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Unexpected shore

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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”


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