Friday, December 11, 2009

The wreck of the 'Sea Breeze'

John Austen
Stranded – total loss
Master blamed for wreck. Loss believed to have been caused either by drunkenness (as in the case of “Marwell”, lost by him on Tiri Tiri about 3 years ago, and for which his certificate of service was taken away) or from a desire to show off the capabilities of his vessel, which had the reputation of being a smart sailor.

This is a little harsh!
A more accurate account of the loss of the 'Sea Breeze' appeared in the local papers-
The brig Moa, which arrived in Melbourne on December 22 from Starbuck Island, brought on the captain, mate, and several of the crew of the schooner Sea Breeze, of Auckland, which was lost at Starbuck Island. The following is the report of the log of the schooner : — "Star buck Island, 31st October, 1871 —We, the undersigned, report as follows regarding the loss of the schooner Sea Breeze, on Starbuck Island : At 1 p.m., 28th October, the schooner hove up her anchors, and was hauling off the mooring buoy, when the hauling line parted; made sail, and stood back to the island, and kept plying backwards and forwards, waiting for letters and bill of lading, with the wind E.S.E. fresh, and standing in on the starboard tack ; missed stays and went ashore at half-past 2 p.m. , where she now lies a wreck. When Captain Austen found the schooner would not come round, he kept his square canvas aback in hopes she would go astern, but the heavy rollers took charge of her, and hove her on the rocks before there was time to do anything. We ran a line from the brig Moa, but by the time we reached the schooner she was bilged, and the sea breaking over her. We have no hesitation in saying that Captain Austen is free from all blame regarding the loss of the schooner Sea Breeze; he did all any seaman could do to save his ship. The only cause we can attribute for the loss of the Sea Breeze, in our opinion, was the heavy rollers on the N. W. end of the island, where at all times there is a roll, and once under the influence of such rollers there are little hopes but shipwreck. With difficulty the crew saved their clothes and some sails, which were torn dragging them through the reef. —Alexander Robertson, Master of brig Moa ; Charles Summers, late Master of brig Pfiel; Samuel Mully, Chief Mate of Sea Breeze."

Reading the shipping reports of the times you can't help but be struck by the number of wrecked vessels, the saddest ones are when the record simply states that the vessel departed a port and was never heard of again.
Captain John Austen lost the 'Reliance' in 1868; the 'Marwell' in 1870 and the 'Sea Breeze' in 1871. But he lived to sail another day.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The wreck of the Marwell

In 1869 Captain Jack was back in Auckland sailing the 'Marwell' a 28 ton, 52ft cutter, owned by John Smith, draper of Queen Street. On 2nd February he sailed her in the "Trading vessels, over 25 tons" section of the 30th Auckland Anniversary Day Regatta. The prize was a silver cup presented by Mssr. Shaw, Savill and Co. and a purse of 25 guineas.
It was a great race with stiff breeze increasing until "the sea was now anything but pleasant, and the boats were dipping their noses into it breasting the waves right gallantly!" The 'Donald McLean', was an early leader when "smash went the foretopmast-head which, in its fall, broke off the main-top-mast close to the crosstree, thus rendering every sail in the ship useless".
But worse was in store for the 'Marwell' her topsail was carried away, and when near Tiri Tiri she missed stays (a tacking manoeuvre) and was driven onto the rocks and wrecked.
In February there was an inquiry into the wreck of the 'Marwell' where John Austen gave evidence-
"I was on deck when she missed stays. I had been in the cabin previously for about twenty minutes sitting on the locker. I was not drunk. I drank three glasses of brandy previous to this, but I was not in a state of intoxication." However another witness John Bucket, a friend of the owner, reported that "the master, Austen, was drunk, I saw him have seven or eight glasses of brandy at least. He was not capable of taking charge of the vessel in my opinion". Other witnesses reported that it was the mate who was in charge at the time and it was a mistake of judgement on his part in not putting her round in time that caused the vessel to founder.
The Bench decided that the master's certificate of John Austen should be cancelled.
An application for costs was declined and a separate court action by the draper whereby Captain Jack was charged with the theft of a quantity of brandy, rum and beer was dismissed.
Sadly the mate who had been in charge when the boat foundered drowned the next day when trying to salvage the 'Marwell'.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


