Note: This story takes place in an area that’s probably unfamiliar to most people, so I’ve put together a map that provides an overview of key features and locations. You can refer to it here.
On the evening of Friday, March 3, 1899, H.P. Beach watched from his veranda as the sun slipped below the horizon, scattering rich hues of amber and crimson across the sky. The indigo waters of the Torres Strait lapped gently at the rocky beachside below, reflecting the last fading rays of the day. As the sunset ebbed and faded into darkness, a still more vivid display flared to life. A distant, rhythmic strobe illuminated the inky blackness of the far eastern sky, the scattered reflection of lightning from some faraway tempest looming just over the seam of the world. A look of concern spread across Beach’s pale, furrowed face.
Head Postmaster of Far North Queensland’s Thursday Island by trade, Beach was also an observant and skilled meteorologist. He took a particular interest in the tropical disturbances that occasionally troubled Australia’s northern coast in the late-summer months, and he recognized warning signs when he saw them. The dazzling, brick-red sunsets. The stifling heat, still oppressive even hours after night had washed over the region. The utter stillness, which seemed to suck the very life from the air and the sea. The distant lightning, flaring beyond the horizon as if to send silent signal of an approaching malevolence.
It was too hot for sleep, so Beach slumped heavily into a wicker chair on his veranda. Taking in the clues nature had laid before him, he felt an uneasy apprehension wash over him. A storm was coming, and soon the deceptively calm tropical seas would rise, whipped to great and terrible heights by a cyclone more violent than the humble postmaster could ever have envisioned.
• • • • • •
The broad, cobalt expanse of Bathurst Bay buzzed with activity. Tucked into the lee side of boulder-strewn Cape Melville, the bay was a popular anchorage point for the pearling fleets that plied the shallow waters between the coast and the Great Barrier Reef. As the sun inched above the waterline on Saturday morning, March 4, laughter and lively banter reverberated across the bay.
A coterie of schooners and luggers – modest sailing ships suited to the pearl trade and little else – bobbed gently in the waters just west of the rocky cape, taking stock of supplies and refilling with fresh water from the shore. The crews mingled on the beach and among one another’s vessels, relaxing and socializing after an exhausting week of work.
The pearling crews were a remarkably diverse lot, culled not only from Oceania but from countless countries around the world. Aborigines and South Sea Islanders were particularly valued for their diving skill, while many Chinese and Japanese pearlers were well-regarded as cooks. Some were indentured servants; others, freemen intent on scratching out a living from the thriving pearl shell trade. The men spoke many dozens of languages between them, but the crude patchwork of Pidgin English served as a common tongue among many of the tradesmen, servants and migrants.
In the bay, the heat was suffocating even before the first amber rays of morning scattered across the dusky horizon. The weather-worn pearlers, acclimated to the heat from decades spent laboring under the roiling tropical sun, nonetheless found themselves more sluggish than usual. The air had seemingly hung in stasis for the past several days, draped over the bay like a thick, hazy blanket. The light breezes that ordinarily moderated the steamy summer heat had ceased entirely, leaving a stillness as eerie as it was stifling.
The atmosphere itself seemed to have filled with some indistinct, pervasive sense of disquiet. There were no birds at sea, nor could any be seen on land. The only sound other than the bustle and chatter of the crews came from the ever-present insects, swarming near the coast like droning clouds. If not for the occasional ship skirting the rim of the bay in the distance, the amassed pearlers could have been forgiven for wondering whether they were suddenly alone in the world.
Nonetheless, there was still much work to be done. The machinery of the pearling fleets ground on despite the sultry weather, finishing one long week of work and preparing for the next. Some crewmen tallied and offloaded their weekly haul of pearl shells. Others took aboard salted beef, tobacco, liquor, rice and other supplies and stowed them away. Still others disembarked at the shore and scrambled up the steep, sandy dunes and rocky headlands, lugging empty buckets and dented kerosene tins to the oases of pale, slender eucalyptus trees, fruit-bearing wongai and dense green undergrowth that broke up the otherwise muted and sun-baked landscape, marking transient billabongs and other sources of fresh, more-or-less drinkable water.
