Lee shore

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Shipwrecks on the Hokitika shoreline

Citation “Shipwrecks at Hokitika River mouth, West Coast. Greymouth Evening Star : Photographs of the West Coast. Ref: 1/2-050050-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22517348”

In January 1642, whilst the voyage was still being planned, Visscher had written to Head Office in Amsterdam making recommendations on the timing, and the course of the expedition.

His recommendation was that they should explore in an easterly direction. But their understanding of the winds at that latitude gave cause for concern.

“so that with the wind blowing hard from the west, which would make the coast there a lee shore, one would be exposed to many perils.”

Their experience and their expectation was that westerly gales were normal in this latitude and that when they approached land, they would be coming from the west.

Any new land discovered would lie across their path, and downwind of them… a lee shore.

Their square rigged ships couldn’t make way into the wind, the best they could achieve was to sail across it. A lee shore meant they risked being wrecked if the wind and swell strengthened.

After sighting Land, Tasman turned the Heemskerck towards it, fired a cannon to alert the Zeehaen to his change of course. In the afternoon, he convened the Ships Council. They decided to make for the land “as soon as at all possible”.

As they continued on their south-east course through the afternoon and evening, more land came into view and it became apparent that the land was large, and ran from South West to North East.

It wasn’t a group of islands with passages in between, this was a continuous lee shore. It was extremely dangerous to stay on this course in the darkness.

“In the evening we deemed it best and gave orders accordingly to our steersmen to stick to the south-east course while the weather keeps quiet but, should the breeze freshen, to steer due east in order to avoid running on shore, and to preclude accidents as much as in us lies; since we opine that the land should not be touched at from this side on account of the high open sea running there in huge hollow waves and heavy swells, unless there should happen to be safe land-locked bays on this side. At the expiration of four glasses of the first watch we shaped our course due east.”

Tasman's approach to the New Zealand Coast

Tasman’s approach to the New Zealand Coast

They decided that if the wind picked up they would turn to the East “to preclude accidents”. This would slow their progress towards land during darkness, allowing daylight to return before approaching the shore, in search of “safe land-locked bays”.

At 10:00 at night, they turned to the east, and in the morning they found themselves 2 myles from the shore.

Abel Tasman reached the New Zealand shoreline near Kumara Junction; north of Hokitika and south of Greymouth.

Tasman is sometimes referred to as ‘the timid explorer’, but his reluctance to approach the west coast of New Zealand shouldn’t be interpreted as lack of daring, but as due prudence. New Zealand’s West Coast is a dangerous place for shipping; the wrecks along its length are silent testament to this.

Shipwreck on the Greymouth Bar

Citation “Ring, James, 1856-1939. The steam ship “Hawea” run ashore at the entrance to the Grey River, Greymouth. Ref: 1/2-137181-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22897776″

During the West Coast Gold Rush of the 1860’s, Hokitika was a busy place. It was the main supply port for men and supplies bound for the gold fields… but it was a lee shore, and dangerous. In a single gale in 1863, 8 vessels were driven onto the shore around Hokitika.

Tasman’s caution navigating the West Coast of New Zealand was perfectly appropriate.

When James Cook sailed down the West Coast of New Zealand, he showed the same caution as Tasman, only occasionally going close ashore. Despite charting the entire West Coast of both Islands, Cook noted none of the main harbours; Kawhia, Aotea, Raglan, Manukau, Kaipara or Hokianga. He never went close enough to the coast to see the entrances.

Tasman had encountered difficulties with the lee shore in Tasmania and had the same problem again. It would continue to be problematic for the duration of his exploration of New Zealand.

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