On the 2nd of April 1868 at 3.00AM in heavy seas and squalls the 'Reliance' struck the Indispensable Reef near the Solomon Islands. The ship quickly filled with water and by daybreak the crew took to the longboat and whale boat taking provisions, enough water for 8 days and compasses and charts.
Night came on with heavy squalls, rain, thunder, and lightening - both boats were leaking. When the weather moderated they made sail for Satisfaction Island where they went ashore. The natives appeared friendly and gave them water and coconuts in return for bread. It seemed a good place so they pulled one of the boats on shore and started to repair it.
By the next day "the natives kept mustering stronger and stronger, and their behaviour showing signs of hostilities". They launched the boat in a shower of spears one piercing the steward's left hip to the depth of 5 or 6 inches, "so that we had to pull hard to get it out" and sailed away with a large canoe chasing them.
They had an uncomfortable night and next morning repaired the second boat and started off. The long-boat held the captain and second mate, the injured steward and one sailor. The faster whale-boat was manned by the mate and three sailors. They tried to keep together but the weather was raining, blowing a gale and the seas heavy. The next morning they were chased by a very large canoe manned by 15-20 men, they managed to out-distance it and after an hour it gave up the chase.
"We went to work to rig a square sail, and whilst so engaged did not perceive five canoes that were trying to cut us off until they were nearer to us than was agreeable. We hoisted the square sail and again had recourse to the oars and paddles until they gave up the chase."
Unable to see the whaleboat and fearful of the natives they set off toward Cleveland Bay, near the Great Barrier Reef. The weather deteriorated - the wind increased to a heavy gale, with heavy seas, and our Captain had to steer for "three nights and three days without relief of sleep".
"On the morning of the 25th no water in the boat, made Claremount group of islands and main land; landed on an island but found no water; all hands covered with sores and suffering from swelled feet; no water or food, dug a hole in. the sand and got some water - half salt."
On the afternoon of the 28th they started for the main land, "for we were getting very sick and weak" they were picked up by the schooner 'Maid of Riverton.' after traveling 1,100 miles in a small and open boat, in twenty-seven days of suffering.
The 'Reliance' was a total wreck and uninsured - the whale boat and its crew were never seen again.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


From April 1865 Captain John Austen owned the fine brig 'Reliance' - 117tons, 84.9 x 21.4 x 11 feet. She was built in Bermuda in 1841. He sailed her regularly to the gold fields on the West Coast of the South Island.
On June 4th 1867 she sailed for Fiji with a full cargo including 12 hogsheads of rum, 2 hogsheads of whisky 2 hogsheads of brandy, 2 quarter-casks of brandy, 5 kegs of tobacco, 4 cases of tobacco, 4 boxes of tobacco and 1 case of cigar, all liable for duties.
During a court case in 1868 it was alleged that the casks were put onto a cutter "Bessie" the day after "Reliance" sailed. While "Reliance" sailed on toward Fiji, "Bessie" rendezvoused with the "Ringleader" in Mercury Bay and the casks were transfered and then shipped to Poverty Bay.
Under cross-examination a seaman reported that the rum taken out of the casks and put into a teakettle for sampling it was very strong!
The "Reliance" had not returned to Auckland (she landed in Sydney instead) so John Austen did not give his side of the story. Certificates that showed the goods had been landed in Fiji were excluded by the judge in the court case and the merchants who had stood as bondsmen were found guilty and fined treble the value of the goods.
The 'Reliance' sailed from Sydney for Fiji again in March 1868. She never returned to Auckland.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


Novelty, 36749 Barque 375.77 tons. 140 x 27.6 x 14.9 ft., Built at Mechanics Bay, Aukland, in 1862, by H. Niccol.

A Captain John Austen sailed the Novelty on the Auckland to Sydney run several times during 1864 and 1865. There is some confusion as Captain Austen was also sailing the Aquila between the Port of Onehunga and the Port of Waikato. This may be inaccurate reporting and other masters were sailing his cutter. Or maybe there was more than one Captain J. Austen. Of course he could have just been very busy!!!
The Novelty was a very smart ship and the largest vessel built in New Zealand at the time. She was part of the Circular Saw Line and carried both cargo and passengers. Sadly she met her end in 1877 when she stranded on Peton Point, north end of Formosa Island [Taiwan], and became a total wreck.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


