Just over one hundred and seventy-five years ago, Lyall Bay in New Zealand was the scene of one of the earliest shipwrecks in the Wellington region when, on December the 12th,1841, the barque Winwick came to grief on the shores of the bay.
The Winwick was a three-masted wooden sailing vessel built in Lynn, now King’s Lynn, Norfolk, in 1833. She was rigged as a barque and weighed 266 tons. On her maiden voyage, the Winwick, commanded by one Captain Blair, sailed from London to Montreal; for the remainder of that year, she would be a regular visitor to the ports of London, Liverpool, Quebec and Montreal. In 1840, the Winwick was owned by Ware & Co., and was registered in the Port of Scarborough. Her commander, and co-owner, was Captain William Ware, and he had a crew of 10 seamen. Lloyds Register of British and Foreign Shipping 1840–1841 designated the Winwick as an A1 vessel. The ‘A’ classification denoted her as a vessel of the “First Description of the First Class”, while the number ‘1’ indicated that the vessel’s hold was “well and sufficiently found”; her rigging and fittings were also in optimum condition.
On the 8th of October, 1841, the Winwick arrived safely in Port Nicholson from Twofold Bay in New South Wales with her hold full of cattle. She dropped anchor in Lambton Harbour, around which the burgeoning town of Wellington stood, and the following day her presence was noted in The New Zealand Gazette And Wellington Spectator. But the Winwick was not alone. Sharing this anchorage with her were the schooners Lady Leigh and Sally Ann, a brigantine, the Munford, and a Chilean brig, the Theresa. The landscape of the town was, of course, devoid of the high-rise skyline which characterises central Wellington today. In 1841, most of the small, wooden buildings which constituted the town lined the shoreline of Thorndon Quay and Lambton Quay. Beyond this, only a few scattered buildings, dirt roads and farmland were evident in this gigantic green amphitheatre.
Despite being a sheltered and commodious harbour, the approaches to Port Nicholson had already proven to be deadly for some coastal sailing vessels to navigate in poor conditions. Port Nicholson, with its “strong winds, long passage, and inhospitable surrounding coastline,” was also devoid of any navigational light by which to guide a captain into the harbour entrance, or indeed anywhere along the coast. The vessels most frequently wrecked at the harbour entrance and its environs were “the small fry, schooners, ketches, and cutters, which carried on the greater partofthecoastaltrade.” Asaresult,Wellington“proved[tobe]anexpensiveportoutofwhich to operate sailing vessels”, which could also be delayed for several days or more by adverse and unpredictable winds.
On the 25th of October, 1841, the Winwick set sail from Port Nicholson to begin collecting oil from several shore-based whaling stations. On board were three passengers: Mr. A. Plaistowe, Mr. James Williams, and his wife Jane Williams, the only woman aboard. The first whaling station the Winwick visited was in Cloudy Bay, where 50 barrels of oil “and some whalebone”, belonging to a “Mr. William”, were loaded into her hold. She then sailed north, back through Cook Strait and on to Kapiti Island, where she collected another 120 barrels of oil belonging to “Messrs. Wade”. Mr. Wade had earlier established a shore station on the coast opposite Mana Island; some oil also came from another station in the Porirua Inlet. Once the last of these consignments of oil had been loaded and secured in the Winwick’s hold, Captain Ware and his crew prepared to return to Wellington once more in order to “clear the customs” on the cargo.
From her anchorage in the Porirua Inlet, the Winwick headed back out into the Tasman Sea to retrace her route back to Wellington. Soon after leaving the inlet, however, the wind changed direction and the Winwick was compelled to anchor in “the lee of Mana Island”, and await more favourable winds. At noon on Saturday, December the 11th, a northwest wind picked up, allowing the Winwick to resume her journey. On this leg of the voyage, Captain Ware set his course closer inshore in order to shorten the return journey. Rounding Cape Terawhiti, the Winwick turned towards a south-easterly heading and continued hugging the coastline. Just as the Winwick was approaching the entrance to Port Nicholson, however, the wind suddenly shifted again, this time to the opposite quarter. Instead of blowing from the northwest, the wind was now blowing from the southeast, and it was steadily intensifying—to gale force.
