The Boat in the Beach: Unearthing a Wrecked American Whaleship in Western Australia

by Dr James Hunter

The Boat in the Beach

‘The wind blew with unmitigated fury’

On the evening of 7 July 1840, Captain Francis Coffin looked to the surrounding sea and sky with a growing sense of dread. His vessel, the American whaler Samuel Wright, had recently entered Koombana Bay in the fledgling colony of Western Australia to take on fresh water and provisions. It joined two other American whaleships, North America and Hudson, already moored in the bay and undergoing preparations to remain over winter and serve as ‘mother ships’ for shore-based whaling activities. As daylight waned, the weather deteriorated, and by 8 pm gale- force conditions pummelled the three ships as they rode at anchor. The winds soon shifted to the north-northwest and ‘blew with unmitigated fury’ down the exposed length of the bay. Coffin noted the three vessels ‘rode [the storm] out bravely’, but were ultimately overtaken by high seas, which ‘broke over [Samuel Wright’s] topmast heads’. The chain of one of Samuel Wright’s three anchors soon parted and the vessel drove towards shore, where it grounded. North America followed suit shortly afterwards. Despite being ‘buried up [in heavy seas] from stem to stern’, Hudson held position on account of its ‘four large anchors’ and miraculously survived the tempest.

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Watercolour painting 'Amateur whaling, or a tale of the Pacific', 1847.  Image: Oswald Walter Brierly / ANMM Collection 00005660.
Watercolour painting 'Amateur whaling, or a tale of the Pacific', 1847.

Image: Oswald Walter Brierly / ANMM Collection 00005660.

Samuel Wright and North America constituted the first — but certainly not the last — recorded shipwrecks in Koombana Bay. During the next 93 years, approximately 40 vessels were either stranded or wrecked within the bay’s confines. Ten would come to grief in the same general location as the American whalers — an area known today as North Beach. In fact, only three years passed before yet another Yankee whaleship (named, coincidentally, North America) was forced ashore in nearly the same spot and under identical conditions. The shoreline bordering Koombana Bay forms a fishhook shape, with the sharp end terminating in a short peninsula that juts into the sea in an approximate northeast—southwest orientation. Historically, the bay was noted for its excellent anchorage, which was well protected from most winds. The notable exceptions were northerlies and north-westerlies. Before construction of a breakwater around the turn of the 19th century, the peninsula was much shorter, oriented north to south, and provided little or no protection from these winds. Consequently, the majority of vessels wrecked in Koombana Bay were victims of severe weather events originating from the north or northwest.

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Watercolour painting of a nineteenth-century whaleship in Antarctic waters.

New England built: the origins of Koombana Bay’s wrecked American whaleships

Whaleships originated from several ports along the east coast of the United States, with those in New England forming the locus of both the whaling trade and manufacture of whaling vessels. Construction of Samuel Wright commenced in 1824 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The vessel was built by William Badger, a master shipwright who helped design and construct a number of prominent early American warships, including USS Ranger, USS America, USS Congress and USS Washington. At 372 tons, Samuel Wright was a relatively large ship, with length, breadth and depth measurements of 110 feet (33.5 metres), 28 feet (8.5 metres) and 13½ feet (4.1 metres) respectively. It was manufactured from white oak and pine, and protective copper sheathing was added to its lower hull in 1825. In 1826 Samuel Wright embarked on its first transoceanic voyage, transporting goods between the United States and the British port of Liverpool.

Samuel Wright continued to operate between American and British ports until 1833, when it was purchased by merchant John Osgood, whoj was based in Salem, Massachusetts, and converted into a whaling ship. The ship was outfitted with iron hanging knees the year before, perhaps in preparation for use as a whaler. These structural supports reinforced the junction between the bottoms of deck beams and the adjacent hull, but required less space than timber hanging knees, thereby creating additional cargo capacity without sacrificing the hull’s overall strength. Between 1833 and 1839, Samuel Wright conducted two pelagic whaling voyages to the Pacific Ocean. Both excursions were successful, and each resulted in the recovery of no less than 2,000 barrels of whale oil. In May 1839, the ship embarked for the Indian Ocean on what would prove to be its final voyage.

