- Nicholson, Ian
- Ship histories and stories, History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 1997 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
A long and fast voyage
There was still no logbook or narrative of this reef passage or the two earlier reef sightings and a search at the State Archives revealed only crew and passenger lists and reports by the Immigration Agent and Health Officer. A final check was made of the Brisbane Courier files and it was found that Wansfell had proceeded from Bowen down to Keppel Bay in January 1864 with further passengers and cargo. An account of her voyage to Queensland appeared in Rockhampton Bulletin and was reproduced in the Courier of 23 January 1864. What a find! Even though this narrative omits any mention of the Wansfell’s reef dramas it adds further dimension to this remarkable voyage and is worth repeating in some detail.
Rockhampton 19 January 1864;
The Wansfell, Black Ball liner, 750 tons, Hugh Brodie, master, anchored in Keppell Bay, at 7 o’clock on Sunday evening (17 January). She comes direct from Port Denison, where she arrived on Monday, 28 December, after a passage of only 94 days from England. The Wansfell left Liverpool on 9 September last, and from thence sailed to Greenock, to receive additional passengers and cargo. At this port, which she reached on 11th of the same month, she took on board 200 passengers for Port Denison. She sailed from Greenock, on 18 September; put into Lamlash (at the mouth of the Clyde) the following day; sailed from the Clyde on the 22nd; landed her pilot at Waterford on the following day; sailed from Waterford the same day, 23 September, at noon; crossed the line on 20 October; rounded Tasmania on 8 December, and proceeded on to Port Denison through the Great Barrier Reef, off Gloucester Island; entered Port Denison on Monday 28 December; landed her passengers – 250 government immigrants – the following week; left Port Denison on Thursday, the 14th instant, at 2 pm; at 8 pm anchored 3 miles S.E. of Gloucester Island; weighed at 6 o’clock next morning; at 1 o’clock passed) Port Mole (Molle), and at 6 o’clock that evening passed L Island; at 9 o’clock passed Double Island, next day, Saturday, on account of heavy thunder and lightning, and owing to darkness prevailing, anchored at 4.30 am off the Percy Isles; weighed at 8 o’clock following morning, the wind being S.E.; about 9 o’clock pm passed Peak Island; next day, Sunday, at 5 am, abreast of Flat Island, having becalmed all night; at 5 pm was boarded by the pilot in Keppel Bay; anchored in the Bay at 7 pm. The Captain left in a boat for town, together with 6 or 7 of the passengers, yesterday morning at 11 o’clock, arriving at about half past eight last night. From him we learn that 9 births took place on board during the voyage and only one death – an infant two years old. No sickness or accident occurred from the time of the ship’s leaving the Clyde to the period of her arrival in Port Denison. Through the courtesy of Captain Champion, of the Diamantina, the Wansfell was piloted down to Keppel Bay from Port Denison by Mr. L. Warr, the second officer of that steamer.
While to some this precis may appear very routine, even dull, it covers the longest immigration voyage to Australia in terms of distance, yet it was a very fast non-stop passage of only 94 days. As already noted, Wansfell brought the first migrants direct to North Queensland, and to Bowen in particular, and as her master preferred not to mention, negotiated her way through an unsurveyed and seemingly impassable area of the Barrier Reef where there is still no recognised channel. This is the only recorded instance of such a successful feat by a large sailing ship and prompted the RN Hydrographer to note her track permanently on the relevant Admiralty chart. There it remained for over 100 years, albeit as a warning to other mariners rather than a memorial to the ship concerned, but inevitably Wansfell became a legend, with the facts shrouded. When the well-known warnings were finally expunged from the chart as a result of modern surveys at least the names of Brodie and Wansfell were retained for some features of Marion Reef, but their significance has already been lost.
The last sentence of the published voyage account also marks a significant event. It is the first recorded instance of pilotage of a commercial ship on an inner Barrier Reef passage. There was the case of RN surveyor J. S. Roe seconded to pilot HMS Tamar and a small convoy up the Inner Route in 1824; otherwise the first known case of commercial pilotage was with SS Sunfoo’s inaugural passage in 1874, ten years before the Queensland Coast and Torres Strait pilot service began. After Capt. Brodie’s nightmare trip through the Coral Sea reefs and the Barrier, refloating the Wansfell twice, he must have been very relieved to reach Bowen safely on 28 December (some reports say 30 December), and delighted to accept the offer of pilotage to his next reef port. It had been a very tense and trying Christmas for all onboard but being Scots predominantly we can be sure they celebrated Hogmanay.
The Wansfell returned to Queensland with more British migrants early in 1865 but this time she went no further north than Moreton Bay. It was a rough and slow passage of some 130 days under a new Master, Captain Henry Holland; so our hero, Hugh Brodie had gone to face fresh challenges, or else been `blackballed’ by the Black Ball Line.
Having generally satisfied my curiosity concerning Wansfell’s voyage of 1863 I thought the matter could rest there, but one question so often leads to another. In 1817 a Captain Charles Brodie, master and owner of the trading brig Alert, made three discoveries on the Torres Strait route including the well-known Lihou Reef and Cays, some 100 miles NNW of Marion Reef. The two Brodies were possibly related, and it is an intriguing thought that the son may have been literally following in father’s footsteps.