Smoke and sand

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Steijle Hoek

Gilsemans’s coastal survey of ‘Steijle Hoek’ and the land to its North and South

From their anchorage at Nine Mile Beach, Tasman had moved out to sea at the first opportunity, and then headed North.

They spent the rest of the day and night moving across the Karamea Bight, towards “Steijle Hoek (Sharp Point) where the line of the Coast turns from North-South to Southwest-Northeast.

The weather was calm and they drifted very slowly, but by evening they had rounded the point. Beyond there the prospect changed and at sunset the farthest land they could then see was away to their East and slightly North.

“we found the furthest point of the land that we could see to bear from us east by north, the land falling off so abruptly there that we did not doubt that this was the farthest extremity.”

Steijle Hoek

Tasman’s progress, December 16th to dawn on December 17th

The visible coast extended to Cape Farewell, but beyond that they could see nothing (Cape Farewell is so named because this is where Cook bade New Zealand Farewell).

Of significance here is the comment “we did not doubt that this was the farthest extremity.” Their understanding was that they had come upon an unknown coast, and had then followed that coast to its northern extremity. Their belief was that beyond this point was the open ocean once again.

This understanding, that south of this point was land, and north of this point was ocean, underpinned a key decision that was made three days later.

They were sailing in the night in fickle breezes that moved from South-West to South, but in the early hours of the morning the wind firmed. This gave them another problem. With the wind from the South and South by East they could no longer sail close enough to the wind to stay with the coast, and they were moving away from it to the north.

Finally, in the early hours of the morning the wind firmed from the south-east and they were able to turn back towards land on a South-West course.

“In the second glass of the day-watch we got a breeze from the south-east, upon which we tacked for the shore again.”

Cape Farewell

Gilseman’s drawing of Cape Farewell, Farewell spit, and the hills behind Golden Bay

With the light of day they saw that they were close inshore… and they saw something else.

“In the morning at sunrise we were about one mile from the shore; in various places we saw smoke ascending from fires made by the natives”

With the dawn they saw their first signs of people in New Zealand… smoke.

On board the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen there was no doubt a resurgence of speculation about the nature of the people. The Great South Land was rumoured to be filled with monsters and savages, and their own experience was that the last land they visited had been peopled by Giants.

Tasman’s location at the time he saw smoke is known quite precisely. He was 7.4km (one ‘myle’) off the coast at Cape Farewell, or to the east; it is only 6 km from Cape Farewell to where the land ends and the sand spit begins. He was along that 6 km length, closer to the Cape than further away from it, as Tasman saw smoke rising from land before he recorded seeing the sand dunes of the spit.

Position at anchor at sunset on December 17th

Position at anchor at sunset on December 17th

The cliff tops around Cape Farewell have commanding views of the coast at the northern tip of the South Island, but people did not live there. People lived near fresh water, and in Golden Bay Maori settlement was located at the river mouths.

There was only one reason for someone to be on those coastal cliff tops at dawn, and that was to watch.

The location was strategic for 3 reasons; this location controlled access to the West Coast… the source of valuable Pounamu, attacks coming from Taranaki could be seen from here, and an observer in this position could give good warning of anyone approaching from that direction; any potential attacker still had to negotiate the 25km long sand spit.

Tasman saw smoke ‘in several places’ from his location at dawn, and this meant only one thing. They had been seen.

The signal fires were lit at dawn, and the whole of Mohua was alerted to the presence of danger.

Inside the Bay people began mobilising.

Visscher's map of New Zealand as at 17th December

Visscher’s map of New Zealand as at 17th December

By the end of that day, Tasman’s ships had only advanced the length of the sand spit, and still lay on the ocean side. They sat becalmed, but not idle. The harbour beyond looked attractive. It was wide but sheltered; and it offered the prospect of a secure anchorage where they could take on fresh supplies of water and firewood. It is not mentioned in the journal, but they must have put out one or more of their small boats to sound the depth at the end of the spit.

“to eastward of this narrow sandspit there is a sandbank upwards of a mile in length with 6, 7, 8 and 9 feet of water above it, and projecting east-south-east from the said point.”

At sunset on December 17th, 1642, The Heemskerck and the Zeehaen sat at anchor in 17 fathoms, on the ocean side of Farewell Spit, 4 km from its tip.

Looking along Farewell spit from the hilltop path

Looking along Farewell spit from the hilltop path running between the Spit and Cape Farewell. From this position Tasman’s ships would have been visible from sunrise to sunset.

They had spent the whole day in sight of their watchers.

The complete journal entry for December 16th, 1642:

At six glasses before the day we took soundings in 60 fathom anchoring-ground. The northernmost point we had in sight then bore from us north-east by east, at three myles distance, and the nearest land lay south-east of us at 1 and a half myles distance. We drifted in a calm, with good weather and smooth water; at noon Latitude observed 40° 58′, average Longitude 189° 54′; course kept north-north-east, sailed 11 myles; we drifted in a calm the whole afternoon; in the evening at sunset we had 9° 23′ increasing North-East variation; the wind then went round to south-west with a freshening breeze; we found the furthest point of the land that we could see to bear from us east by north, the land falling off so abruptly there that we did not doubt that this was the farthest extremity. We now convened our council with the second mates, with whom we resolved to run north-east and east-north-east till the end of the first watch, and then to sail near the wind, wind and weather not changing, as may in extenso be seen from this days resolution. During the night in the sixth glass it fell calm again so that we stuck to the east-north-east course; although in the fifth glass of the dog-watch, we had the point we had seen in the evening, south-east of us, we could not sail higher than east-north-east slightly easterly owing to the sharpness of the wind; in the first watch we took soundings once, and a second time in the dog-watch, in 60 fathom, clean, grey sand. In the second glass of the day-watch we got a breeze from the south-east, upon which we tacked for the shore again.

The complete journal entry for December 17th, 1642:

In the morning at sunrise we were about one mile from the shore; in various places we saw smoke ascending from fires made by the natives; the wind then being south and blowing from the land we again tacked to eastward. At noon Latitude estimated 40° 31′, Longitude 190° 47′; course kept north-east by east, sailed 12 myles; in the afternoon the wind being west we held our course east by south along a low-lying shore with dunes in good dry weather; we sounded in 30 fathom, black sand, so that by night one had better approach this land aforesaid, sounding; we then made for this sandy point until we got in 17 fathom, where we cast anchor at sunset owing to a calm, when we had the northern extremity of this dry sandspit west by north of us; also high land extending to east by south; the point of the reef south-east of us; here inside this point or narrow sandspit we saw a large open bay upward of 3 or 4 myles wide; to eastward of this narrow sandspit there is a sandbank upwards of a mile in length with 6, 7, 8 and 9 feet of water above it, and projecting east-south-east from the said point. In the evening we had 9° North-East variation.

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