• • • • • •
The practice of harvesting pearls was already well-established long before the first European settlers arrived on Australia’s shores. Aboriginal peoples near the coast were experienced in the trade, gathering the abundant oysters in shallow coastal waters and trading them through a sophisticated network across Australia and surrounding areas. Australian pearl traveled as far away as the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, whose fishermen came south to harvest bêche-de-mer (sea cucumber) and trade with the Indigenous Australians. The commercial pearling trade began in Australia in earnest in the mid-1800s, where it rapidly grew to become a substantial part of the local economy.
The coastal waters of northern and western Australia were rich in pearl beds, producing up to 80 percent of the world’s supply at its peak, and few places were more productive than the stretch of sea from the Torres Strait to the western Coral Sea. Though the silvery-white pearls themselves were highly valuable, they were also exceedingly rare. Perhaps one in every 200 oysters would yield a pearl, with as few as one in a thousand producing the pure, smooth gems that could command a princely sum. Instead, it was the nacreous pearl shell that lured hundreds of ships and thousands of men to the region in a bid to strike aquatic gold. Most of the shells were shipped to the United States and England, where they were fashioned into buttons, buckles, cutlery, jewelry and all manner of other fashions of the day.
Pearling was a lucrative trade, but it was also an exceptionally dangerous one. Some estimates place the mortality rate for pearl divers as high as 50 percent. Following the introduction of diving suits, the most common cause of death was the bends. Also known as decompression sickness, the bends is an extremely painful and sometimes lethal condition caused by nitrogen molecules dissolving in the body’s tissues under pressure. If a diver ascends to the surface too quickly, the nitrogen rapidly comes out of solution, forming dangerous bubbles in the body tissue and bloodstream.
Drowning was also not uncommon, especially in light of the unreliable primitive diving technology of the time. “Naked divers,” those who dove for pearl without the assistance of diving suits or snorkels, were at even greater risk. Sharks, highly venomous Irukandji jellyfish and other dangerous aquatic creatures were an ever-present threat, and the often squalid conditions aboard seagoing vessels led to a high incidence of disease. Still, nothing struck fear in the hearts of pearlers more than the devilish product of mother nature herself: the dreaded cyclone.
• • • • • •
Sitting at his desk in a small office in Brisbane, some thousand miles removed from the steamy waters of Bathurst Bay, 46-year-old Clement Wragge intently studied his morning weather charts. Wragge was a tall, brash, wholly eccentric Englishman, characterized by an acquaintance as “brilliant, egotistical, blind to convention and impatient of pretense; red-haired, red-bearded and with a temper to match.”
A tireless worker and inquisitive mind, he established a number of weather observatories throughout Britain and wrote prolifically on his observations and theories, becoming a contributor to several journals and newspapers of the day. In 1882, the Scottish Meteorological Society awarded him their Gold Medal for his work in recording weather data from the summit of Ben Nevis, the highest point in the British Isles.
After being passed over as Superintendent of the observatory he’d helped establish atop Ben Nevis, Wragge took his meteorological acumen to South Australia, where he set about establishing a private observatory just outside the city of Adelaide. He wasted little time injecting himself into the affairs of the country’s fledgling meteorological community, taking on an important role in the development of the Royal Meteorological Society of Australia and establishing himself as an expert in local weather.
In 1887, Wragge relocated to Brisbane and accepted a position as the Government Meteorologist for Queensland. With his intense curiosity, an unmatched work ethic and a gift for meteorology – as well as no small measure of gall – Wragge quickly set about earning praise and condemnation in nearly equal measure. To the chagrin of many, he began to issue forecasts not only for Queensland but for other areas spanning the entire continent. He assumed a role as the self-styled Chief of the Weather Bureau in Brisbane – more through sheer audacity than any official appointment.
Wragge also brought about a number of advances in the field of meteorology. Exercising his connections both inside and outside of government, he was largely responsible for developing and connecting a far-flung network of weather observation stations that eventually received regular transmissions from as far away as New Caledonia and Tasmania. He worked diligently to organize the incoming data, carefully processing it and plotting it on detailed charts and weather maps.
