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Trapped

Abel Tasman banner

Tasman and his men sat at anchor unable to move due to the storm coming from the North West. They lowered their yards to the decks to sit it out. The storm was so fierce that on the Heemskerck they put down a second anchor and ran out more cable. The Zeehaen followed suit when their first anchor started to slip.

They named where they sat at anchor “Abel Tasman’s Bay”.

Isaac Gilseman’s drawing of the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen at anchor in Abel Tasman Bay

Isaac Gilseman’s drawing of the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen at anchor in Abel Tasman Bay

While they were no longer exposed to the danger of the lee shore, they were by no means out of trouble and now they were even more trapped than before.
Previously, to escape, they needed the wind to come from anywhere except the west. Any wind direction from North East, via East round to the South East would allow them a westerly exit, but now any passage to the west was blocked by D’Urville Island. Now they needed to first go northwards past Stephens Island and then try to go West. Now they didn’t need just a favourable wind direction, they needed one followed by another.

A satellite image from google maps rotated to the same orientation as the Abel Tasman Bay drawing

A satellite image from google maps rotated to the same orientation as the Abel Tasman Bay drawing annotated with key landmarks

As they sat there, they realised that they were not alone. They were sheltering from the storm in the lee of Rangitoto Islands, themselves just off D’Urville Island, and they knew there were people there because they saw smoke.

The Barber Surgeon Hendrik Haelbos wrote that after leaving Golden Bay Tasman “found himself then surrounded by land” (this was the morning they discovered they were against the lee shore) and that he “was tossed at anchor by hard storm before a coast, where he saw much smoke rise”

As they sat there at anchor unable to move, they were being watched. It is most likely that the watchers were Ngati Tumatakokiri too, the same tribe as they had met in Golden Bay, as D’Urville Island was also a part of their range.

In the appalling weather Tasman didn’t attempt to go ashore, and the Ngati Tumatakokiri didn’t go out to them either.

From information given in Tasman’s journal we can estimate the position of this anchorage fairly accurately.

“the said island was north-north-west of us, then dropped our anchor behind a number of cliffs in 33 fathom”

Tasman’s ships lay south-south-east of Stephens Island where the depth was approximately 60m and where they were in the lee of some cliffs.

These three criteria are satisfied in only a very small area, and comparison of Isaac Gilsemans drawing to a modern map allows us to identify some of the features in his drawing.

While Isaac Gilsemans recorded what he could actually see, Pilot Major Visscher, the navigator and chart maker, drew something that he suspected to was there, but didn’t see.

On 23rd December Tasman recorded that;

“since the tide was running from the south-east there was likely to be a passage through, so that perhaps it would be best, as soon as wind and weather should permit, to investigate this point and see whether we could get fresh water there”

Among the three copies of the journal that still exist there are two charts, and they are not quite the same. One is in the completed ‘State Archives’ copy of the journal, and the other is the partially complete ‘Huijdecoper’ copy. These two charts are mostly similar, but differ in an important detail; the ‘Huijdecoper’ chart, which was drawn by Visscher personally, indicates an opening between the North Island and South Island of New Zealand corresponding to what we now know as Cook Strait. The State Archives copy of the chart shows the land there as continuous.

Had they known for certain that there was passage there, and that it opened into the South Sea and not a large inland sea, then they could has used this exit in any westerly wind. But there was uncertainty, and with that came risk. If the tidal flow was not from the ocean, but from a large body of water, an inland sea, then the difficulty of escape would re-double.

A comparison of the South Taranaki Bight area from both the Visscher chart, and the State Archives copy

A comparison of the South Taranaki Bight area in the Visscher chart, and the chart in the State Archives copy

We don’t know for certain why there is this difference in the documents, but equally the men on board the two ships did not know for certain whether or not there was a passage through to the ocean either.

The journal notes that they might investigate it should “wind and weather should permit “. But as events unfolded, that opportunity didn’t arise.

On December 25th 1642, even though they were half the world away from home they still remembered Christmas. The Sailor’s journal records:

“against noon the master came with the merchant of the Zeehaen on board our ship as guests to the commander. There were also two pigs killed for the crew, and the commander ordered, besides the ration, a tankard of wine to be given to every mess, as it was the time of the fair.”

Tasman’s journal for that day notes that the storm had eased, and they prepared to get under sail again, re-raising their years, and taking in some of their anchor line.

“In the morning we reset our tops and sailyards, but out at sea things looked still so gloomy that we did not venture to weigh our anchor. Towards evening it fell a calm so that we took in part of our cable.”

To escape the trap of the lee shore they needed to first round Stephens Island to their NNW, then they could resume their efforts to tack out of the bight. Once clear of Stephens Island, any wind direction except west would permit this.

In the darkness, before dawn on 26th December, the wind gave them an opportunity to escape, and they took it immediately.

“In the morning, two hours before day, we got the wind east-north-east with a light breeze. We weighed anchor and set sail, steered our course to northward, intending to sail northward round this land; at daybreak it began to drizzle, the wind went round to the south-east, and afterwards to the south as far as the south-west, with a stiff breeze. We had soundings in 60 fathom, and set our course by the wind to westward.”

They started moving while it was still dark. The wind from ENE allowed them a NNW path toward Stephens Island, then, having rounded the island the wind turned to a stiff south wester. Sailing hard on the wind they set a North West course, and headed out into the Tasman Sea.

Tasman had escaped.

