TALL TALES & TRUE by Two Shackles Bill
A TALE OF TWO CLIPPERS (a Mysterious Western Australia Shipping Disaster)
Ahoy thar me’hearties! Tis me ol’Two Shackles Bill jest back from another wee tip ter the Caribbean. Aye be told that thar “Aussie Titles” are go’in bach ter the Golden West ter Scarborough once again. So if yer go’in & appen ter be standing on Scarborough Beach next year, look seaward & remember this Western Australia sea tale of great misfortune & tragedy that occurred at the rocky island outpost known as Rottnest Island. It is an incredible tale of 2 giant clipper ships that were sailing ter Fremantle Western Australia.
Both these windjammers had a rendezvous with destiny, one was looking to achieve glory by breaking a long standing 90 day sailing time record, the other was looking forward to finishing a tiresome journey because the ship had travelled from the “old dart” laden down with a cargo of railway lines & heavy machinery bound fer the Kalgoorlie Gold Fields . These giants of the sea both met their fate on the same day at just about the same place & at just about the same time, give or take a half an hour, not possible yer say? Well sit back & aye’ll be tell’in yer the story of a maritime enigma that still has ol’sea dogs bemused ter this very day & still scratch’in thar heads as ter how such a strange turn of tragic events occurred.
The first ship in this tale is the “City of York” which was a 1,194 ton iron hulled & timber barque clipper ship that had three masts, she was 68 metres (223 feet) long & was built in 1869 by Glasgow shipbuilders J. Elder and Company, and the British owners were the ‘Ship City of York Company.
The other Clipper ship was the “Carlisle Castle” which was an all timber ship built in 1868. The Carlisle Castle was a 1,344 ton, 70 metre (230 feet) 3 masted barque built by R & H Green of Blackwall Shipyard on the Thames River not far from London & it was owned by multi millionaire Mr J Robertson. Ter the untrained eye the pair of barque clippers could have been identical twin sisters.
Previously the City of York had been involved in several Clipper Ship challenge races, which included racing against other major shipping company clippers, however whilst the City Of York was faster than most other Clipper Ships, she could never beat the Cutty Sark. “The 1885 Great Tea Race from Shanghai China to London to see which clipper ship could get the first cargo of tea back to London the fastest was probably the City Of Yorks best chance of triumph over the Cutty Sark”.
The prize for the Shanghai China to London Challenge was the title & notoriety of “World’s Fastest Clipper” as well as the reward of any company against company side bets & the large profits for being the first Clipper Ship to arrive with the first tea of the year. In a very close race that was witnessed by the World Media, the race lead changed many times as the Clipper Ships raced across the World passing many Ports & headland vantage points in different countries. However in the final wash-up the Cutty Sark narrowly defeated the City Of York by a mere 30min, a virtual nothing over a distance of halfway around the world. But as the say’in goes, “winners can laugh & losers can please em’selves” & the City Of York was banished from the prestigious tea run ter to general cargo duties from USA to Australia.
As we all know time & tide stand still for no man, not even clipper ships & 14years later the City Of York departed San Francisco on 13th April 1899 under Captain Phillip Jones with a cargo of 743,444 feet of Oregon timber and 3,638 doors. Captain Jones was well aware of other Shipping Company’s crews snide remarks about the City Of York, about how she was always “the bridesmaid & never the bride” after her clashes with the Cutty Sark. So on this occasion Captain Jones assembled the crew on deck as they sailed out of San Francisco Harbour & he gave the crew a rousing speech.
” Gentlemen today we set sail for Australia a far away destination, the record from San Francisco to Fremantle Western Australia is 90 days at sea. Now as we all know the world is changing & steamship power is a threat to these great wind ships we sail, also the courage needed to crew these clippers, the skill & our way of life is being eroded by mechanical engineers & steam power. But disregarding the tyranny of distance we are going to try & break the record of 90days sailing time from San Francisco to Fremantle Western Australia & finally send this great powerful windjammer the City Of York out a winner, as well as write our names into the record books of sailing history”.