The resulting forecasts proved invaluable to business owners and ship captains in the pearling trade who’d long feared the catastrophic losses a sudden cyclone could inflict. For the first time, Wragge’s observation network made it possible to predict severe weather events in advance with some degree of accuracy. The enterprising weatherman also instituted a series of storm warning signals, forming a coordinated system by which locals throughout Queensland could be alerted of an approaching cyclone.
But it was his novel idea of naming these storms that brought Clement Wragge the most acclaim – and notoriety. His system, such as it was, began with the use of the letters of the Greek alphabet before moving on to classical figures and names from Polynesian mythology. Eventually, Wragge’s naming conventions became rather more eccentric. His favorite source was the names of native women of the South Sea Islands to whom he’d taken a fancy, though particularly nasty and threatening storms were often given names drawn from political figures who had denied him funding or otherwise upset him.
Nonetheless, the various controversies that swirled around him – most brought on by his own impetuous actions – did little to sully his name. By 1899, Wragge’s 12th year as Government Meteorologist, the transplanted Englishman had garnered a well-earned reputation as one of the world’s foremost experts in the weather of Australia and the South Pacific.
• • • • • •
Reviewing the data drawn from his far-flung observation network, Clement Wragge’s attention was first drawn to the waters north of Queensland on February 24. His analysis showed an elongated area of low pressure and converging winds – a seasonal monsoon trough – draped across the Solomon Sea. Observations from this area – though relatively sparse – indicated a broad, deepening center of low pressure somewhere in the vicinity of Papua New Guinea was bringing heavy squalls and gusty winds to the region.
Wragge knew better than most how quickly a disturbance could erupt into a violent tempest once it reached the steamy tropical waters of the Coral Sea, but his forecast seemed to show little cause for immediate concern. Calling the disturbance “Tirau,” after a “dusky damsel in the South Sea Islands,” he issued a decidedly measured statement on the potential threat.
“Conditions are again becoming suspicious between the Louisiades [Papua New Guinea] and the far north of New Caledonia, and although no new danger yet threatens the Queensland coast, we must needs keep a bright lookout.”
As February turned to March, influxes of observational data brought new charts and updated forecasts. Something was clearly brewing off the shores of Far North Queensland, but the situation was complex and rapidly evolving by the day. Nonetheless, Wragge remained confident and reassuring. By his analysis, Tirau had been replaced by a disturbance called “Mahina” – a favorite name among young women in Tahiti. Further to the west, he depicted a monsoonal storm named “Nachon.”
Having charted and forecast the development of many such low-pressure systems, it was an atmospheric pattern that undoubtedly must have looked familiar to the seasoned meteorologist. And yet, despite the mounting warning signs, Wragge saw no reason for alarm among the maps and reports flowing through his Brisbane office in early March. Indeed, his forecasts continued to convey little sense of urgency or concern:
“Still, however, do we distinctly affirm that the Queensland coast is not yet in danger.”
• • • • • •
In Cooktown, a thriving port town a hundred miles southeast of Bathurst Bay, Jack Kenny took little note of the weather, nor of Clement Wragge’s tepid advisory. Kenny, a constable with the Queensland Native Mounted Police, was investigating a violent assault that had taken place the previous week. A pair of Indian crewmen, cast off from their pearling lugger following a dispute, had washed ashore near Barrow Point and been brutally attacked by “spear-wielding natives.” One had been killed. The other was speared through the arm and into the chest, but he survived his wounds and escaped into the bush.
After wandering for nearly a week, the wounded man staggered and limped his way into a dusty gold mining camp deep in the jungle. He was brought to the hospital at Cooktown, where he lay in a dazed and barely-lucid state. The man was uncooperative and there were few other details for the constable to go on, but Kenny’s position – and the prevailing public sentiment of the day – demanded that he travel to Barrow Point to follow up on the attack and, if necessary, make a show of force in retribution.
Having obtained what little information he could, Kenny gathered supplies and prepared himself for the journey to Barrow Point. Joining him on the patrol were four skilled native trackers and ten horses. The terrain was hostile and varied, taking the men through thick tropical vine forest, expansive scrub plains and heathlands, rugged ranges and meandering river valleys.
