s night, Dunbar – only moments from safety at the end of an 81-day voyage from Plymouth carrying immigrants and well-to-do colonists returning to Sydney – missed the entrance to Port Jackson and crashed into the sheer sandstone cliffs just south of the heads. The heavy seas quickly pounded the ship to pieces, and all but one of at least 122 souls on board perished.

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Ashmore Reef Expedition 2015 – Part Five

Overnight, the wind from the north-west has abated a little and the swell on the northern exposed edge of Ashmore Reef, where the wreck site is located, has decreased. This allowed us to get dive teams on-site nice and early to take advantage of the calmer seas.

Led by Michael Gooding (Silentworld Foundation), Lee Graham (Australian National Maritime Museum) and Grant Luckman (Department of Environment) the dive teams have continued to plot the scattered remains of the shipwreck by carrying out additional 100 metre-long compass and tape transit surveys from the two main anchor clusters.

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Ashmore Reef Expedition 2015 – Part One

Voyage out past Mer (Murray) Island. Photo: Xanthe Rivett, Silentworld Foundation.

Voyage out past Mer (Murray) Island. Photo: Xanthe Rivett, Silentworld Foundation.

Ashmore Reef is a 30 kilometre long, isolated, lagooned coral reef system located more than 950 kilometres north of Cairns, Queensland, some 250 kilometres east of Thursday Island, Torres Strait and 30 kilometres offshore from the extreme northern end of the Great Barrier Reef in the Australian Coral Sea Territory.

The northern section of what is now called Ashmore Reef was first sighted by Captain Ashmore in the brig Hibernia in 1811 and unofficially called Hibernia Reef. The southern section of the reef was named the Claudine and Mary Reef an 1818 and the entire reef system called either Jones Shoal, Ormond’s or Great Ormond’s Reef by 1826. Continue reading

No need to excavate – the wreck of the Buster (1893)

The wreck of Buster at Woolgoolga Beach

Recently Dr. Brad Duncan from the Heritage Office, Department of Environment and Heritage and Kieran Hosty from the Australian National Maritime Museum travelled to Woolgoolga on New South Wales mid north coast to examine the remains of the Canadian built 310 ton gross, wooden, three-masted barquentine  Buster that had been exposed when winter storms had stripped away several metres of sand from the town’s main beach.

Now known for the largest Sikh / Punjabi population in regional Australia and its annual Curry Festival towards the end of the 19th century Woogoolga (the name was not officially changed to Woolgoolga until 1966) was the heart of a thriving sugar, timber-getting and sawmilling district.

Although first gazetted as a town in 1888 it was the construction of a 1557 foot long government jetty in 1891 that saw several sugar mills and timber mills open in the area. Whilst the sugar industry never really developed the timber mills, connected by bullock tracks, tramways and light rail to the densely forested Jesse Simpson Ranges, saw Woogoolga mill owners take advantage of the insatiable demand in Brisbane and Sydney for grey gum, white mahogany, tallowwood, grey box, turpentine and Australian cedar. In only a few short years millions of feet of sleepers, sawn timbers, piles, logs and fence palings were being exported from the port and Woogoolga was rivaling Coffs Harbour as the principle shipping port along this section of the coast, it was even considered – for a short time – as being capable of coping with significant overseas trade.

Although the jetty at Woogoolga was given some protection from the south by Green Head, its roadstead was open to storm driven seas and swells from the east and north, making the loading of timber difficult if not impossible at times. During these occasions the waiting vessels would tie up at one of the offshore moorings before coming alongside the jetty.

The barquentine Buster (a barquentine is a three masted vessel which is square rigged on the fore mast and carries fore and aft rig on its main and mizzen masts) departed Sydney for Woogoolga in mid-February 1893 to load timber at Woogoolga for various New Zealand ports. The vessel arrived safely at Woogoolga but due to the blustery conditions could not get alongside the jetty and put down two anchors and ran several hawsers to one of the offshore moorings whilst waiting for the conditions to moderate.

