- Hordern, Marsden
- History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2003 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Offshore yachtsmen might reflect on the perils of the Australian coast before the establishment of navigational marks and aids now taken for granted.
Extract from King of the Australian Coast, by kind permission of the author.
On the afternoon of 28 November 1820 they passed Wilson’s Promontory and by nightfall were clear of Bass Strait and running up the now familiar coast of New South Wales. With the harrowing voyage almost over, they were counting the hours until they would be safely secured to the bridle of the government mooring in Sydney Cove.
On 2 December Mount Imlay dipped below the southern horizon and they still looked fair for a quick run home, but when they were almost abreast of Mount Dromedary, between ten and fifteen miles offshore and steering north-north-east roughly parallel with the coast, the weather turned dirty, blowing hard from the east. This threw the cutter on a lee shore but, apparently satisfied with their course, King held on – a decision which showed a surprising lack of judgement, since this coast was notoriously hazardous in an easterly gale. In 1800 King’s father had warned Lieutenant James Grant, commander of the Lady Nelson, to give the land a wide berth until he got close to the latitude of Sydney, as ‘gales of wind may be expected on the coast at all seasons of the year.’
Sunday 3 December broke with thick weather, pouring rain and a rising on-shore gale. Unsure of his position because of the lowering skies, King had no chance of obtaining his latitude, but about noon a break in the rain gave him a glimpse of the Five Islands. This told him that they were about forty five miles south of Sydney and he thought that with luck they would be home next morning. It should also have told him that he was being set inshore by the gale and that he was far too close to it for safety.
From the Five Islands to Sydney the coast trends north-north-east, and before entering Port Jackson the Mermaid would have to clear the cliffs of Cape Banks near the entrance to Botany Bay. From King’s position the bearing of those cliffs was 27° East of true North, so that even had there been no inshore set from the gale the cutter’s present course was barely enough to clear Cape Banks.
As night fell the gale increased, whipping the wave crests into spray, and a tired and anxious King prepared to spend much of it on deck in the howling wind. Roe, who held the first watch, believed with King that their course would keep them well clear of the land and place them in the morning twenty miles out to sea off the south head of Port Jackson. But the Mermaid’s navigators had under-estimated the easterly set generated by the gale and they were actually making straight for the cliffs near the entrance to Botany Bay. This miscalculation nearly killed them.
At 10 p.m. flashes of lightning lit the stormy sea, and the gale was pressing the cutter so hard that at 10.45 they close-reefed the sodden mainsail. But the log records that half an hour later, inexplicably, they altered course from north-north-east to north by east – a full eleven and a quarter degrees in towards the cliffs. At 11.40 p.m., with the wind still rising, they reduced sail further. Down came the foresail, leaving her driving along under two jibs and a close-reefed mainsail.
At midnight the watch changed and Roe went below thankfully, leaving King to the thunder, lightning and the wild wet night. Five minutes later, King made another astonishing entry in the log: ’12.05 alt’d co to N½ W’. The cutter came round even further to larboard and steadied on her new course straight for the cliffs which, although invisible, were now close to leeward. At 2.35 a.m. a flash of lightning revealed them right under their lee, smothered with foam. King hauled the Mermaid up into the wind, hoisted her mainsail higher, set the reefed foresail, altered course three points eastward and just managed to claw off.
This was only a temporary reprieve, however. King did not realize that the cliffs he had so narrowly avoided were those of Cape Solander at the southern entrance to Botany Bay and that he was now steering across its entrance and heading directly for its northern headland, Cape Banks. As they were well inside the twenty fathom line and above a shoaling bottom, the seas raised by the gale were growing steeper and more confused.