The patrol passed Munburra, the last outpost of the crumbling mining industry in the Palmer River goldfield, where hard and desperate men worked the earth in the hope that some riches still remained untapped below. Turning east, they made for the friendlier terrain of the coast. Waking before first light on Saturday morning, March 4, the men were greeted with a vibrant lightning display on the eastern horizon.
As the sun broke over the mouth of the nearby Starcke River, it revealed a troubled sky. All was clear above them, the air thick and sultry, but layered blankets of wind-whipped cloud had begun to encroach in the distance. Despite the deceptively calm weather overhead, a stiffening breeze brought the unmistakable scent of rain. A faint taste of briny sea spray rode the air as Kenny and his crew navigated the salt flats and scattered sand dunes on their way toward Barrow Point.
• • • • • •
As the morning sun crept toward its blazing noonday zenith, the clatter and buzz of activity among the pearling fleets dotting Bathurst Bay and nearby Princess Charlotte Bay rose to a congested, slightly irritable bustle. Luggers jockeyed and tussled for position around the larger schooners, keen to finish the last of the week’s work and begin enjoying their customary Sunday break half a day early. Amid the din of activity, few took note of the changing conditions.
By early afternoon, the formerly placid sea had grown agitated. It gently swelled and heaved as if the water itself had grown tired of the relentless calm and heat. The more experienced captains cast an uneasy glance at their barometers, noting that the atmospheric pressure, which had consistently read 29.8 inches for several days, had dropped several hundredths of an inch. It was a subtle change, but not insignificant to those who had borne witness to the wrath the tropical seas could sometimes produce in the presence of falling pressure.
The sky had become ugly and low by the time the pearlers’ work had finished, the sun only a diffuse patch of jaundiced yellow scarcely visible through the mist blowing in from the open ocean. Tatters of cloud hurried by, joined on occasion by brief bursts of wind from the east-southeast that whistled and clattered through the fleet’s rigging. The larger schooners groaned and creaked, protesting at the slowly growing swells rolling into the bay.
Despite the unsettled weather, the bay reverberated with a boisterous cacophony of singing, laughter and music. Across the fleet, the discordant rhythms of accordions, drums and other instruments rang out. Because they would have no work the following day, many of the men had taken to the bottle. A few slipped away to smoke opium. The ships’ skippers set about anchoring in closer to the shore, taking advantage of whatever shelter could be had in the lee of the low-slung peaks running along the spine of Cape Melville.
Aboard the 112-ton Crest of the Wave, Captain William F. Porter stared anxiously at the undulating sea below. He had good reason to be concerned: his wife, Maggie, and 18-month-old daughter, Alice, had joined him days earlier aboard the schooner, despite his protestations. It was clear that a storm of some magnitude was lurking in the distance, and with few tools and little information at his disposal, Porter turned to a concept familiar to any seasoned mariner: Buys Ballot’s law. Standing with the wind at his back, he knew that the storm’s center would be to his right.[a] With a stiff breeze blowing from the southeast, the growing gale was likely centered in the deeper waters to the northeast.
Porter needed no instruments or principles to inform him that the storm was growing closer. The gusts of wind were becoming more intense and more frequent. Though there was no thunder as yet, neon fulgurations inched closer through the twilight at intervals. The lazy, oily swells grew choppy and came with greater regularity and force. With few good options and time growing short, the increasingly concerned captain sent word among the fleet: let out more chain, batten down and prepare for battle.
• • • • • •
Jack Kenny, too, had noticed the evolving weather as he rode north. The fine, indistinct mist had gradually become a steady rain, not yet heavy but driven by the stinging spasms of wind that whistled through the bush and over the sculpted dunes. Kenny’s native trackers also noticed the change, and they knew well what the ominous signs presaged. They called it a willy-willy. Constable Kenny called it a cyclone.
The sun had started receding as the group drew closer to the craggy, rust-colored shore of Barrow Point. Just to the south of their destination, at Bowen Bay, Kenny and his crew stopped and set up camp atop a large, flat sand ridge. The camp area – half a mile from shore, approximately 40 feet high and fronted by another, slightly taller sand ridge – seemed to offer good protection against the increasingly agitated sea. The rain grew heavier as night took hold, pelting the taut sides of their canvas tents and stinging their faces as they hobbled and fed the horses.
