Sinking of HMS Orpheus

Orpheus left Sydney, Australia, on 31 January 1863.

Her approach to Manukau Harbour on 7 February ran near Whatipu beach, through a series of dangerous sand bars. The weather was clear and sunny. Although the bars had been charted twice, in 1836 and 1856, a revised pilotage guide from 1861 was available that indicated that the middle sand bar had moved northwards and grown considerably in the intervening time. While Orpheus carried both the out-of-date chart and the updated guide, and the Sailing Master William Strong originally used the updated instructions for entering the harbour, he was overruled by the Commodore and the ship proceeded according to the 1856 chart.

As the ship approached the submerged bar, a navigational signal from nearby Paratutae Island was received instructing her to turn north to avoid a grounding. Soon after, Quartermaster Frederick Butler (a convicted deserter, and one of only two men on board to have previously entered Manukau Harbour) alerted the senior officers to the improper course they were taking.

The force of the surf soon caused Orpheus to swing around, exposing its port side to the waves. Considerable damage was sustained: the hatches burst open, cabin windows were shattered, and Orpheus began to take on water. The crew attempted to abandon ship, but the power of the sea's surge made escape extremely difficult, and many sailors were swept away.

The H.M. s.s. 'Orpheus', 21 guns, carrying the board pennant of Commodore Burnett, C.B., was a total wreck on the Manukau bar. The 'Orpheus' left Sydney on Saturday week at half-past four on the morning of the 31st January, and made the Manukau bar at about one p.m., on Saturday last, February 7th. The day was fine with a fresh sea breeze blowing. The vessel was under sail up till noon when a gun fired at twelve o'clock for a pilot. She was steering an east course till her bearings were taken, when she steered N.E. by East, keeping the Nine Pin rock on the Paratutai, in accordance with Drury's directions. Steering by Drury's chart, the ship was kept too far to the northward, and at half-past one she struck on the sand-spit by the head. Stream had been got up before this, simply as an auxiliary. The Commodore gave the order "full speed astern" when she touched, but the vessel had too much way on her, and the screw was powerless. She could not have been going at less than eight knots an hour, under all plain sail and weather foretop-mast studding sail. The wind was then on the starboard quarter. The men were aloft at the sails and the topsails were lowered, the other sails being clewed up. The foretopmast stay sail was retained to keep her steady. Some of the weather guns were hove over to lighten her, as was also shot and other heavy matters.

On again nearing the wreck I found the ship completely broken up. It was a beautiful clear moonlight night, and masses of the wreck kept passing in with the flood, clinging to which Lieutenant Yonge and six or eight men were saved. The cutter got so far to leeward that she made for the land, the pinnace returning to the steamer. We remained on deck the whole night, keeping a sharp look-out. At daylight nothing could be seen of the ill-fated Orpheus but a stump of one mast and a few ribs.”

— Charles Hill, Lieutenant of the Orpheus