Much less is known about the first North America to wreck at Koombana Bay. It was constructed at a shipyard in Scarborough, Maine, in 1834, but its builder and specific details of its manufacture are either unknown or unclear. The vessel was slightly smaller than Samuel Wright, as reflected by its overall dimensions, including length (103 feet, or 31.4 metres) and breadth (24 feet, or 7.3 metres), and its cargo capacity (270 tons). North America was owned by William Wheeler of Wilmington, Delaware, and may have been built specifically as a pelagic whaler. Within two years of launch, the ship embarked on its first whaling voyage to the South Atlantic. This was followed by a second excursion to the same region in June 1838. Both trips each netted 2,400 barrels of whale oil. In December 1839, North America departed Wilmington under the command of Charles Kempton on its first, and last, voyage to the whaling grounds of the Indian Ocean.

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Scrimshaw of a nineteenth-century barque pursuing sperm whales in Australian waters.

Image: Artist unknown / ANMM Collection 00032478.

The second North America lost at North Beach was built in New York in 1804 from a combination of live oak and cedar. It was single-decked, 95½ feet (29.1 metres) long, and its beam and draught measured 26 feet (7.9 metres) and 13 feet (4.0 metres, respectively. In terms of overall size this vessel was smaller than Samuel Wright and the Maine-built North America, although its cargo capacity — at 284 tons — slightly exceeded that of the latter. It was fitted with copper sheathing in 1807, and embarked on the first of many trans-Atlantic merchant voyages the following year. In 1829, North America commenced its first whaling excursion to the Brazilian coast, but was unsuccessful. Subsequent voyages to the South Pacific and South Atlantic between 1830 and 1839 proved more productive, and each averaged a take of no less than 1,000 barrels of whale oil. On 12 June 1842, North America departed Warren, Rhode Island, for the Indian Ocean under the command of George Grinnell. The ship by this point was 38 years old, had undergone unspecified repairs in 1821, and hadn’t been outfitted with copper sheathing — or any form of sheathing, for that matter — since 1826. It was undoubtedly showing its age, and travelling to a part of the world notorious for sudden and treacherous weather changes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ship’s owners insured it for $16,000 prior to its 1842 departure. This not-insignificant amount would exceed $620,000 in today’s Australian currency, and was approximately two-thirds of the total average cost ($25,884, or about AU $1 million today) to build a ship of North America’s tonnage in 1842. It also far exceeded the cost of insurance for a three-year whaling voyage to the Pacific during the period, which in 1849 averaged around $840 (or more than AU $33,000 in today’s currency) per ship.

By the time North America arrived at Koombana Bay in April 1843 to acquire water and provisions, it had collected more than 500 barrels of whale oil. The ship was reportedly moored with only one bower anchor when the weather began to deteriorate on the evening of 11 April. By 10 pm the winds increased to a ‘perfect hurricane’ and the ship, which curiously hadn’t had its wind-resistant topgallant and royal masts struck in the intervening period, began to drive towards shore. North America’s other bower anchor and kedge anchor were deployed in an effort to halt the ship’s movement, but ‘went down foul’ and failed to hold. At this point the crew reportedly ‘lost all self-possession’ and were in a ‘state of mutiny’ when the vessel stuck fast on a sandbar a short distance from shore. By degrees, Captain Grinnell managed to keep his crew from abandoning ship, and the following morning they warped North America off the sandbar into deeper water. The sheer intensity of the storm was revealed by the state of both bower anchors, the shanks of which were ‘twisted and broke[n]’.

Incredibly, the ship appears to have suffered little damage, but due to the condition of its anchors ended up drifting back on the sandbar and, ultimately, to the beach beyond. It was still aground by the beginning of May, when it was condemned and put up for auction. The buyer, Captain Daniel Scott, was able to haul North America off the beach and move it into deeper water in mid-June 1843, where it rode at anchor apparently none the worse for wear. Within a month, however, another of the area’s notorious north-westerlies caused the ship’s single anchor cable to part, and it came ashore a short distance from the wreck of Samuel Wright. This time, North America ended up on its side with its hull bilged. Scott set to work salvaging timber from the hull, and removing the ship’s remaining cargo of whale oil and barrel staves. These items were loaded aboard the schooner Elizabeth, which was wrecked at North Beach during yet another fierce north-westerly gale on 17 November. Nearly everything salvaged from North America, including most of the whale oil casks, was lost.