When I first arrived in Wellington, New Zealand, in the early 70s, I was absolutely charmed by the city, with its colourful, attractive houses, built up the hillsides surrounding a beautiful, large natural harbour. A few of the suburbs extended down to the south coast on the shore of the Cook Strait, a notoriously wild stretch of water between New Zealand’s North and South Islands, which I already knew had a bad reputation amongst seafarers for unpredictable weather and ferocious storms that had sunk many a ship.
Soon after I arrived and unpacked my diving gear, I started making enquiries about good diving sites and particularly any interesting shipwrecks in the area. I soon had information on a number of good locations and realised I had also inadvertently stumbled on, not one but two, very interesting maritime mysteries. The first was a vaguely remembered story, almost a legend really, of a ship with a silver bell, which was wrecked not far off the coast at a place called Owhiro Bay. The bell, which according to the legend, had another ships name on it, was somewhere still on board, waiting to be recovered. Over the years I had heard lots of stories of fabled shipwreck treasure and had learned to take such yarns with a large pinch of salt, so over time, without rushing, I made some more discrete enquiries.
I discovered that sometime in the previous century, later established to be 1878, a sailing ship called the Ann Gambles sailed out from England to Bluff, at the bottom of NZs South Island, in the latitude of the feared Roaring Forties, but on arrival was hit by a ferocious storm which sank her right there in the harbour. The crew were saved but the only thing salvaged from the wreck was the bell which according to the story was made of pure silver with the legend Ann Gambles 1862, cast into it. The bell was retained in the dockyard office for many years as a precious memento. Then some years later, another ship, the NZ registered Progress limped into Bluff after encountering yet another ferocious storm, in which she had received damage including losing her bell. So the Ann Gambles silver bell was given to the Progress as a replacement. Then in 1931, the Progress was crossing Cook Strait when she hit rocks and sank on the Wellington South coast taking the bell down with her and starting treasure hunters searching for it, a search which I joined, hopefully, but rather late, 40 odd years later.
The second mystery I uncovered was that an unusually large number of ships had sunk right there where the Progress wreck lies, there seemed no rhyme nor reason why four ships, and then while I was researching the wrecks, a fifth vessel should sink, not just in the same spot but right on top of the Progress, how weird was that?
The mystery started on the evening of Friday, March the 6th 1874, when the wooden barque Cyrus left Wellington bound for Newcastle New South Wales to load coal. Once she had cleared the Wellington Heads and turned onto a westerly heading for Australia she ran into an opposing gale, slowing her progress to the extent that she was barely making any headway. By noon the following day, the vessel was abreast of Owhiro Bay and Captain Powel Andrews was alarmed to see the barometer reading lower than it had been for many years.
Mrs. Wrigglesworth, the wife of a Wellington photographer and her two young sons, Simon aged 11 and Mark aged 4, were the only passengers on board the Cyrus, so Captain Andrews took the time to reassure them that all would be well, even though he knew the weather was going to get worse. By Saturday afternoon the gale had turned into a hurricane and the Cyrus began losing headway.
As darkness fell the vessel was in a much more dangerous position than any one realised, the ferocity of the hurricane had not only pushed the ship backwards, but also in a northerly direction towards the rocks of Owhiro Bay. Once the captain realised the danger they were in he ordered their only lifeboat to be got out, but it was too late, the Cyrus suddenly crashed onto the rocks smashing the boat, and the unfortunate passenger’s , only chance of survival, to pieces. The time was 11.10pm.
The Captain then sent the First Mate Mr. Smith and Seaman George into the sea with a line to secure to a large rock. The Captain’s plan was that once the line was secure he would attempt to swim the passengers, one at a time, to the rock then on into the shore. Smith and George reached the rock safely but as they were trying to secure the line a huge wave swept them away to their deaths.
The Captain was standing on the deck holding the hand of the youngest boy, Mark, while Mrs Wrigglesworth stood beside him holding onto the hand of the older boy Simon, when a huge wave broke over the ship, the wave was so powerful that it actually broke the ship in half, dislodged the deckhouse and swept everyone into the sea. Because Captain Andrews was holding onto a rope he was swept over the side then back up onto what was left of the ship. Meanwhile the next wave pushed the dislodged deckhouse over the side onto the unfortunate mother and children, crushing them to death.