Tasman's progress on Visscher's chart to December 26th 1642

Visscher’s chart of New Zealand up to December 26th 1642

 

Unexpected shore

Abel Tasman banner

It had been a big day for Tasman and his men, and no doubt they were pleased to leave “Murderers Bay” behind them, but the day’s excitement was not yet over.

Tasman believed he was sailing into open ocean, that the land extended to the east of where they had come from. “therefore it will be best to sail eastward along the coast, following the trend of the land” He was sorely mistaken.

Tasmans exit path from Golden Bay

Tasman’s course leaving Golden Bay on 19th December 1642”

They sailed East-North-East from Golden Bay, confident that they moving out into the “South Sea”. But they were completely unaware of the existence of the North Island of New Zealand, and in the middle of the night, the alarm was raised.

“During the night we kept sailing as the weather was favourable, but about an hour after midnight we sounded in 25 or 26 fathom, a hard, sandy bottom. Soon after the wind went round to north-west, and we sounded in 15 fathom; we forthwith tacked to await the day, turning our course to westward, exactly contrary to the direction by which we had entered.”

It was a near disaster.

In darkness they had closed on the coast of the North Island, near Whanganui, and in just 15 fathoms of water (25 metres) they did an ‘about turn’. Not knowing what was around them in the darkness they turned exactly back along the path they’d come, and waited for daylight.

Tasmans exit path from Golden Bay

Tasman’s course leaving Golden Bay on 19th December 1642”

“In the morning we saw land lying here on all sides of us, so that we must have sailed at least 30 myles into a bay. We had at first thought that the land off which we had anchored was an island, nothing doubting that we should here find a passage to the open South Sea; but to our grievous disappointment it proved quite otherwise. The wind now being westerly … “

The length of coast they had come upon is known as “the fatal coast”, and is littered with the wrecks of old sailing ships.

Tasman found himself on this piece of water in a Westerly wind, and could see land to his North, East and South. He was trapped unless the wind turned. If the wind increased in strength and he was blown backwards, then they would be wrecked.

This was their great fear, being trapped against a lee shore.

The sea floor on this coast extends shallow for a great distance; a snare for the unwary, and Tasman noted this for later Mainers to be aware of.

“As you are approaching the land you have everywhere an anchoring-ground gradually rising from 50 or 60 fathom to 15 fathom when you are still fully 1½ or 2 myles from shore.”

If a ship’s keel caught the bottom here in a strong westerly, then it would become impossibly stuck. The storm would turn the vessel so that its full sail area caught the wind, and then it would be forced gradually higher up the sand by the wind and lifting action of the waves, until it was held immovably fast.

In 1878, in a single year, six large sailing ships foundered on this piece of coast; the Hydrabad, the Pleione, the City of Auckland, the Felixstowe, and the Weathersfield.

In the early hours of the morning, Dec 20th 1642, the history of New Zealand turned.

New Zealand was settled by the British mostly due to the Journals of James Cook… and the Admiralty had directed him to New Zealand because they had a gained a copy of Tasman’s Journal, and his chart.

If the watch on Tasman’s ship that night had not been diligent, then his expedition would have been lost, and it would have been lost without record. There would have been no journal, no chart for the British to study, and consequently no visit by James Cook. The History of New Zealand, would have been entirely different.

However, the watch on Tasman’s ship was diligent. Even though they thought they were in open ocean, they were still checking the depth as they went. In the darkness they turned around and waited for daylight.

In daylight they saw land on three sides of them, and had the wind coming from the direction of their only known exit (the strait separating the North Island and South Island would not be discovered for another 127 years).

“The wind now being westerly we henceforth did our best by tacking to get out at the same passage through which we had come in. “

Tasman’s ships could not make upwind progress at all, the best they could manage was to sail across the direction of the wind, and they turned south. They continued on that course until they came up to land again, and turned away hoping for a change in wind direction that would allow them to get out to sea.

“At noon we tacked to northward when we saw a round high islet west by south of us, at about 8 myles distance which we had passed the day before”

The “high islet” was Stephens Island, at the northern end of D’Urville Island. They had passed it the previous afternoon. They continued through the day and night to North, but the next morning, they came up to land again, and had to turn away once.

“During the night in the dog-watch we had a westerly wind with a strong breeze; we steered to the north, hoping that the land which we had had north-west of us the day before might fall away to northward, but after the cook had dished we again ran against it and found that it still extended to the north-west. We now tacked, turning from the land again and, as it began to blow fresh, we ran south-west over towards the south shore. “

Tasman's course to their anchorage off D'Urville Island on Dec 21st 1642

“Tasman’s course to their anchorage off D’Urville Island on Dec 21st 1642”

By the afternoon they had crossed the Taranaki Bight once more, and Stephens Island came into sight again. Having made nearly no progress at all to windward in the previous 24 hours, they now decided to find shelter.

“Halfway through the afternoon we again saw the south coast; the island which the day before we had west of us at about 6 myles distance now lay south-west by south of us at about 4 myles distance. We made for it, running on until the said island was north-north-west of us, then dropped our anchor behind a number of cliffs in 33 fathom, sandy ground mixed with shells. There are many islands and cliffs all round here. We struck our sail-yards for it was blowing a storm from the north-west and west-north-west.”

On the evening of December 21st, 1642 Tasman and his men put down their anchors for the 4th time in New Zealand. They were sheltering from a storm in the lee of Rangitoto Islands, off D’Urville Island, and they were stuck there.

Tasmans exit path from Golden Bay

Visscher’s chart of New Zealand up to December 25th 1642”