Salvage at sea

When a ship founders in wild seas or runs aground, the first priority is to secure the safety of survivors. Only then does attention turn to salvaging the ship, its parts (if it has broken up) and its cargo.

None of the ships bound for South Australia in 1836 was wrecked. Indeed, in the nineteenth century surprisingly few ships were wrecked on voyages to Australia. When ships did founder survivors had to make do with makeshift tools to salvage any useful items. When survivors made it to shore they might receive help from local communities. When, in 1851, the Marion was wrecked on Troubridge Shoal in South Australian waters, the Yatala, under Captain Lipson, and the Venus were sent to its aid. Their crews salvaged as much of the passengers’ luggage as possible. Fortunately, no one died in the shipwreck, but mother of three, Ann Johnson, was fatally ‘crushed by a cart carrying salvaged baggage up a cliff path…’

Items commonly used by salvagers in the nineteenth century included heavy anchors for kedging (hauling) ships off reefs, heavy hawsers, chains, and fenders to prevent rescue craft crashing against ships or rocks, blocks and tackle, various grapnels, mauls, crowbars, axes and boats. These were the tools of salvagers and also the ‘wreckers’, some of whom were alleged to use ‘false lights’ to lure ships into trouble. But when the John Pirie came upon masts, spars, yards, sails and rigging ‘from some unfortunate Vessel’ its crew simply hauled aboard what it needed and could store on board. Very often salvage work was carried out by skilled seafarers on an opportunistic basis.

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