At exactly this time, another vessel, the full-rigged ship Wellington was approaching the scene, not only unaware of the tragedy unfolding on the rocks ahead of them, but also unaware of the dangerous position their own ship was running into. Suddenly the lookout spotted a blue flare dead ahead which alerted them they were too close in to the shore. The flare was one ordered burnt by Captain Andrews once he realised the Cyrus was in trouble. The Wellington’s forward lookout yelled “rocks dead ahead” but it was too late to take any action and the vessel crashed onto the rocks only a ships length from the Cyrus and only 20 minutes later at 11.30 pm.
As the Wellington was being smashed to pieces by the hurricane the crew managed to launch one of the boats, the Captain and eight seamen managed to row to seaward and eventually made it back into Wellington Harbour. Unfortunately one of the other crewman, the ships cook who had been in his bunk, was never seen again. The First Officer was washed ashore clinging to a lifebuoy whilst the Second Mate swam ashore but was very badly injured on the rocks. Seaman John Rushton had been in the Mizzen rigging with the Wellington’s Captain, but decided that rather than take a chance in the ships boat he would swim ashore, so he took off all his clothes and plunged in. He did reach shore safely and took shelter under a clump of bushes. Seaman Charles Nelson, one of the few men to get ashore from the Cyrus saw him there and asked him to collect ropes in order to return to the Cyrus to rescue others. Rushton replied “no, I shall stick to this bush.” When Nelson returned with the ropes he had collected he found that Rushton had died. Of the seven people killed in the two ships that night, Rushton’s was the only body recovered and the Coroner gave a verdict of death from exhaustion.
The next ship to come to grief on those rocks was the Norwegian built, iron barquentine La Bella which was overtaken by a ferocious southerly gale off Cape Campbell on the 13th October 1907. All her sails were blown out and at one point she broached sideways to the sea and all on board thought it was the end, but she came around and headed for the same rocks that had claimed the Cyrus and the Wellington. The Master, Captain Mylius ordered all three anchors dropped but this did little more than bring her head up into the wind. At 10 o clock in the morning she was dragging all three anchors and heading stern first for those magnetic rocks. At the very last moment one of the anchors held and allowed the ship to veer away from certain destruction and go ashore, stern first, on the only bit of pebbly and sandy beach for miles around. However with the sea still breaking over the ship the crew were in real danger of being drowned on deck or washed overboard and drowned in the surf.
Eventually, a line was thrown from the stern to local people on shore, and with dozens of brave souls, sometime up to their necks in icy seawater, holding the line tight, all the crew were able to scramble down the line to safety. Although the rudder had been destroyed and the strong steel hull had been dented, the watertight integrity of the La Bella remained intact allowing salvagers, with the aid of two steam tugs, favourable weather and a fortuitous spring tide, to drag the ship off the beach and tow her around to Wellington’s dock to be repaired and live to sail again.
The La Bella, by very good fortune and a strong iron hull managed to escape the rocks of Owhiro Bay but the jinx was still waiting for its next victim, and on May Day 1931 the steamer Progress, 353 tons, was stranded in Cook Strait just south of Wellington’s South Coast. On the previous evening about 8 pm she had been crossing Cook Strait, in flat calm seas, when her tail shaft fractured and she lost her propeller. The situation was not serious at that stage as the weather was calm and as the Progress was equipped with radio she informed Wellington of the situation and requested a tug to come out to tow her in. The Progress had an interesting history having been built in 1882 as a dredger. Later she was converted to a sailing ship, a top-sail schooner and successfully plied her trade around the NZ coast for many years. Later still, she was reconverted into a steamship, but in the conversion, had retained a main and fore mast, so, finding themselves without a propeller, the crew were able to hoist up try sails to try to keep the vessel moving in the right direction, however they soon discovered they could not overcome the effects of the current which was slowly drifting them towards the rocks of Wellington’s South Coast. When by late evening no tug had appeared the captain decided to drop an anchor to stop them getting into a more dangerous position. More radio messages were sent and eventually, after midnight, the tug Toia arrived and after much delay got I light line passed to the Progress, but for some never explained reason, the captain of the Toia never made any further attempt to get a heavy tow line aboard and stood off about four miles until five in the morning when he left the scene.
