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15 September 2015

A tragedy of the sea – 120 miles East of Jervis Bay

The loss of the Barque Atacama - 13 lives lost. 
A harrowing ordeal.

Shoalhaven Telegraph -


The scene depicts the forlorn moment the sailors had to abandon the Atacama
Town and Country Journal 1898

The Atacama under the command of Captain Spruit since 1878 principally trading around the Australian coast to California and Puget Sound.
Built in 1975 by J.Smitcen – Alblasserdam - Netherlands.
Atacama 1298 tons gross
Length 194.5ft
Breath 40.0 ft
Depth. 25.10ft
Owner – Messrs Cowlishaw -
January 29th - Leaving Newcastle  bound for San Diego, the Atacama sailed with favourable light easterly winds and fine weather.

Saturday February 5th - The wind changed to a north-north-west,  and at 2p.m. suddenly veered to the south,  with a fresh breeze.  The vessel was all right,  and making the usual amount of water. 
Being a wooden ship,  and having been high out of the water for some time,  there were naturally crevices that did not close up,  but as she went along they soon closed,  and we were daily making less water in consequence.
The ship was going under easy canvas – three lower topsails and foresail – when the wind flew to south-ward.

Sunday, 6th. – The weather was much the same – but the barometer was rapidly falling.  At noon we took in the foresail and travelled very easy under the three lower topsails.
8 pm -  on inspection 2ft of water was found in the well,  the windmill and main pump were continually employed, but failed to decrease the water as expected.   The Captain made the decision to return to port if possible.

Monday, 7th – 4a.m., the vessel was turned through the wind (wearing ship) and headed for Sydney, some 540 miles distant.  The wind was blowing south,  with fresh gales.  The pumps were kept continuously going.  The ship was rolling very badly because of the high seas and the decreasing wind.  The foresail and maintop sail were set to help steady her.
9 a.m, The decision was made to try and get up steam on the donkey engine,  but no sooner was the fire underway than a heavy sea tumbled on board,  tore one of the eye-bolts out of the deck,  and the other three out of the framework of the donkey.  Thus the whole thing was adrift,  it took a round turn and smashed against the port bulwarks.
4 p.m, The donkey was in place and lashed securely.  they managed to get up steam, however It broke down after 2 hours of work, and the crew had to fall back to all hands on the pumps.  With the main pumps and windmill at work,  the water still kept gaining.
The wind had shifted to the north-west,  making it impossible to make for port.

Tuesday, 8th – the ship was found to have run 42 miles in 24 hours,  and Sydney was still 420 miles away.  The wind had changed to a moderate westerly,  and despite all efforts the inflow of water steadily increased.
4 p.m – there was 7ft 6in of water in the hold.
9 p.m – The wind had freshened for the north-west,   The barometer showed steady at 28.80,  and the  water in the well was 8ft. All hands were tired out with the continuous pumping since Sunday.

Wednesday, 9th – The men took it in turn for four to go below and 8 at the pumps.  The wind was now strong from the north-west.  It was decided to provision all there boats and get them ready for launching in case of necessity.
3 p.m – the water was over the coals forward and aft,  and the ship was rolling very much.
4 p.m – there was 11 ft of water in the
hold,  and it was gaining rapidly.
6 p.m – the boats were put out.
7.30 p.m – after sounding the hold, and finding 12ft 6in of water the crew left the ship.
2 a.m - The boats lay near the ship all night,  the wind veered to the south-east,  by daylight nothing was to be seen of the ship,  and the boats made sail for Sydney.

There were three boats in all.  At starting fine weather prevailed,  with easterly winds.

Saturday 12th – Observations showed they had made 240 miles.  By this stage the boats had separated and were out of sight.
By afternoon the wind had increased from the east,  and a heavy sea had filled the captains boat,  the men had more than they could do to keep her bailed out.
11.05 p.mThe boat turned turtle,”  throwing everyone into the water. 
One of the five.  a lad named Allen, 15 years of age, was lying in the bottom of the boat wrapped in a blanket sunk at once and was not seen again.  ,  .
The rest clung with great difficulty  in the tossing sea to the keel of the boat, but presently another large wave righted the craft,  and the men clambered into the water filled boat.

Figueroa was the hero of the voyage.

