New Zealand’s Castaway Depots For Shipwrecked Sailors

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An old castaway hut in the North of Antipodes Islands, New Zealand. Photo credit: LawrieM/Wikimedia

Before the Suez and Panama Canals opened, ships sailing from Australia and New Zealand to England and back had to make a treacherous journey through the frigid waters of the Antarctic Ocean fighting fierce winds, huge waves and skirting potentially dangerous icebergs. This route was known as the clipper route—so called because they were usually taken by clippers, a very fast sailing ship of the 19th century.

Clipper ships bound for Australia and New Zealand from England would drop south below the equator and into the Roaring Forties, located between the latitudes of 40 and 50 degrees, where strong westerly winds blow. These winds carried ships across the Antarctic Ocean towards their westerly destination in the fastest time possible. The return passage from Australia continued east through the same Roaring Forties taking advantage of the same fierce winds, and as the ships approached Cape Horn, they would dip south to make a perilous crossing through the Drake Passage around the Horn. If all goes well, the ships would emerge unscathed and make a successful passage back up the Atlantic and towards England.

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However, things didn’t go well always. Many foolhardy captains kept pushing south to access stronger winds and shorter route and ended up crashing against one of the many sub-Antarctic islands located south of New Zealand. Inaccurate charts were also responsible for many of these wrecks. For example, the captain of the Amherst noted that the 1851-maps the ships were using placed the uninhabited Auckland Islands, that lay directly within the standard route, a full 35 miles south of their true location. 

In 1864, an Australian schooner named the Grafton ran aground in Carnley Harbour during a summer storm. The five survivors lived on the island for 19 months before three of them managed to journey to Stewart Island in a repaired boat and arranged for rescue of the rest. The same year, a clipper named Invercauld enroute to Chile wrecked on the northwestern end of island. Of the 19 survivors, only three survived the winter. Neither the Grafton crew nor the crew of the Invercauld knew about the each other, even though both crews were marooned on the same island.

Two years later, in 1866, the American vessel General Grant wrecked on the western coast of Auckland Islands. Only 15 of the 83 on board survived the wreck. When they were rescued 18 months later, there were only ten survivors.

When stories of these castaways reached land, the New Zealand government started a program to establish provision depots on a number of sub-Antarctic islands to give castaways a better chance of survival. Small shelters were built and stocked with provisions including tinned food, biscuits, clothing, blankets, fishing equipment, medicine, tools, weapons and ammunition. Sign posts were set up on the island to direct castaways to the huts. Some islands were provided with boats to enable survivors to reach other land or close castaway depots. The government also released land animals such as goats, pigs and rabbits on the islands to breed and provide food for castaways.

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When the Derry Castle wrecked on Enderby Island in 1887, her eight survivors built a boat from the wreckage and sailed to Auckland Island, where they obtained supplies from a government depot. Four years later, the Compadre was driven onto the rocks off the North Cape of Auckland Island. The crew found relief and sustenance from two nearby depots, as well as fresh meat from livestock that had been released onto the island. They survived in comparatively good health until rescued 122 days later. There are many more examples of shipwrecked victims saved by the well thought-out government scheme.

For fifty years, a government steamer checked on all the depots every six months and restocked them with provisions. But by 1927, with the availability of modern ships and opening up of new routes, the clipper route fell out of favor and subsequently the New Zealand government ended maintenance of the depots.

Many of these depots are in ruins today. Some were looted during the times when they were kept stocked. To deter stealing clothing was often made from a distinctly patterned fabric instantly recognizable to officials.

The ruined depot and boatshed at Erebus Cove, Port Ross on the Auckland Islands, the 1908 hut on Antipodes Island, the 1880 Stella Hut on Enderby Island, and the boatshed on Enderby are some of the surviving depots that are now managed by the Department of Conservation.

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Castaway depot at Carnley Harbour, Auckland Islands, in 1907. Photo credit: Samuel Page

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The castaway depot on Curtis Island, photographed in 1917 after German naval captain Count Felix von Luckner and his crew of escaped prisoners of war had broken in and taken the stores. Photo credit: teara.govt.nz

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The remains of one of the five provision depots set up on the Auckland Islands in the 1880s and 1890s. It is located at Camp Cove on Carnley Harbour, in the south of the islands. Photo credit: teara.govt.nz

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