Assistance was then sought by radio from the Union Steamship Company tug Terawhiti and she left the wharf at 6.45 am, but after meeting the returning Toia who told the Terawhiti’s captain there was nothing that could be done, both tugs returned to the wharf. However, the Toia set out on a second attempt at 9.15am.
Meanwhile the situation for the Progress, just a mile off the coast at a point known locally as the Red Rocks, was becoming desperate, as the sea and the wind had increased alarmingly and both the anchors they had dropped were dragging. The Toia eventually returned and made a half-hearted attempt to get a line across but by then the violence of the gale and the closeness of the rocks prevented it. The Captain of the Progress realised that the only chance to save their lives was to cut away both anchors, re-hoist the few sails they had and try to sail the vessel a mile or so along the coast to strand on the sandy beach where the La Bella had stranded so successfully, years before.
For a while this plan seemed to be working, until the vessel came abreast of those same rocks that had claimed the Cyrus and the Wellington, then a huge wave picked her up and dashed her onto the rocks with such force, that the ship broke in two.
Most of the crew, apart from two who had gone to the main mast to lower sails so that they wouldn’t impede swimmers, had gathered in the bridge area thinking it would be the safest place. However as the break in the hull was just ahead of the bridge, the detached stern area became the most dangerous and the first part of the ship to sink. The broken off stern was soon pushed around by the waves, exposing the crew to the sea’s fury and one by one the men were washed off the stern to take their chance in the surf. The Chief Officer Mr. Lawton was swept off the stern then swept back again against the steel hull, killing him instantly, while the Chief Engineer and Seaman Dagerholm held on as long as they could, then jumped into the sea together and swam to a prominent rock, where they held on for over an hour before being rescued from on shore.
There were a number of gallant rescues by local people that day and by 3 pm all those who had survived were on their way to hospital, while a number of bodies were recovered over the following days. A court of enquiry found that the cause of the tragedy was the loss of the propeller and no blame was attributed to Captain Copeland, although the two tug captains were criticised for “not carrying out the duty reasonably expected of them.” Meanwhile the Progress was being smashed to pieces by the gale that had sunk her and which persisted for weeks, with the hull almost touching the remains of the Cyrus and the Wellington and, if the silver bell story was true, carrying down with her a minor maritime treasure.
More than four decades were to pass before I had my chance to dive those wrecks, partly in the vague hope of finding the lost silver bell, which by then my studies had confirmed, had originally come from the English Barque Ann Gambles, and was on board the Progress when she sank, but also later, to teach my young son Daniel to dive.
On a good summer’s day all three wrecks were accessible from the shore after a modest surface swim and Daniel was a natural underwater explorer, who took to diving like the proverbial duck to water.
There was one thing that Daniel really enjoyed and that was the Progress’s boiler, because living in the boiler was a large conger eel, who would actually come out of his lair and take fish offerings from the diver’s hand. Daniel was also enthralled with the fact, that the boiler was a crayfish nursery with literally hundreds of baby crayfish, eager to come out and wave their long tentacles at the human intruders. Daniel and I spent many happy hours, kneeling on the sea floor in front of that boiler just watching the wonderful interaction of a confusion of marine life. Then in 1982 something quite unbelievable happened, that spoiled our fun, another ship sank right on top of the Progress’s boiler.
On Sunday morning 12th December a Taiwanese Squid Boat was seen approaching Owhiro Bay. A local resident Mr. Neil Robinson had seen the lights of the vessel, close inshore during the night and had assumed she was at anchor. However as soon as it began to get light it became apparent the vessel was not at anchor and that something was wrong. Although she seemed to have power and was able to manoeuvre she slowly converged on those very same rocks that had already claimed three victims. Mr. Robinson said that “no matter what she did she seemed to be inexorably drawn towards those rocks, until inevitably, the swell picked her up and crashed her down onto the rocks”. The vessel, the Yung Penn was holed by the rocks and within the hour had turned right over and sunk on top of the Progress and almost touching the Cyrus and the Yung Penn.