The City Of York reached Rottnest Island just off the coast of Fremantle WA in just 89 days, as she approached Rottnest Island from the north-west on the afternoon of 11th July 1899 there was stormy weather blowing in from the south south-west, which included blinding rain and heavy seas. The City Of York was well on the way to claiming the record by 24hours, all that had to be done was to “cross the finishing line” by securing a pilot to guide her into the Port of Fremantle. Captain Jones informed the crew that they were about to write their names & the ship’s name into the record books for sailing history & thought to himself, “ the City Of York is finally going get the monkey off her back of being the bridesmaid & never the bride”.
Captain Jones signalled the Wadjemup Lighthouse which was located on the south end of Rottnest Island for a pilot. The lighthouse keeper telegraphed the news of the sighting to the head pilot who was on duty at the mainland settlement of Thompson Bay. The pilot made ready himself and his pilot boat crew to go to the assistance of the City Of York.
Meanwhile the other clipper in this tale the Carlisle Castle was also making for Fremantle but from the south. Running with no sails & just letting the sea & wind drive her, she had heavy seas & gale like conditions surrounding her that restricted her visibility. The terrible visibility due to the prevailing southerly storm also restricted the Wadjemup lighthouse keeper from spotting her. The gale like conditions got so bad that Capt Lindsay on the Carlisle Castle lost sight of the Wadjemup Lighthouse on Rottnest. Capt Lindsay was caught between the devil & the deep blue sea as he couldn’t anchor because of the gale like conditions & he also knew he was close to his destination of Fremantle, so he let the ship run with the seas in the direction of the Rottnest Lighthouse hoping that his navigation calculations from his charts was correct & that the lighthouse at Rottnest would appear soon out of the mist & he could shelter the Carlisle Castle in the lee of Rottnest Island before entering port.
Unbeknownst to Captain Lindsay on the Carlisle Castle, was that in the gale like storm the helmsman had drifted slightly off course. The Carlisle Castle hit Coventry Reef which was just south of Rottnest and 3 kilometres west of Penguin Island. The Carlisle Castle was carrying a cargo that included rail lines as well as heavy machinery & locking bars which were for the construction of the Kalgoorlie Railway & the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme. Being so heavy with railway lines & machinery the Carlisle Castle went down quickly, taking Capt Lindsay, 24 crew & 2 passengers that were onboard at the time of the shipwreck to Davey Jones’s Locker
The Pilot Boat sent out from Fremantle to put a Pilot on the City Of York came across surface debris & wreckage of a clipper ship & immediately thought it was the City Of York that had been wrecked seeing that the visibility was so poor due to the storm. The Pilot had been unaware that the clipper Carlisle Castle had been making for port under heavy weather from the south & the Pilot couldn’t see the City Of York that was actually hove to just north-west of Rottnest Island. After conducting a search for survivors in the nearby waters & finding no survivors the Pilot Boat headed back to Fremantle to inform the authorities the City Of York had gone down with loss of all aboard.
Captain Phillip Jones on the City Of York was in the meantime becoming impatient as time past, it had been hours since he signalled the Lighthouse on Rottnest for a Pilot. Surely the procedure of obtaining a Pilot was not going to be the fly in the ointment to preventing the City Of York from finally achieving notoriety & fame. Captain Jones was so near to the City Of Yorks goal that he could taste the glory that was coming his & the crew’s way, he badly wanted the sailing time record for the City Of York.
So he again signalled the Wadjemup Lighthouse which was located on the south end of Rottnest Island. The Lighthouse keeper saw the signal & because he hadn’t heard from the Pilot the lighthouse keeper thought he would let off a red rocket to let the City Of York know to anchor.
Captain Jones saw the red flare signal which was the international code for ‘the pilot boat is in position and that the ship should continue towards the pilot boat’. The City Of York was now unwittingly sailing straight towards the shallow reefs which surround Rottnest Island. Lead was cast three times over 15 minutes to gauge the depth, and readings of 15, 9 and 5 fathoms were taken respectively.
