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THE WRECK OF H.M.S. “ORPHEUS” is New Zealand’s worst ship wreck as far as loss of life is concerned.
H.M.S. “Orpheus,” a 21-gun steam-corvette, manned by a crew of 256 officers and men, was totally wrecked on the Manukau bar on the 7th February, 1863, when bound to Onehunga from Sydney to take up duty on the New Zealand Station.
The pilot-station at the heads showed the signal to take the bar, and the “Orpheus” came in under steam and sail before a good westerly breeze. The ship was carrying all plain sail, and her starboard foretopmast studding. sail was set. She was drawing 21 feet. She struck heavily on the western end of the middle bank, which afterwards was proved to have shifted three-quarters of a mile from where it was laid down on Drury’s chart; the navigation officers of the “Orpheus,” however, had also the “Niger” navigator’s sailing-directions. The pilot-station watcher, seeing the ship running into danger, semaphored to her to stand more out to sea, but the warning signal was observed too late.
The ship struck twice, and the engines were ordered full speed astern, but the screw did not work; the way the ship had on sent her firmly into the sand.
The topsails were lowered, and the other sails were clewed up. Great seas were now breaking over the ship, and, after one boat had with difficulty got clear, the crew all took to the yards and rigging. The steamer “Wonga Wonga,” bound south from Onehunga, went to the rescue, and approached the wreck as closely as she could. Some of the bluejackets, sliding down the foretopmast-stay, jumped into the sea and were picked up; others who attempted it were drowned.
The one boat which got clear took the news to the pilot-station, but it was night before the tragic story reached H.M.S. “Harrier,” lying at Onehunga, twenty miles away, and by that time all was over.
The rollers breaking on the bar burst continually over the hull and lower masts. The yards and shrouds were thick with sailors despairingly looking for rescue. About 6 o’clock in the evening Commodore Burnett, who was in the mizzen-rigging, hailed the men, asked them to pray to God, and said he would be the last to leave the ship.
The mainmast was the first to go over the side. As it was falling the men clinging to the yards and rigging gave three heart-rending farewell cheers, which were answered by the men on the other masts, and next moment the gallant sailors were vainly struggling for their lives. The foremast soon followed, and then the mizzenmast gave way and crashed into the surf. The mizzentop fell on Commodore Burnett and partly stunned him, and he was drowned.
Out of the crew of 256 all told, only sixty-nine (including eight officers) were saved.
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