The Captain. - “I went down a considerable depth under the water,  I did not attempt to swim, for swim I could not”,  Boatswain Joseph Figueroa saved my life”.

imageThe captain was washed off the keel twice after it had capsized, and out of the boat once after she was righted, going over on the port side and coming up on the starboard side…being rescued on each occasion by Boatswain Figuaro.
Figuaroa lashed the Captain to the boat.

Figuaroa – “ I was very tired”, he said: “but all the others were worse than I was”,  “I unshipped the rudder and tried with it to splash water out”.

Thrilling adventure and cruel privations
Sunday 13th – The men were hit by a furious gale,  terrific squalls,  heavy rain and mountainous seas,  which rolled indecently over the small boat – full of water all the time. The conditions of things continued until Wednesday Morning.

Tuesday 15th  - The men had been in a water filled boat for three days and 18 hours,  with nothing either to drink or eat.

Captain Spruit - “ I kept 2 buttons in my mouth the whole time on account of the thirst”, “ my god it was an awful time”.

The weather finally moderated.

Wednesday 16thFigueroa bailed out the boat and hoisted the sail and steered for shore.  He had actually sailed the small boat with the little main sail 220 miles in two days.
They saw a distressed ship in the distance (the Industrie) and they made for her,  trying to cut her off,  so as to get on board.
11.30am – Fendwick’s tug-boat, the Leveret, came up to take the “Industrie” in tow,  but seeing the small life boat under sail,  Captain Robert Boyce of the  Fendwick,  headed for them first,  taking the survivors on board and providing them with their first food and water since Saturday.

It wasn’t possible to hoist the life boat on board the Leveret,  so they took her in tow,  but during the night she tore her bows out and got adrift.

Captain Spruit - “Boatswain Joseph Figueroa was always a good man,  and I cannot speak to highly of him”, “ Pinto, another Chillian with us in the boat,  was very bad,  and would have died, I believe had we not been rescued when we were”.

image J.Figuaro – J.Pinto -   The Sydney Mail.

A dogs life at best.
Speaking of the Lad Allen,  the Captain explained that he was 15 yeas of age,  and it was his first voyage,  He tried to persuade him not to go the sea,  and told his parents it was a dog’s life at the best,  and that he was very silly,  but he would go,  having set his mind on it.

Captain Spruit – “He had every confidence in the ship – was, in fact,  quite proud of her – and regarded her as a strong, fine vessel. he had been in her two years and a half”.
She got strained on her last voyage going around the Cape of Good Hope,  but was thoroughly overhauled in Sydney and the captain felt sure she was  “a right as nine pence”.

Thursday 17th
Hundreds of people rush to the Quay to meet the shipwrecked crew.

”The news of the tragedy caused a sensation in Sydney, the news spread like wildfire,  and hundreds of people rushed to the Quay,  where the tug usually berths,  to meet the shipwrecked crew.
11.30am – The tug ranged alongside,  Captain Spruit was a well known Sydney ship-master, was recognised on the deck with three others.  It needed only a glance to show that they had passed through a terrible experience”.

Two boats containing 12 men still missing.
On receipt of the news of the disaster the Marine Board took prompt steps to search for the crews of the two missing boats,  in case they had successfully weathered the elements. The pilot steamer Captain Cook proceeded at once to search for the boats.  The Ajax from Newcastle was also ordered to go in search,  and all the coastal look–out stations were advised to keep careful watch for any signs of the unfortunate men.

The search proved fruitless and the missing men were never seen again.

image Robert Sheiner Steward on the Atacama - The Sydney Mail

A strange Coincidence.
With the abandonment of the Atacama,  Gertrude Spruit aged 14, a daughter of the captain had a dream,  in which she saw the whole scene,  down to the smallest details and related it to her mother.  so when the father was driven home,  the family were not surprised. Another notable thing is that Captain Spruit kept a diary throughout,  so that if his body was found the notebook would tell the story of the Atacama.

Ships crews were made up of men from all over the world

During the Marine Board inquiry there was much discussion about the seaworthiness of the Atacama and the responsibility of the owners and Captain for taking an unseaworthy boat to sea risking life and property.
Conflicting evidence from the ships surveyors and repairers added to the drama…an article in the Bulletin at the time found the newspaper in the courts fighting a case of libel.

  Missing boat found

image Friday 3rd June 1898 – Albury Banner and Wodonga Express

Meaning - A painter is a rope that is attached to the bow of a dinghy,
or other small boat, and used for tying up or towing.


image Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate - 28 February 1898


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