The weather deteriorated quickly, and Kenny began to question the wisdom of making camp in a clearing atop an exposed ridge. The rain came in nearly horizontal sheets, beating at the sides of the tents and blowing in through every small opening. The wind pulsed through the trees, sending leaves and branches clattering through the encampment. The taste of brine rode on the powerful gusts, torn from the fractured surface of the sea and blown ashore.
Suddenly, the wind leveraged its way underneath Kenny’s tent, prying up one of the pegs and sending the men inside scurrying to hold the flapping material down. The men considered making their way to the relative shelter of the low mountains to the west, barely visible through the gloom and rain, but quickly thought better of it. The wind menaced the flimsy, exposed encampment, but being perched on a ridge high above the bay, there seemed to be little threat from the sea.
• • • • • •
Three hundred miles to the northwest, on Thursday Island, postmaster H.P. Beach sat again on his veranda. The night was, if possible, even more oppressive than the last. The sweltering heat and humidity labored his breathing and made sleep nearly impossible, so Beach instead enjoyed the brilliant display of lightning dancing and strobing across the eastern sky.
The waters of the Torres Strait were glassy calm, but the lightning had moved closer than the night before. The storm was heading southwest and, to Beach’s best estimation, looked to come uncomfortably close to the pearling grounds on the far east side of the Cape York Peninsula. Before turning in for the night, Beach headed down to the water to re-check the moorings of his boat, more confident than ever that a devilish storm loomed beneath the far-off display of dazzling electricity.
• • • • • •
Maggie Porter sat at a desk in her cabin aboard the Crest of the Wave, scrawling a letter to her father beneath the flickering light of a kerosene lantern that swung wildly to and fro. Her young daughter rested comfortably in her crib nearby, apparently oblivious to the worsening conditions outside. Maggie retired to her bed at around 10:00 pm but was soon aroused by the careening of the ship as it rode the wild seas.
Above deck, the steady breeze had risen to a menacing gale, whipping the bay into a confused frenzy. Frequent bursts of lightning illuminated the churning waters, flecked with white foam as the wind tore away the peaks of the wave crests. Thunder growled with each discharge, melding with the snarling wind into a constant cacophony that filled the crews’ ears. Rushing below deck to reassure his anxious wife, Captain Porter glanced again at the barometer. The pressure continued to fall, dropping more rapidly as the storm inched nearer.
The skipper returned above deck, ordering his crew to let out more chain and re-secure the small whaleboats that would act as lifeboats in the event of an emergency. Just to the east, Captain Robert Murray ordered the crew of the Sagitta to do the same. Between the two large schooners, Captain Porter could see the much smaller 25-ton Admiral, captained by Marcos Perez, bobbing crazily in the wind-whipped waters. To the south, Captain Edward Jefferson and the Silvery Wave heaved and drifted in a feeble attempt to keep the ship’s bow oriented with the wind and waves. Scattered widely between the schooners, many of the more than four dozen small luggers and their crews already found themselves very nearly overwhelmed by the sudden sea.
Just past midnight, the howling southeasterly gale veered to the south and then to the southwest. Monstrous swells surged irresistibly into the shallow waters near the eastern edge of the bay, their crests whipped to foam and devoured by the winds. Closest to shore, the crew of the Silvery Wave struggled to stay afloat amid the roaring maelstrom. In an act of desperation, Captain Jefferson set out a second anchor and ordered the schooner’s masts to be chopped down. The ship – and her crew of about 20 souls – was left at the mercy of the elements.
With howling winds tearing at the ship’s weathered timbers and the decks awash in crashing waves, Captain Jefferson urged his crew to seek refuge in the deckhouse. Nearby, the Sagitta was having problems of her own. Unable to navigate in the chaos, the schooner drew perilously close to the Silvery Wave. With no hope of controlling the ship, Captain Murray and his crew braced for impact.
A few miles northeast, just off the western tip of Pipon Island, Captain Gustaf Fuhrman had no such fears aboard the Channel Rocks Lightship. The ship was acknowledged to be among the safest in the region, securely chained to the seabed and well-constructed with a thick, watertight steel hull. Despite the howling gale, the lightship’s beacon shone brightly atop its heavy industrial tower, providing some familiar point of reference to the pearlers as they waged their war with the elements.
