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Sudden storm disastrous for the Shamrock

As we wait for the next strong wind warning from El Nino and complain that weather isn't what it used to be when we were young, it might be worth remembering that things could be — and have been — much worse. MIKE WARMAN reports on a dramatic day off Wairarapa's southern coast.
(Times-Age, January 10, 1998)

(the Shamrock)

DIXON had run out of options ... to save the lives of crew and passengers the Shamrock would have to be run ashore

It was in the second week of January 1861 that a storm of hurricane proportions swept the entire length of this country.

The New Zealand Spectator described it as "unprecedented in severity and continuance". It caused extensive flooding, "enormous" damage to crops and property, and added one more shipwreck to Palliser Bay's growing list.

The settlers of Wellington had a hint of what was to come on the evening of Monday 7th when, at the end of "a delightfully fine summer's day", heavy masses of black cloud were seen approaching from the south west.

They brought thick drizzling rain to the town by 9 o'clock. By that time, the wind had already risen to gale force off the Canterbury coast and was causing problems for Captain Thomas Dixon on the Shamrock, an Australian registered brig of 183 tons.

Dixon and his ship were resuming their journey from Auckland to Otago after a Christmas layover in Lyttelton. The Shamrock had crammed into her hold 80,000 feet of timber, 50,000 shingles, a generous amount of brandy, and 1 ton of bacon.

She also carried five passengers — a Mr Goodfellow, Mr and Mrs George Graham of Auckland, and the two Miss Heaphys of Lyttelton.

Nothing is known of Mr Goodfellow or the Heaphy sisters but George Graham was a well known civil engineer and farmer from Mangere. He would live through the coming ordeal to become a member of parliament and the man who brokered the peace agreement that ended the Waikato war.

Capt. Dixon had left port early on the 7th with light winds and no reason to suspect the danger that lay just over the horizon.

By midnight, however, he described the conditions as "a perfect hurricane, the sea running mountains high".

The following morning, Tuesday 8th, he gave up trying to fight it and, with great difficulty, turned his ship around and headed W.N,W. looking for shelter. "Heavy squalls with sleet at intervals."

The storm had reached Wellington, too, and was causing havoc there.

The harbour was "one scene of foam and spoom drift, mast head high", according to the Spectator.

The auxiliary screw steamer, Robert Lowe, broke one anchor chain and, with all masts and spars aloft ready for sea, provided enough wind resistance to drag the other.

She had travelled "a considerable distance" before steam was made and her engine was able to hold her in place.

The mail steamer Prince Alfred, moored alongside a coal hulk, began to drift as well. Her captain tried to put to sea but thought better of it and took shelter in one of the bays.

George Graham had survived a typhoon in the China Seas in 1859. He claimed that the wind then was so ferocious it blew the sea "quite smooth".

There were times when he saw the same effect from the deck of the Shamrock that Tuesday.

The Kaikoura Peninsula was sighted at 1 in the afternoon and Capt. Dixon tried to find shelter on its lee side.

But at 8 o'clock, with a heavy swell rolling in and darkness falling, his position became too dangerous and he was forced to stand out to sea again.

At 9 a "terrific gale" sprung the main yard; at 10.30 a close-reefed mainsail was "blown clean out of the bolt ropes". The fore trysail was set and lasted an hour.

At dawn on the 9th, Dixon was still trying to get control of his ship. He called for a storm main trysail but it had little effect.

"Fearful seas broke on board" and swept the deck. By 8a.m., even though the Shamrock had not one shred of canvas aloft, she was running before the wind at better than 11 knots.

Capt. Dixon saw Turakirae Head three hours later. It lay on his port side, which meant that he was being driven into Palliser Bay — the worst possible place for a sailing ship with a hurricane at its back.

It must have been with a feeling of hopelessness that he ordered his crew to hoist the few remaining sails.

The Shamrock turned to port in a desperate attempt to escape to Wellington, but Dixon soon realised it was useless. He turned his ship around and headed east, back into the mouth of the Bay. The last of his sails blew out soon after.

Dixon was a "first rate seaman" with enough experience to know when the game was up. He had fought the storm with everything in the book, seldom leaving his post for two days and nights, but he had run out of options.

In order to save the lives of crew and passengers, the Shamrock would have to be run ashore. He took over the wheel from the helmsman and began a terrifying last ride for everyone on board.

