History - Sinking ship

By: Lyn Johnston

Early on September 23, 1866, Captain Alexander Unthank’s cutter Bonneta crossed the Manukau Bar heading north to the Kaipara settlements. She carried a full cargo of goods, plus two passengers.

A hard northeasterly gale was blowing. Bonneta safely crossed the Kaipara bar at 5pm, but   about three miles from the South Head Pilot Station a heavy squall struck, throwing her on her beam ends and blowing her sails apart.

A coastal cutter under full sail in the Manukau Harbour. Photo, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections
A coastal cutter under full sail in the Manukau Harbour. Photo, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

Two anchors were immediately dropped but in heavy surf and soft sand they dragged and Bonneta was driven ashore on her beam near the Well (Waionui Inlet). Next afternoon, crew and passengers arrived at the Pilot Station saying water was inside with “everything floating about in the cabin”.

Other vessels arrived to salvage the cargo. Unfortunately, most of it was damaged by seawater and all attempts to refloat Bonneta failed. On October 6, the wreck was sold for £5.  Her new owner sent men to strip the cutter, but they couldn’t free her so she became a total loss.

Some doubted accounts of the wreck. William Pettet, of Port Albert, wrote to the Weekly News: “The squall which drove the Bonneta ashore did not send her on her beam, nor divest her of all sails; two anchors were not immediately lowered but only one. Every effort to get her off was not likely to succeed without lightening her of part of cargo. For three or four days that cargo was quite sound. Whose fault was it that when the Julia went to her six days after she grounded, to save a portion of it, it was found mostly damaged?”

A passenger’s account in the paper stated, “If landsmen may be allowed an opinion on such matters, I should most decidedly say that it was solely the fault of the winds and waves.”  The passenger considered himself fortunate to escape with his life.

Pettet responded, “Some surprise has been expressed that a man who was in his bunk during the entire time should have been able to give such a circumstantial account of the wreck.”

Captain Unthank thought his critics unfair. In an October letter to Rev E.S. Brookes, of Wharehine, he wrote: “You must have heard of my loss – this vessel stood me in over £400 for fit out and repairs. I had also over £400 worth of goods of my own in her and only £100 insured. This being the first time I ever insured in my life.  I can assure you sir that whatever may be said, and I hear a great deal of remarks, I have not saved £30 worth of my property, through trying to ease the uninsured poor people. I hear great talk among little tattling minds.”

In one man’s opinion, Bonneta’s fate proved that “small cutters are not fit for the work. A moderate-sized steamer is required from Onehunga to the Pilot Station at Kaipara Heads”.  Two months later, the first steamer arrived at Port Albert.

Lyn Johnston, Albertland Museum


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