Meanwhile, past Cape Melville and southeast along the coast, dozens of luggers and cutters were dotted throughout the chain of islands which included the Howicks and the Lizard Island Group. Forty-five miles northwest of the Cape, a further five schooners and 65 luggers were anchored in the shallow waters of Princess Charlotte Bay, near the Claremont Islands.
• • • • • •
To Constable Jack Kenny, the wind seemed to have taken on a life of its own; snarling, poking, prodding at his company’s canvas tents as if to find a weakness within their ridgetop shelter. Sometime after 2:00 am, it found one. With a mighty howl, the wind lifted a peg on the troopers’ tent and sent the whole thing hurtling off into the impenetrable night. The troopers scurried quickly inside Kenny’s tent, but the shelter seemed no less inadequate.
The intense, fitful gale buffeted the exposed tent, but the troopers acted quickly to pounce on the pegs before they could be pulled loose. Rain blasted the canvas, working its way underneath the flaps and soaking Jack Kenny’s sleeping hammock. As Kenny rose to move away from the blowing rain, a large tree limb crashed through the tent, smashing the hammock and nearly pinning Kenny to the ground.
The wind seemed to explode through the wreckage of the tent, shredding the canvas and sending supplies tumbling away. The men could not stand against its force, groping blindly instead over the sodden ground in search of any usable supplies. In the vivid lightning, Kenny identified a large wool blanket. Untangling it from the ruined tent, he signaled the troopers to make their way to an open space on the backside of the ridge. The men huddled together, using the blanket to shelter themselves as best they could against the growing menace. The salty air came in spasmodic bursts, propelling rain, sand, leaves, branches and other particulates like diminutive shotgun blasts.
A few miles to the east, in the reefy waters off Stapleton Island, a small group of pearling and fishing vessels battled the deteriorating weather. The Yunyo, a Japanese cutter, was the first to succumb. The ship, driven by the intense winds and high seas, broke free from its anchor and smashed apart on the reefs. A short time later, the cutter Spray also broke loose of its moorings. The wind and waves forced the ship toward shore, where it became entangled in a dense grove of mangrove trees. With the boat damaged but firmly immobilized, the crew hunkered down and prepared to ride out the storm.
Aboard the Rattler, stationed a few miles to the southwest near Howick Island, Douglas Pitt struggled to maintain control of his small boat. Unable to anchor against the force of the storm, the Rattler broke up and sank just offshore. Pitt escaped the wreckage with his wife, his sister-in-law and his nine-year-old nephew, but it did little to improve their situation. Unable to locate nearby Howick Island in the chaos, the four survivors instead swam into the night in search of the mainland.[b]
• • • • • •
In the captain’s cabin aboard the Crest of the Wave, Maggie Porter was startled by a sudden percussive blast. Another followed, and another shortly thereafter. As she gathered her wits, she recognized them as warning shots, a last-ditch form of communication to alert other ships that had drifted too close during the swirling blackness of the storm.
The gunshots stood out less for their nature than for the fact that Maggie could actually hear them. What was more, Maggie could identify other sounds as well: the shouts of the men above deck, the creaking and groaning of the ship’s planks, the crash of waves breaking over the bulwarks. The growl and din of the wind had finally eased. The ship still rolled and thrashed violently in the wild seas, and Maggie and her young daughter, Alice, were soaked to the bone from a foot of water sloshing about the cabin, but they were alive and unharmed. The worst, it seemed to Maggie, was over.
On deck, the utter blackness of the night was changing. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the darkness eased into a pale, faint predawn twilight. The weather was changing, too. The warring of the elements slowly seemed to abate. The powerful gusts decayed to an eerie stillness. The torrential downpours slowed to steady rain, eventually becoming little more than a gossamer mist. The sea still buckled and swelled like liquid mountain peaks, but the winds no longer howled and whipped the surface to a froth.