During the 1860s Captain John Austen made several trips to Fiji in the Aquila. At first the reports were glowing - "The ' Aquila' brings us late news from these islands in addition to her cargo of tropical fruit. In all probability the year 1860 will be the point of departure in the future history of the colonization of the Fijis by the Anglo-Saxon race. The islands are already favourably known to old South-sea travellers, but the inducement which has been held out to settlers, by the steps recently taken by the British Government towards making them an integral part of her Majesty's dominions, will soon render them a fair field for immigration both from the Mother Country and the Australasian Colonies. Captain Austin of the 'Aquila' gives a most glowing description of the capabilities, of the islands"
Quick Passage. — The cutter 'Aquila,' arrived at Levuka, Ovalau, Fiji Islands, on July 25th, having accomplished the quickest passage on record from Melbourne — viz , I7 1/2 days from Port Phillip Heads, and 13 days from Twofold Bay.— Extract from a letter by a passenger.
But by September 1861 - " Captain Austin reports that there is no business doing, and that all the Europeans in the Fijis would willingly leave it if they could pay their passages thence."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Dearly beloved wife

We have discovered that Captain John married Anne Willcox on the 12th October 1858 in the St Barnabas Church in Auckland. We had initially dismissed that date as Anne was so young, she was 17 years old. He is listed as 28 on the marriage certificate but was actually 36. He is also listed as a "widower". The marriage seems to have been a happy one and they had 9 children, 5 boys, and 4 girls (more than we first thought). When Anne died in 1923 her death notice read:
On April 28th at her daughter's residence, no.10 Baker Street. Anne, the dearly beloved wife of the late Captain John Austen, aged 81 years. Deeply regretted.

Friday, October 23, 2009

In which our intrepid Captain goes exploring in the South Island!

The Aquila arrived in Invercargill on 20th July 1863 with passengers. This account of her voyage was published in the Southland Times:
"The cutter Aquila, Captain Austen, left Invercargill on March 25th with a light air from N. At midnight fell in with a heavy gale from S.W., accompanied by thunder, lightning, and rain.
Put into Port William [Stewart Island] and was there detained THIRTY days by heavy gales from the S.W. and W.N.W., accompanied by thunder, lightening, and rain.
On April 27 rounded the West Cape with light breeze from the N.E,
April 28, fell in with a heavy gale from the N.W. Bore up under close reefed canvas for Brachsea Sound. When within two miles of the land it fell calm. Got out the sweeps and pulled the ship into the Sound at 6 p.m, Came, to anchor and lay there three days, with heavy gales from N.W., SNOW and rain.
Left the Sound on May 2nd. with strong winds from the S.W. and rain.
May 4th. anchored in Milford Haven in Fresh Water Basin [Milford Sound]
May 13th, left Milford Haven for Master Bay. May 15 landed passengers and went back to Milford Haven with strong winds from N.W. When within four miles of the Haven it fell calm, with heavy swell rolling in from W.N.W. Vessel driving on the Brig Rock. Let go the anchor in eighteen fathoms water about half a mile from the Brig Rock. Saw two other rocks with heavy sea breaking over them, which are not on the charts.
At daylight strong wind came in with heavy sea rolling in from W. Hove short when the cable parted at thirty fathoms. Made sail and ran into Milford Haven and anchored again in Freshwater Basin.
Some of my passengers who came overland from Martin's Bay, saw part of a wreck painted light stone color, also a square, log of American timber.
Sailed from Milford Haven on Saturday, 30th May, and arrived in Marten's Bay on 1st June.
Found seven fathoms at low water, and went in on the 2nd. Sailed up the river about four miles, and then came into a lake about ten miles long and four miles broad.
The passengers took the boat and went up the lake- and found another river, and beyond that another lake running N.N.E., went to the head of the lake and could get no further for SNOW.
The passengers returned June 20th, and the ship came down the lake to the mouth of the river, but finding the sea running too high over the bar, did not get out to sea till July 8th, when we left with a strong gale from the N.W., at night the gale increased to a HURRICANE. Hove the slip to under close reefed storm trisail.
July 9th, put into Dusky Sound with a heavy gale from the westward. Barometer standing at 28 8O.
Left on the 15th, with strong wind from S.W., and put into Port William on the 16th with, strong gale attended by rain. Saturday, July 18th, weighed anchor with a light wind from S., and made the port of Invercargill about 3 p.m 19th July.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