Unfortunately over the next few hours conditions deteriorated rapidly and early on the morning of Friday 17th February the port anchor cable parted followed shortly afterwards by the starboard – for the next nine hours Buster rode out the waves moored by the hawsers alone to the mooring buoy but shortly after 7.00pm a huge sea struck the vessel, and first one then the other hawser parted.

Pushed by the howling gale Buster drove through the breakers crashing onto the beach stern first with its bow facing towards the south. The crew, seeking safety from the breaking seas, climbed into the rigging and come dawn found themselves wet, cold, shaken but safe almost high and dry on the beach a mile or so to the north of the town.

Although the vessel had not broken up in the surf it proved impossible to salvage and after several attempts was given up as a total loss with the sand slowly covering over the vessel’s remains until only a few of its timber frames and iron riders poked above the surface of the beach.

Due to severe winter storms over the last one hundred or so years the sand covering the  Buster has been scoured away from time to time revealing what appears to be an amazing jumble of well-preserved timbers lying on top of the beach just below the high water mark.

Looking through the eyes of an archaeologist however this jumble can take on new meanings offering insights into late 19th century wooden ship construction.

When you first sight Buster as it lies on the beach only a few metres away from the Lakeside Caravan Park at Woolgoolga you see what you first believe to be the bow of the 129 feet (39.31m) long barquentine facing towards the north with several rows of timber appearing above the sand on either side of the bow and then running south towards the smooth curve of the stern.

But looks can be very deceiving – generally speaking in 19th century timber shipbuilding the lower down in the hull you go the blunter or rounder the bow becomes as it takes on the shape of its bow or cant frames and the stern becomes finer and narrower as it runs back towards the rudder. Following a quick inspection the correct position of the bow and stern can be confirmed – by examining the way the vessel has been sheathed in copper (a necessary precaution against the fouling of the timber hull by marine organisms) with the overlap facing towards the northern end rather than the south and the presence of the anchor chain locker at the southern end of the site.

The rows of timber also take on a more ordered appearance – they are in fact the remains of the port and starboard lower floors and first and second futtocks – which make up the frames (or ribs) of the vessel – held in place by the vessels inner and outer planking and secured by numerous fastenings. Lying between the port and starboard side of the vessel and running almost the entire length of the site are several massive timbers some 11 inches (280mm) wide by 12 inches (304mm) high sitting on top of an even larger partially exposed timber.

That the Buster was massively built is an understatement – usually vessels in the vicinity of 350 to 400 tons have floors and futtocks approximately 10inches (254mm) square  – Buster’s are 12inches (304mm)  and the space between the futtocks is negligible giving the spectator the impression  of an almost solid wall of timber an impression supported by the intactness and size of its internal planking – called ceilings – which are at least 8 inches (200mm) thick.

Besides its massive construction the vessel is substantially fastened with its outer and inner planking secured to the frames by a series of regularly spaced timber fastenings, called treenails, copper alloy nails and occasionally spaced iron bolts – The presence of iron bolts is a surprise given the significant corrosion problems that occur between iron bolts coming into contact with the copper sheathing until you realise that the iron bolts are only present above the copper sheathing and were used to secure iron straps – called riders – to the internal planking.

Although well built there are also several indications that construction at the Canadian yard was also a little hurried at times – with a number of the floors and futtocks being butt jointed (end on end) rather than having scarph joints – an altogether much stronger if slower method of construction – We also observed that on a number of occasions the shipwrights either missed the frames when driving home the fastenings, managed to drive the fastenings through the edge rather than the centre of the internal and external planking or neglected to put a fastening into the frame or outer plank altogether.

Usually, as a maritime archaeologist, all my wrecks lie submerged underwater and wholly or partially buried under deposits of sand, coral and rock – to get the opportunity to visit an exposed site such as Buster is a great experience and testament to the craft of Canadian shipbuilding, the preserving nature of the sand which covers the site for most of the year and a testament to the people of Woolgoolga – who proud of their maritime heritage are eager to protect  the site for future enjoyment and study.

The wreck of the Buster is a protected historic relic under the NSW Heritage Act.

I would like to thank David Greenhalgh, Projects Officer, Marine Park Authority and Dr. Brad Duncan, Heritage Office for giving me the opportunity of examining the remains of this historic shipwreck.