‘The wind blew with unmitigated fury’

On the evening of 7 July 1840, Captain Francis Coffin looked to the surrounding sea and sky with a growing sense of dread. His vessel, the American whaler Samuel Wright, had recently entered Koombana Bay in the fledgling colony of Western Australia to take on fresh water and provisions. It joined two other American whaleships, North America and Hudson, already moored in the bay and undergoing preparations to remain over winter and serve as ‘mother ships’ for shore-based whaling activities. As daylight waned, the weather deteriorated, and by 8 pm gale- force conditions pummelled the three ships as they rode at anchor. The winds soon shifted to the north-northwest and ‘blew with unmitigated fury’ down the exposed length of the bay. Coffin noted the three vessels ‘rode [the storm] out bravely’, but were ultimately overtaken by high seas, which ‘broke over [Samuel Wright’s] topmast heads’. The chain of one of Samuel Wright’s three anchors soon parted and the vessel drove towards shore, where it grounded. North America followed suit shortly afterwards. Despite being ‘buried up [in heavy seas] from stem to stern’, Hudson held position on account of its ‘four large anchors’ and miraculously survived the tempest.

Watercolour painting 'Amateur whaling, or a tale of the Pacific', 1847. Image: Oswald Walter Brierly / ANMM Collection 00005660.

Samuel Wright and North America constituted the first — but certainly not the last — recorded shipwrecks in Koombana Bay. During the next 93 years, approximately 40 vessels were either stranded or wrecked within the bay’s confines. Ten would come to grief in the same general location as the American whalers — an area known today as North Beach. In fact, only three years passed before yet another Yankee whaleship (named, coincidentally, North America) was forced ashore in nearly the same spot and under identical conditions. The shoreline bordering Koombana Bay forms a fishhook shape, with the sharp end terminating in a short peninsula that juts into the sea in an approximate northeast—southwest orientation. Historically, the bay was noted for its excellent anchorage, which was well protected from most winds. The notable exceptions were northerlies and north-westerlies. Before construction of a breakwater around the turn of the 19th century, the peninsula was much shorter, oriented north to south, and provided little or no protection from these winds. Consequently, the majority of vessels wrecked in Koombana Bay were victims of severe weather events originating from the north or northwest.