Many among the pearling crews breathed a weary sigh of relief, but Captain William Porter knew better. Shuffling quickly below the ship’s decks, he’d intended to reassure his wife and infant daughter. At the bottom of the steps, he lit a lantern and cast its light on the barometer hanging against the wall. The reading showing on the glass stopped the bearded, stern-faced captain in his tracks: the pressure had fallen to an astonishing 26 inches (880 millibars), far lower than anything he – or, indeed, virtually anyone else on Earth – had ever witnessed.[c]
Maggie Porter rushed back to her husband’s cabin, taking their young daughter in her arms and searching frantically for a suitable area in which to brace herself. The look in her husband’s eyes as he glanced at the barometer had told her all she needed to know: their ordeal was far from over, and the worst was yet to come. The floor of the cabin was awash in water, seemingly deeper and saltier than before. The creaking and cracking and sloshing of the schooner was unsettling, but it was soon replaced by something altogether more terrifying. A low hiss at first, becoming a deep, throaty drone rolling in from the ocean like an unending peal of thunder. The tempest had returned to finish its calamitous work.
Rushing above deck, Captain Porter ordered both of the ship’s anchors, and their full lengths of chain, to be let out. Even so, the ship dragged her anchors and turned broadside to the punishing winds, drifting helplessly from the relative shelter of the bay toward the swirling chasm of the open sea. Towering swells rose to improbable heights before breaking against the decks, threatening to swallow the ship and her crew whole.
The captain barked orders at his men, already worked far beyond the point of exhaustion, imploring them to move against the rapidly rising wind and rain. The crew hacked away at the masts and furiously worked the pumps below deck in a seemingly futile attempt to stay afloat. The raging seas tossed and rolled the schooner with ease, nearly throwing it on its beam-ends and threatening to founder it altogether.
On the nearby Silvery Wave, Captain Edward Jefferson and his crew of 16 huddled inside the cramped deckhouse. With the ship dismasted and the anchors dragging the seabed below, the ship’s fate had already been snatched from the young skipper’s hands. The cabin exploded in an instant, its strong wooden beams splintered by the force of the roiling sea rising and sweeping over the decks like a tsunami. Clinging desperately to a broken plank amid the cacophonous storm, a Japanese crew member by the name of Sugimoto watched helplessly as his captain and shipmates disappeared into the blackest night. Within moments, the Silvery Wave herself foundered and slipped beneath the tenebrous waves.
Had Sugimoto, Captain Porter or any of the other sailors bearing the brunt of the storm been able to peer north through the driving torrents and piercing blackness, they’d also have noticed another chilling sign: the nigh-unsinkable Channel Rocks Lightship, the ironclad beacon of light in the tempest’s darkest hours, shone no more.
• • • • • •
Jack Kenny and his men had been huddled in a wet clump for what seemed like hours. They were beyond tired, exhausted from fending off the raking winds as they tore at the exposed hilltop that had once been their camp. The wind, however, was merely a herald of the coming catastrophe.
With no warning, driven by the extraordinary intensity and breadth of the cyclone, the very sea itself rose up and invaded the land. In seconds, it swallowed the 40 feet of elevation and nearly half a mile of scrub brush and sand berms that had separated the men from the turbulent waters of Bowen Bay. The great surge of water swept across the ridge like a raging river, as if the calamitous storm had summoned the entire mighty force of Poseidon upon the area surrounding Barrow Point.
Before they could even react, the men were awash in a torrent of churning water. The swift tide rose by the moment – knee-high at first, then to the waist. As the water continued climbing, the constable and his men found themselves swept along like human flotsam. Reaching the back of the ridge on which they’d made camp, they wrapped themselves around the trunks of the few trees left standing, their gleaming surfaces stripped bare of bark and foliage. They held tightly, dazed and unsure of whether to trust the unreal picture their senses were painting for them.
• • • • • •
As the full force of Mahina descended on Bathurst Bay, few in the pearling fleet remained to ride out her fury. Marcos Perez, an experienced and battle-tested captain who was universally respected for his skill as both sailor and diver, nonetheless found himself helpless at the helm of the Admiral. Overwhelmed by the battering waves, the ship and its crew disappeared into the depths in a matter of moments.
