- Peter Roberts
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The ‘City of Adelaide’ is 148 years old – five years older than the world’s only other surviving clipper ship the ‘Cutty Sark’. While the ‘City of Adelaide’ hull survives from the original 1864 build, the rudder is 13 years younger as the original rudder was swept away off South Australia in 1877. That event marked a remarkable story of high drama and seamanship when the Captain, Edward Alston, saved his ship, its crew and his heavily pregnant wife, Grace, from being lost in a fierce storm on the rugged coast of Kangaroo Island.
After leaving Port Augusta for London on 31 October 1877 with a cargo of Flinders Ranges’ copper, Captain Alston had cleared the western end of Kangaroo Island and was bearing away to round Tasmania to then head for Cape Horn. On 8 November, a fierce wind and heavy sea knocked away the rudder about 80 miles due south of Kangaroo Island.
For three days they battled with the rudderless ship using a jury-rigged rudder. They were then some 20 miles south of Kangaroo Island when they sighted Young’s Rocks dead ahead. By trimming sails and dragging large chains over the sides, they managed to veer past the reef and then past Cape Willoughby on the eastern tip of the island. The lighthouse keepers at Cape Willoughby witnessed this and logged their distress flags as they crept past at three knots, but could do nothing to help the crippled ship as Todd’s Telegraph did not extend that far south. Gradually the ‘City of Adelaide’ was turned northwards through Backstairs Passage and into Saint Vincent’s Gulf.
It was on 15 November, seven days after the storm, that the Semaphore anchorage was eventually reached. It was decided not to tow the City of Adelaideinto harbour, as there would be some difficulty in shipping a new rudder owing to the insufficient depth of water. When made the rudder was to be taken to the vessel at the Semaphore anchorage, where it could be shipped on any smooth morning.
A new rudder was made at Fletcher's Slip from eucalypt timber. New cast metal hinge-pintles were also made to hang the new rudder. In remarkably quick time the South Australian shipbuilders had the ‘City of Adelaide’ repaired and ready for sea again.
Three weeks after finally leaving South Australia and at a point roughly half-way between New Zealand and Cape Horn, Grace Alston gave birth to a son. London was finally reached in 93 days, two days better than the ship’s homeward average.
For his remarkable actions, Captain Alston was presented with a silver salver and a hundred sovereigns upon the next visit of the ‘City of Adelaide’ to Port Adelaide in the following year.
In 2005, Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries (DPI&F) scientists helped British archeologists to confirm that the surviving City of Adelaide rudder, much damaged by time and seawater, was the one built in Adelaide in 1877. The scientists were able to confirm that the rudder was scarphed and made from Australian grey ironbark proving it to be the 1877 rudder.
Source: Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries News release, 20 December, 2005.
'MISCELLANEOUS. City of Adelaide Disabled'
SHIPPING INTELLIGENCE. (1877, November 15). South Australian Register
MISCELLANEOUS. City of Adelaide Disabled.— It is not often that an opportunity offers for a master to show such a degree of judgment as is necessary when the whole of the steering gear of a vessel breaks down. This has been Captain Alston's case, and it is very certain that his conduct under most trying circumstances has been such as to entitle him to a very high position in his profession. Many accidents which occur in the course of a nautical man's existence call forth his energy, but few which can so far tax his nerve as to be in charge of fine vessel in close proximity to the land and no rudder to direct of course of his ship.
The City of Adelaide vessel originally built for the Adelaide trade, but on this voyage she loaded at Port Augusta for London. Everything being ready for sea, she had a steamer in attendance, and on October 31 was towed down the Narrows. Having a fresh northerly wind she took advantage of it and set sail. The barometer was falling at the time, but the master resolved to proceed, and made a good run down the Gulf till reaching about the middle-ground to the northward of Wallaroo, when the wind suddenly veered round to the south-west, and the young flood setting up it was found' advisable to anchor. She came-to in ten fathoms of water, and veered to 90 fathoms of cable, on which a very severe gale was rode out. The vessel behaved well, and there was no heavy strain on the cable beyond what might have been expected under the circumstances. She remained there until November 3 at noon, when another start was effected, and she beat down the Gulf, reaching a position off Cape Borda on the 7th. She then commenced the open ocean course against a strong south-west wind and a very heavy sea.
Next day there was an increasing gale but under shortened sail the ship behaved well as she headed away on a bowline. The sea was furious, but no particular anxiety was felt until at 11 o clock on the evening of the 8th a heavy sea struck the ship, and at one blow knocked away the rudder. There was no second course left; for the whole steering apparatus had gone, leaving the ship to the mercy of good navigation and her sails.
The first thing done was to reduce canvas to close-reefed sails, and then heave-to. Every soul on board turned to with a will to manufacture a spare rudder, and it is said by one of the passengers that although it was a critical time the utmost coolness prevailed. A spare spar was pressed into service as a sternpost, and abaft it was fixed a fin made of short ends of deal. The morning of the 10th saw everything ready for shipping the new gear, and being then about 80 miles due south of Kangaroo Island it was rigged.