From 1858 Captain John Austen sailed the cutter AQUILLA - she was built at Mercury Bay, Coromandel in 1858 by Geo. Browning. He sailed her to Thames, Russell, Otago, Akaroa, Napier, Wellington and "the Society Islands" (part of French Polynesia). He carried gin, timber, furniture, bricks, a few passengers and 30,000 oranges and 2,500 coconuts. It was not always plain sailing - no motors, no G.P.S - and in October 1861 the Aquila very nearly was lost. This report appeared in the Hawke's Bay Herald on the 8th October 1861:
"The 'cutter Aquila, while drifting out on Saturday, morning, to resume her voyage to Otago, got aground , abreast of the flagstaff. The wind was blowing hard at the time, with heavy squalls, from the westward. There was no pilot on board— the master himself having usually taken the vessel out and in. The ship after touching rolled heavily. Her passengers and cargo were landed— the latter, consisting of nails, soft goods, &c, damaged by sea-water. She was got afloat on Sunday afternoon by means of empty casks and other appliances, and was immediately hauled round to the Iron Pot— about 40 men lending a hand. When opposite the stores of Messrs. Stuart, Kinross, & Co., she heeled over and came right on her beam ends — the mast in the water. She is considerably damaged, but it fortunately happens that the damaged planks can be got at easily, and the necessary repairs are being rapidly proceeded with. The passengers (13 in number) are clamorous at the delay thus occasioned in their voyage, and threaten proceedings against Captain Austen. It is said that the vessel will not be thoroughly repaired under £200."
It can't have been too bad because on 22nd October she resumed her journey to Otago.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Just found an even earlier reference to Captain Austen in January 1853.
"The Bremen whaling ship "Republik," Capt. Austen arrived in harbour from the Fishing ground, on Saturday afternoon, having sailed from Honolulu on the 20th Nov. The Republik is a very fine ship of 500 tons register, built at New York ;— from which port, under her original appellation of "Phillip The First," she ran for some time as an English packet ship."
And there was this notice in the "Daily Southern Cross" newspaper:

CAPTAIN AUSTEN will not be responsible for any debts contracted by the Crew of the above vessel. Bain & ├čurtt Agents:

And Captain Austen and the Republic took part in the Auckalnd Regatta in commemoration of the 13th anniversary of the colony on Saturday 29th January 1853.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The cutter TAY

In 1857 we find many references to a Captain Austen and the cutter Tay. It sailed regularly between Auckland Coromandel and Thames. They also made journeys to Wellington and Northland. The ship's cargo seemed to include timber, maize, sugar, rope, "sundries" and passengers.
From the Hawke's Bay Herald on the 26th December 1857 comes this report:

Sailing Match At WELLINGTON--(.From a Correspondent.) A match took place this day (Wednesday, Dec. 16), between the fine little clipper cutter Tay, of Auckland — owned and sailed by Capt. Austen ; and Mr. Worsley's smart fore-and-aft schooner the "Matilda Hays." The race was from Swinbourne's wharf to outside the Heads ; the competing vessels to round the outer rock of Barrett's reef and return to their anchorage. The race was watched by a great number of people, both on shore and on board the other vessels ; and perhaps there has never been a sailing match in Port Nicholson that excited so much and such general interest. At starting — the Cheetah being flag- ship for the occasion — the wind, unfortunately, was very unsteady, and some difficulty was experienced by both crafts in getting clear of the shipping. The schooner made the best start — the cutter fouling the Glance and carrying away her own topmast stay. From the time thus lost, the schooner, to all appearance, would win, and that easily. She rounded Point Halswell 9 minutes before the Tay, and of course the general impression was that the Tay and her skipper had made a mistake, and that Wellington would carry off the prize. It was soon found out however, that the mistake was the other way About 7 o'clock in the evening a sail was observed coming round Point Halswell, and, to the astonishment of the knowing ones, it proved to be the Tay. The cutter, it appeared, notwithstanding her bad start, had rounded the outer rock two minutes before the Matilda Hays, and was a quarter of a mile ahead on opening out the town. She anchored just one hour before her less fortunate competitor. The latter had got becalmed towards evening, which Capt. Austen avoided by keeping well free of the shore. We congratulate the latter on the result.

Introducing the Captain

There are something things we just don't know about Captain John Austen - like how he got to New Zealand, who his parents were and when he married, but here are some of the things we do!
John Austen was born around 1823 in Sussex. He married Anne WILLCOX who was 20 years his junior. They had 4 children - Elizabeth Kezia in 1876, Alfred Edward in 1879, Joseph in 1881, and Arthur Weselley in 1885. He was 62 years old when Arthur was born. Arthur's son Mervyn is Greg's father.
John Austen was a master mariner and we have tracked his career in Pages Past - we are not totally sure of some of the details but it has been great fun finding out about this man. John died in 1899 and is buried in Waikumete cemetery.