As the southeasterly gale bore down on his vessel, Captain Ware, seeing Pencarrow Head just ahead of him, made the decision to immediately seek shelter in Port Nicholson. With the Winwick now sailing almost directly into a headwind on a choppy sea, he put the wheel down hard to port as his crew quickly braced the yards. Now heading in a roughly northeasterly direction, the Winwick swiftly sailed through the narrow passage between Pencarrow and Palmer heads. Soon she would be rounding the northern tip of the Miramar Peninsula, beyond which she could drop anchor in Lambton Harbour and safely ride out the fury of the storm. But it was not the harbour entrance that the Winwick was sailing into. Almost immediately, the crewmen near the bow spotted the breaking waves on the distant shoreline.
Alerted by his crewmen’s cries, Captain Ware ducked his head below the sheets of canvas, and instantly recognized his error. “Drop the anchors!” he yelled. Several crewmen rushed forward to assist those already feverishly working to fulfil the order. As the heavy iron anchors plunged into the sea, their thick cables rapidly wriggled and writhed across the foredeck in hot pursuit. The anchors had no sooner hit the bottom before they were dragged across the seabed, trailing clouds of sand in their wake. The flukes quickly began furrowing into the sand like a farmer’s plough tilling the soft soil of a field. As each agonizing second passed, the crew and passengers of the Winwick desperately waited, and prayed that the anchors would take hold. After what must have seemed like an eternity, the anchors, their flukes now deeply embedded in the sand, finally brought the Winwick to a halt.
By this time, the gale had caught up with the Winwick, and it soon began striking her with its strong winds and waves. The gale soon whipped the bay into a boiling cauldron of turbid gray water, limned by the white, breaking waves along the surrounding shoreline. In the midst of this
tempestuous turmoil, the Winwick continually pitched and rolled about between the rollers, and foamy gray waves repeatedly crashed over her forecastle. By the dark, early hours of Sunday morning, the 12th of December, it was apparent that the strained anchor lines would not hold much longer. Once the dim light of dawn had illuminated the bay, Captain Ware reluctantly gave the order to cut the anchor cables so that the Winwick could be “run ashore to save life”. Mrs. Williams later stated that the Winwick went ashore at 6 o’clock that morning.
The melancholy scene which presented itself to the small group of onlookers who had assembled on the beach can only be imagined. The Winwick, now hard aground, was continually being shunted and shoved about by the bullying breakers crashing onto the shore all around her. Aboard the vessel, Captain Ware and his crew quickly devised a plan to reach, or communicate with, the party on the beach. Sadly, one of the crewmen drowned during one such attempt to reach the shore; further such efforts by the crew were suspended. The crew and passengers, now weary from their ordeal, could only hope and pray, as they listened to the Winwick creaking, groaning, and buckling under the strain of the wind whistling through her rigging, and the sea slowly breaking her up beneath them.
Contact with the shore was finally made on Sunday night, when a bottle was retrieved from the surf. Enclosed in the bottle was a note requesting as many people as possible to remain on the beach for assistance, should anything happen. This led many in the rescue party to fear that the Winwick, still under the full strain of the storm, would soon “go to pieces”. Some members of the party braved the gale to maintain their vigil along the shore overnight, and prepared for the worst. They also lit several bonfires along the shoreline which provided some solace to everyone on the Winwick, and a reminder that help was near. At daybreak the following day, the wind finally began to ease. Throughout the day, the crew and passengers were slowly brought ashore by the courageous efforts of their rescuers. By 5 o’clock that afternoon, the shattered Winwick was finally abandoned.
The Winwick was not the only vessel lost in this gale. In Palliser Bay, the American whaler Elbe was lost in much the same manner as the Winwick had been. In response to the loss of these vessels, a public meeting was swiftly convened, where the issue of the port’s lack of navigational aids was discussed. Many residents called for the construction of a lighthouse in order to ensure the port’s suitability as a major sea port. Today, nothing visibly remains of the Winwick above the sands of Lyall Bay, where residents regularly stroll past the wreck’s final resting place every day. But should there be another storm of the same severity and springing from the same quarter in the future, we may perhaps get a glimpse of what remains of this time capsule from our early colonial era.