The sea was not too rough at first, so some of the crew plunged into the sea and were picked up by local boatmen while others hung on to the bow until Wellington’s rescue helicopter arrived to pluck them off. However when there were only two crewmen left on the bow, disaster almost took them as the vessel turned right over. The helicopter pilot was obliged to nurse his out of balance machine to shore with one man half out of the door and one man hanging on to the skid.
Because of the gallantry of the helicopter crew and the local people, who went out in their small boats, all 16 members of the Yung Penn’s crew survived. The crew were quickly sent home to Taiwan and no enquiry was held as to the reason for the sinking, but local people who were involved in the rescue were convinced the crew were all ‘as drunk as skunks’ and incapable of controlling the ship.
Meanwhile, the wreck being upside down and full of air was bouncing on the rocks with every large wave. Eventually, the pounding broke the bow section off, washing it further on shore, allowing the main after part of the ship to come upright and sink in deeper water. After a week or so the weather was calm and Daniel and I decided to take a look and found it easy to enter the bridge superstructure and fossick around for souvenirs. Daniel was fortunate in finding the Captain’s communication set and I recovered a few items for my shipwreck collection, but I cut the dive short when I realised the wreck was still bouncing in the swell and that there was also a great many huge flags and ropes suspended, half floating in the water just waiting to tangle around a young divers equipment and hinder his return to the surface, with care I extricated us both from the danger and left the wreck in peace.
It was because of the interest shown in the new wreck by the newspapers and the fact that it had sunk on top of the Progress, that brought the silver bell back as a topic of discussion around town and for that reason I made some small progress, in my search for it, which, although not an obsession in my life, did seem to be becoming a recurring theme. I was to learn that far from still being in the wreck, where Daniel and I, and others, had diligently searched for it for years, apparently the bell had been recovered, years before and was in the possession of an ex seafarer called William Bernasconi. So, I made efforts to contact ‘Old Bill’, as I was informed he was known, but without success. There, once again, the matter rested for a while, not abandoned or forgotten, just allowed to lie fallow, awaiting any new information that may come my way. Then as the years passed, by chance, as these things happen, I discovered that the reason I hadn’t been able to find Old Bill, was because he had died, but that his daughter, either still had the bell, or would know what had happened to it and I was given the daughters’ married name.
When I eventually met up with the daughter she told me that her father had kept the bell for many years as a lucky talisman and insisted the bell was made of solid silver. However the daughter didn’t believe it was silver and when her father died she sought expert advice and was told the bell was brass and that the silver colour was a chemical patination, caused by it being under the sea in salt water for many years and that her father knew that because, some years previously he had sought the same advice from the same expert. However, it seems that Old Bill had chosen to ignore the expert’s advice and carried on claiming the bell was silver. In time the bell had passed from Old Bill’s daughter to a well-known Wellington diver and salvage expert Malcolm Blair, who knew the history of the bell. In more recent years, the bell had again passed on to another well-known Newzealand diver John Dearling (of the Elingamite treasure recovery adventure) and was added to his extensive Maritime collection.
In 2012, after a bit of serious horse trading involving, scrimshawed whale’s teeth and other marine artefacts, I finally managed to partly fulfil what for me had become almost an obsession, by acquire the bell from John Dearling for my own collection. I then set about trying to solve the second part of the mystery of where the bell originated. With the advent of the internet, something Old Bill and the others hadn’t had access too, I began searching to find out anything I could about the bell’s beginnings. Eventually after many false leads I was fortunate in contacting Mr David Gambles of Cumbria England a descendant of the original John and Ann Gambles, who told me the history of his Great Great Grandfather’s Shipping Company. With the silver bell in my possession and the history of the Gamble Empire unravelled and recorded, I felt I had finally solved the mystery of the long lost fabled silver bell.
However, as to the mystery of why so many ships should come to grief in the same place, I have to admit to being completely out of my depth – excuse the pun – as a maritime detective, all I can think of to say to end this story is to quote the very old saying ‘stranger things happen at sea.’