Thursday, 26 November 2020


The Fiery Star - ablaze at sea

With the help of local maritime history buffs, David Langdon and Ron Morgan, Informer contributor, Suzanne Hansen, has been delving into the history of some of the 51 ships known to have foundered around Mercury Bay between 1831 and the early 1980s. This week she gets up close and personal with the Fiery Star.

 In the early days of European settlement, the Coromandel region was booming with kauri, dairy and other industries. The Whitianga River was like a busy highway and maritime transport was king.

One of the most compelling stories of the time is that of the Fiery Star, which foundered 15 miles south of Cuvier Island, near the Colville Channel.

In the class of full clipper ships, the Fiery Star was built by William H Webb of New York in 1851. Originally called the Comet, she was recorded as a very fast “extreme clipper,” which set record passages and was even said to have beaten the famous Flying Dutchman in an 1853 race around Cape Horn from San Francisco to New York.  

Due to the ill-effects on trade caused by the ongoing conflict between the northern and southern states of the US, the Comet was sold in 1863 to the Black Ball Line of Liverpool and renamed the Fiery Star, a name which was to become prescient to her fate.

The Black Ball Line was at the time contracted by the Immigration Agency of Queensland, transporting immigrants from Ireland and England to Australia under various immigration schemes.  

It was in the course of this service on 1 April 1865 that the Fiery Star left from Moreton Bay in Queensland bound for London with a cargo comprising wool, hides, horns, casks of sherry and bales of cotton. On leaving Moreton Bay, there were 77 passengers on board, plus 18 crew, making a total of 95 souls.

On 17 April the ship experienced extreme gales where she lost two of her lifeboats. Two days later, sailing under a much calmer 12-knot breeze, some 240 kilometres north-west of the Chatham Islands, a crewman called Adams observed smoke eddying from the front of the vessel. When the crew opened the hatch, they found a fire burning in the front cargo hold. All hands, including passengers, were summoned to man the pumps and Captain Yule ordered all the hatches sealed.

The wind dictated that the ship set a course to Lyttleton, but then in short time the wind direction changed and grew in intensity to gale force, necessitating a change of course towards the Hauraki Gulf.  

The passengers and crew all battled to contain the fire over the next day and night but, in spite of their efforts, by 19 April the fire was reaching the main cabin. After battling the blaze for four more days, the captain decided to abandon ship. Because they had already lost two lifeboats, and two other boats had also become unsuitable for ocean use, the crew and passengers realised that there were not enough lifeboats remaining to accommodate all on board.

With just two working boats, Captain Yule summoned all hands and explained their position, calling for volunteers to remain onboard the Fiery Star and take their chances of being picked up by a passing vessel.

At 3:00pm on 23 April, the two lifeboats left the ship, with the captain and 77 passengers taking along with them the ship’s valuable navigation instruments and, at daylight on the following day, were nowhere in sight. They were never seen again.

The chief officer and the 16 crew left on board the Fiery Star continued to bravely fight the fire, determined to save the ship. Over a week later and devoid of navigation instruments, the chief officer, now the stand-in captain, manually worked out the vessel was somewhere around the Aldermen or Mercury Islands.

On 5 May, the burning ship encountered another unwelcome gale which drove her and her crew further offshore, at the same time sweeping away a raft the crew had cobbled together from materials on the vessel to enable them to abandon the ship. The gale continued for two more days and hope of making land was dashed. 

By midnight on 11 May, the crew estimated the Fiery Star to be around 40km away from land. They had been shooting off rockets to attract passing ships and only had four left. At 1:00am on 12 May, the crew spotted a vessel off starboard, shot up a rocket and they were ecstatic to be answered with a reply flare. At first light the passing ship, the Dauntless, bound for Auckland from Dublin, hove alongside the stricken Fiery Star. The crew of the Fiery Star were still determined to save the ship, but the captain of the Dauntless, Captain Moore, advised the crew to leave the vessel immediately. 

Within 30 minutes, with the Dauntless just clear of the stricken ship, the main mast of the Fiery Star crashed down and the vessel was ingulfed in flames. The ship foundered at 7:10am.

A search was made for the missing lifeboats with Captain Yule and the 77 passengers on board around the vicinity of the Chatham Islands, to where the lifeboats had set off, but no trace of the boats was ever found.

Pictured: An artist’s drawing of the rescue of the crew of the Fiery Star south of Cuvier Island.


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The Mercury Bay Informer is a highly popular community newspaper, based in Whitianga. The paper is distributed throughout the Coromandel Peninsula, coast to coast from Thames to north of Colville.