The bay was white with heaving, churning surf for l½ miles off shore.

Dixon calmly steered his little brig into it and, exhausted as he must have been, struggled to keep control. Huge seas broke over the stern and washed the length of the deck.

In the mind of George Graham "nothing but a watery grave presented itself".

As their ship laboured towards the shore, passengers and crew took refuge in the rigging. They clung there with all their remaining strength, not knowing if they were to be smashed to pieces against rocks or flung into the sea.

At last the Shamrock was thrown on to the beach and stuck fast in sand. Now all they had to do was get ashore without being dragged away by the undertow.

The ship began to break up almost immediately and broken spars, still attached to ropes, flailed across the deck.

The "three ladies", according to Graham, "were by this time very weak".

The men couldn't have been much stronger. Mrs Graham, who was "very much bruised", had to be lowered over the side on a rope. Her husband and Captain Dixon were the last to leave.

Everyone had survived, against all the odds, but they looked a sorry sight.

"We were all in a very deplorable state," wrote Graham, "our clothes torn, and of course wet, The ladies in particular had nearly all their clothes torn off".

They could have died of exposure right there on the beach if not for the appearance of Robert Russell from the nearby Whangaimoana sheep station.

He had been told that a ship was in trouble in the Bay and had set out immediately with a rescue party.

Russell saw there was no time to waste. Like some Victorian storybook hero he swept the injured Mrs Graham into his arms and carried her off to the safety of his homestead, followed by a straggling line of rescuers and rescued.

The survivors would spend several days recuperating at Whangaimoana. They were cared for "With the greatest kindness and attention" by the Russell family "who did everything in their power" to make their unexpected guests comfortable.

On Thursday morning, the gale was at its height in Wellington. The steamship White Swan, with her engine stripped for overhaul, dragged her anchors, broke off the jib boom of the Thames City and damaged her own funnel.

Sailing ships in the harbour had struck their upper masts and yards to present a smaller profile to the wind.

On shore, "chimneys were blown down and outbuildings and fences carried away."

Three hundred feet of the Hutt road had been washed out by the sea and the Hutt River was about to burst its banks again. drowning stock and forming a lake "miles in extent". A large tract of land near Porirua was also under water and the Manawatu had fared no better in the storm's progress north.

Despite these conditions, Graham, Russell, Captain Dixon and his crew set out for the beach to see if anything could be salvaged.

They shouldn't have been surprised by what they found. Graham described the sight as "wonderful".

The word really meant something in those days, before it was weakened by 20th century overuse. Full of wonder, awe, a feeling of insignificance in the universe.

The Shamrock had been reduced to a shell.

Her deck, masts, and cargo had been ripped out and scattered for miles along the beach.

The 80,000 feet of weatherboard timber that she carried had been snapped and splintered like matchsticks until "scarcely one whole board was left".

Captain Dixon reported later that in all his years at sea, he had "weathered many a gale" but had never witnessed a hurricane such as this one.

The most sobering indication of its fury was the number of seabirds and dolphins lying dead among the wreckage.

The remains of the Shamrock were auctioned a week later. The hull went for £45 and the timber, shingles, brandy and bacon fetched £5.

"This seems rather a low figure," said the Spectator, "but we understand that she is a complete wreck, and the cargo all adrift."

The buyer, whoever he was, probably paid too much.

The hurricane had moderated to a fresh gale by Friday 11th January and on Saturday, as the country returned to summer, the Spectator collated the damage.

Reports of ruined crops were coming in from all directions — "the aggregate losses of the farmers, agriculturaIists, and nurserymen, must be enormous, and, in many cases, we fear irremediable."

Cottage gardeners had been hit just as hard in an age when keeping a vege patch was a necessity rather than a hobby.

The Spectator ended ominously, "We fear that an immense amount of suffering and privation has been entailed upon the less wealthy settlers who were depending on their crops."

* * * * *

Finally, as a footnote to this episode, spare a thought for George Graham who was a most unfortunate sailor.

Having survived the China Seas typhoon of '59 and the Shamrock hurricane of '61, he went on to be shipwrecked again on the White Swan at Uriti in June 1862, and again, only two months later, when the mail steamer Lord Worsley ran aground on the Taranaki coast.