Shortly after the last cast, breakers were sighted. The Captain Jones immediately gave orders to “come about!” & turn the ship but it was too late and the City Of York struck the shallows. The City Of York at first on grounding remained high on the reef about 200 metres from shore & although she was been badly bashed by the heavy seas that prevailed she remained in a semi-upright position listing slightly ter her port side.
After ascertaining the damage to City Of York by sounding the ship with the chief shipwright, Captain Jones ordered the 26 crew into the two lifeboats. Six men including First Mate William Pape managed to get in the first lifeboat before its holding rope broke and it drifted free from the stricken vessel. The remaining 20 men managed to get into the remaining lifeboat and stood a short distance off for an hour or so while Captain Jones considered his options. As the ship appeared to be holding steady of the reef, Jones ordered the lifeboat to return to the ship, but while doing so, the small boat was hit by a large wave and overturned, tipping all of the men into the heavy seas.
Eight men managed to re-board the City of York and one man was picked up by the First Mate Pape’s boat. 11 others including Captain Jones were drowned. After several hours battling the seas, the seven men in the remaining lifeboat managed to get ashore to the beach, a few of the crew not too badly injured by their ordeal walked exhausted for several kilometres through the bush to the Wadjemup lighthouse to raise the alarm. The remaining men left at the beach were recovered the following morning. The master and owner of the steam tug Dunskey, Captain William Douglas arrived on the scene at daylight the next day after hearing of the disaster from the Pilot. Captain Douglas positioned the tug Dunskey in a seaward position off the wreck of the City Of York. Capt Douglas then had a crewed lifeboat put into the still angry sea & had his lifeboat crew row to the wreck & rescue the remaining eight men still on the City Of York.
An inquiry was held a week later which found that the wreck was caused by the "gross carelessness and want of judgement shown by the master of the City Of York Captain Phillip H. Jones". The finding was based on Admiralty Sailing Directions which direct that a ship must not approach Rottnest on its west or north-west side to a depth of less than 30 fathoms.The City Of York’s owners challenged the finding, arguing that the international sea-faring code of practice said that flare-ups were used as a signal from a pilot boat to show that the boat was in safe water. As was the practice, Captain Jones had replied with blue lights to signal his acknowledgement of the safe water flare-up signal. By implication, the assistant lighthouse keeper had been negligent in using an incorrect signal.
Concern about the signalling procedures grew and a Joint Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament was established to investigate the harbour and pilot services of the colony. The committee overturned the findings of the initial inquiry and exonerated Captain Jones. The owners instituted a claim for damages of £7,000 from the Government of Western Australia on the basis that the ship was lost due to misleading signals and that the government, as operators of the lighthouse was responsible.
A settlement of £3,000 was negotiated in early 1903.The City Of York was abandoned with general agreement of there being no likelihood of the hull being salvaged. Much of the timber cargo was salvageable & was bought for £323/5/- by a Perth syndicate. Today the place midway along the north-west coast of Rottnest Island where the City of York ran aground is called not surprisingly City Of York Bay & that was to be the only claim to fame for the City Of York, a very fast clipper ship that had to run aground to get her name into the history books.
So thar yer go me’hearties the tale of 2 clipper ships wrecked on the same day within half an hour of each other & within spitting distance of each other. One was just a clipper plying her trade by slowly making her way from the old dart to Australia burdened doon with a heavy cargo & the other was a “coulda been” champion clipper, both ended up shipwrecked near Rottnest Island.
Meanwhile as all of this was taking place the Cutty Sark was on her way to becoming the most revered Clipper Ship of all time & is to this day berthed in London on the Thames for all to go aboard & check her out & if yer do jest give a second of thought that the ‘City Of York’ was nearly as good. So til next we cross paths again be keep’in a weather eye ter the horizon fer me sails.