On the shipping of the jury rudder it was most satisfactory to find that it had the effect of directing ths vessel's course, though in a very inefficient manner. The wind was from the westward, and Young's Rocks were sighted dead to leeward, but there was a difficulty in getting the vessel's head off. Then the new rudder soon showed signs of weakness and proved unequal to the task of getting the ship to steer.
Next morning a more than heavy sea struck the stern, and again in a moment the improvised steering appliance was knocked away and very soon dropped astern. The heavy south-west sea continued, and there was no hope of clearing the Young Rocks but by making a stern-board. This was the next manoeuvre, as all hands turned to to prepare another steering machine. However, there was no help for it, and the vessel sagged away under all back sail at a rate of three miles an hour. While the carpenter was constructing another spare rudder some of the hands were trying experiments with a stream chain and a hawser, to try the powers of her steerage; but nothing was done, and the vessel drew along the south coast of Kangaroo Island, the ulti mate idea being to keep her afloat as long as possible.
Everything was prepared for the very worst, but the carpenter was soon ready with another rudder. The gear was got overboard and tackles brought into request, when it was found that the vessel could be steered although in a very indifferent manner. She was kept away after some trouble, shaped a course by way of Backstairs, and after signalling Cape Jervis steamed up the Gulf.
It is questionable whether or not she will be able to go into harbour, but as soon as the tides make there will be a good chance.
Presentation to Captain Alston 1878
On Friday afternoon, August 9th, 1878 about 20 gentlemen, principally connected with the different Marine Insurance Companies, met at White's Arbitration Room for the purpose of making a presentation to Captain Alston, of the ship City of Adelaide.
Mr. Robert Barr Smith, who presided, addressing Captain Alston said:
It is with great pleasure and pride that I have been deputed on the present occasion by the Associated Insurance Companies of Adelaide to present to you on this salver a purse of 100 sovereigns, as a recognition of your gallant conduct on November 8, last year. Let me recall to this meeting the circumstances of the case.
Your ship, in a dreadful storm, on a rock bound coast, lost her rudder, and things must have seemed to ordinary mortals as almost hopeless; yet from your cool intrepid courage and full possession of the resources of seamanship you succeeded in bringing your ship safely into port, and this although the temporary rudder which you had rigged out had been carried away and you were obliged to fall back upon & more temporary contrivance for getting along at all.
I do not suppose for a moment that the mere value of the ship and cargo, important as these were, was the main consideration with you at that time ; you had in charge the precious lives of a large number of your fellow-creatures, and it speaks in the highest manner of the qualities of your mind that with all these things to daunt you you were able to show that you were equal to the occasion, and were not deficient in anything that was necessary in so grave an exigency.
I hope that this gift of ours may be supplemented by the underwriters at home. (Hear, hear.)
We have communicated with them ; the ship was largely insured in London as well as here, and it is their duty to acknowledge your services ; but whether they take that notice of your conduct which we think it deserves or not, at all events here is a recognition of our opinion of your gallant conduct in the trying circumstance in which you were placed.
I do not speak of it at all as a reward ; I am satisfied the true reward you have is in the proud consciousness that you were found equal to the occasion, that when things seemed at their worst you were able to face the difficulty without flinching and bring your ship and those whose lives depended upon your skill and courage safe into port I believe although this gift is not a large one that you will value it highly; no doubt you will invest it in such a way as to make it a memorial to those who surround you.
Your wife will be proud to see the memorial of your pluck, and your children and all those who come after you will be able to look back for all time and say they came of the right stock.
In handing you this purse on my own part and for those whom I represent I wish you the long life and continued prosperity which I feel such gallant fellows deserve.
The inscription on the silver salver, which was purchased at the establishment of Mr. A. Hay, was as follows:—
Presented with a purse of sovereigns to Capt. E. D. Alston by the underwriters of Adelaide as a recognition of his exertions and able seamanship which enabled him to bring the disabled ship City of Adelaide safely into port. — Adelaide. July, 1878.'
Captain Alston said he must tender his most hearty thanks to the meeting for their unexpected kindness. Of course he simply did his duty, and what all shipmasters would have done in the same position. They had several lives on board and were placed in a critical position, and he did not think any shipmaster could have done more or would have done less than he did. It was very kind of them to take so much notice of it, and he had no idea that it would have created any sensation at all. He could not say that their present would make him look more after the property he had under his charge than hitherto, but he would endeavour to study the interests of all as he had always done. Words could not express all he felt, and they must take the will for the deed.
Captain Alston's health having been drunk with a champagne toast, the meeting separated.
- 1878 'COMPLIMENTARY.', South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA : 1839 - 1900), 5 September, p. 6 Supplement: Supplement to the South Australian Register., viewed 24 February, 2013, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article42994341