Sands hide forgotten wrecks

By Dave Moran

Diving the Cumberland

Diving the Cumberland

The West Coast sands of New Zealand’s North Island hide the scattered and smashed remains of many once proud vessels.

A small group of wreck enthusiasts spend their weekends searching the sands along the West Coast for buried remains of these ships that have cast their hulls and cargo on to this vast landscape of forever moving sand.

The West Coast city of Dargaville is the base for local historian Noel Hillian who has a vast knowledge of the old sailing vessels and the more recent steam and diesel ships that have navigated along this unforgiving, wind and wave battered coast.

Noel heads up a group called, Shipwreck Explorer NZ Unlimited.

Over the years Noel and his group have contributed many artifacts and person hours to the maritime section of the Dargaville museum.

It is a must see attraction when you visit the area. The huge cannons and anchors are very impressive!

Over the past few years Noel’s group have been working with Nick Freeman who has an Aquascan AX 2000 Proton Magnetometer.

This unit is primarily designed to be towed behind a boat. To allow the unit to be used over the sands of the West Coast, Nick built a trolley to mount the ‘fish’ on so that he could roll it over the vast distance along the coast.

Magnetic analogies are measured and recorded into a laptop computer and GPS locations are also recorded.

With the assistance of geophysicist Dr Supri Soengkono the readings are studied via a computer programme that shows the ‘hits’ (targets) in much the same way as we view weather maps on television. The magnetic lines are bent around a target providing valuable information on the possible size and depth of the target.

On Saturday 5 February on a stretch of coast near Bayly’s Beach, Noel and the team gathered in the early morning hours as the tide was receding to dig up some hot targets. It was the accumulation of months of ‘mag runs’ and obtaining the necessary permits to be able to dig up the targets.

Nick had eight sites that looked promising. The tide and the time it took to uncover each target would determine how many would be revealed.

Noel’s vast experience on the West Coast has lead him to believe that a relatively small section of the coast seems to be the eventual resting grounds for items adrift on the ocean waves that thunder across the Tasman Sea.

Some of the wrecks that have, and others that have possibly, scattered their bellies and cargos around this area are:

HMS Osprey, a 12 gun brig. Wrecked 1846.

L’Alcmene, a 36 gun French naval frigate. Wrecked 1851: Noel Hilliam and the late Kelly Tarlton recovered a bronze swivel gun and other items in 1977.

Salcombe Castle, schooner built in Devon England. Wrecked 1863.

Advance, cutter built in Auckland, New Zealand. Wrecked 1864.

Turakina, steamer built in Glasgow Scotland. Sunk by the German raider Orion 1940. Noel Hilliam has recovered portholes that have washed ashore.

The fire that burns the passion of these enthusiastic wreck explorers is the research and hunt required to be successful. The spark that ignites that fire is the tantalizing prospect of finding some links to these forgotten ships.

When I arrived just south of Bayly’s Beach the large digger had already commenced its first hole. The enthusiasm of the group that was being watched by an ever increasing spectator crowd was infectious.

Three targets were eventual uncovered.

Each dig followed a general procedure:

Nick placed a plastic rod marking the spot thought to be directly over the target.

While the digger enlarged and deepened a hole it was asked to stop occasionally to allow members of the group to thrust a metal spike deep into the sand to see if they could find a contact – the digger continued – Nick ran the Proton Magnetometer over the site – the hit was still strong – as the hole reached water level a pump was brought in to valiantly try to keep the hole free of water so that you could see if an object was uncovered – Nick jumps back into the hole, which is close to 2.4 metres deep – he runs his handheld magnetometer around the bottom of the hole. This magnetometer will pick up items that are just a few inches under the sand – his ears ring with a positive signal – he indicates to the digger driver ‘keep digging here mate’ – soon a black smdge darkens the sand – the digger driver now operates the bucket blade as if he’s a surgeon performing open heart surgery … gently, gently does it!

Soon the object that has created the magnetic anomaly is lying in the sun. The crowd gathers, Noel and his group inspect the object.

Searching for artefacts that tell of a time long forgotten can be a very frustrating affair. We all would love to uncover a canon that could be correctly treated and eventually put on public display with the other canons in the Dargaville museum.

But not this time, The first site produced what Noel believes to be a refrigeration pipe from the Turakina which was bound for England carrying frozen meat before the German raider Orion sent her crashing to the bottom on 20 August 1940.

The second hole produced a very interesting item. Part of a knee section from a very old sailing ship. Seeing this artifact was most likely over 100 years old it was photographed and then returned to the hole and reburied in accordance with the Historical Places Act which seemed a shame after all the effort involved!

The third hole produced a couple of metal rings from a long lost possible wine barrel. Maybe a hundred years ago the local Maori had a rip roaring party on the beach when this barrel rolled up the beach!

Were the group disappointed with the finds? Only a little. They are in for the long haul and they know from experience that you have to check out every significant target as you just do not know until the work is done just what lies in wait and the picture it will tell. Each dig eliminates another target. Each dig tells you more of the history and fills in the gaps in your knowledge of the area.

They have more targets to uncover. In the meantime the group will continue running the magnetometer along the beach, work through the paper war to obtain the permissions required and save the dollars to hire another digger!

On the way home I visited the museum with its Rainbow Warrior masts standing proudly over looking the city of Dargaville. As I wandered through the maritime section it became very clear to me that numerous items were credited with being found by Noel and his team. Without their passion and enthusiasm I believe this museum would be much poorer for it.

I just hope that bureaucracy does not put out the spark that lights this group’s efforts to uncover part of New Zealand maritime history for the peoples of New Zealand and the world.

© Copyright 2004

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