The Sagitta, having drifted freely nearby at the mercy of the sea, collided with the doomed Silvery Wave and was quickly dashed to pieces. Bits of cabins and deck fittings and spars swirled madly as the winds clawed at the broken surface of the bay. The air filled with a mix of spray and torrential rain so heavy that it became difficult to breathe. Nearer the shore, the towering waves flung the lugger Zoe violently against an outcropping of boulders. The crewmen leaped and clambered onto the boulders, where they were soon joined by the lucky few who’d survived their own ships being dashed against the rocks.
Aboard the Crest of the Wave, a massive swell shattered the cabin windows and inundated the vessel. The water rushed into the captain’s cabin, the suddenness sweeping young Alice Porter from her mother’s arms. Maggie groped desperately in the darkness of the wildly pitching ship until she again pulled her baby into her grasp. Soaked and battered to the point of exhaustion, she slumped heavily against the cabin wall and prepared to meet her final moments.
The pitching and tossing of the sea exposed the Crest of the Wave to extraordinary forces, splitting apart the ship’s rudder trunk and causing it to take on even more water. As the vessel slipped lower in the water, Captain Porter again whipped his crew into action. Some men worked the pump while others desperately bailed water with buckets. Finally locating the damaged rudder trunk, Porter’s men clogged up the leak as best they could using blankets, clothing, flour sacks and anything else at hand.
• • • • • •
By daybreak, Mahina’s fury was finally spent. The gale slackened to a stiff breeze. The pelting rain slowly relented. The waters of Bathurst Bay were still volatile and agitated, but the sloshing waves had lost some of their fearsome kinetic power. At last, the crew aboard the Crest of the Wave could exhale. The storm was over. They had survived.
As the first feeble light of dawn filtered through the clouds, however, relief quickly turned to dread. Scanning his surroundings, Captain Porter could see no other ships from the pearling fleet. There seemed to be no masts breaking the horizon, no rigging or sails flapping in the breeze, no signs of life at all. Indeed, what little could be seen floating on the surface of the sea portended a much darker fate: shattered timbers, tatters of canvas and the scattered detritus of domestic life aboard a pearling ship.
With little time to reflect, the captain returned to his family and his crew. Taking stock of the situation, Porter noted that his schooner had sustained significant damage and continued slowly taking on water. It remained afloat and seemed to be out of immediate danger, but it was hardly seaworthy. In any event, the vessel wouldn’t be sailing anywhere without its masts. Resigned to wait until help arrived, the captain and his crew busied themselves by bailing water and conducting what repairs they could.
• • • • • •
Beyond view of the Crest of the Wave, all was not yet lost. Even for the fortunate few who’d survived to see the dawn, though, the situation remained perilous. Many schooners had been carried out to deeper waters before sinking, often leaving crew members two miles or more from the safety of land. Their bodies spent after hours of toiling aboard their ill-fated ships, few could muster the energy to swim to shore. For some, even the scattered debris that littered the surface of the bay could not save them from the pull of the deep.
As the death toll mounted, so too did the danger to the remaining survivors. Even as the mighty cyclone passed, another of the pearlers’ worst fears lurked close behind. The sharks were curious at first, nosing between stranded crew members and exploring the suddenly litter-strewn environment. Nevertheless, as the growing commotion drew more unwanted attention, victims and survivors alike quickly became prey. The first attacks were isolated, but blood in the water signaled that a feeding frenzy was sure to follow.
Across Cape Melville, the indigenous peoples who called the area home began emerging to survey the storm’s wrath. Seeing the peril unfolding in the distance, they raced to the aid of the desperate pearlers. Repeatedly braving the tumultuous, shark-infested waters, they successfully pulled many of the survivors to safety. Tragically, their valiant actions came at a terrible cost. Though no official records exist, it’s believed that more than 100 indigenous people lost their lives.
• • • • • •
Crawling out from among the ghostly, gnarled trunks of the trees near their ridgetop camp, Jack Kenny and his men could hardly process the scene before them. Just as suddenly as it had risen to swallow their encampment, the wind-swept tide had drained back into the angry sea. The howling storm grew quiet, the erratic gusts and torrential downpours becoming little more than occasional squalls.
If the men doubted the surreal experience they’d just endured, the reality of the situation was inescapable. In its wake, the towering storm surge left a trail of destruction that stretched up to three miles inland. The violent winds carved a path of their own, mowing down acres of trees and leaving vegetation near the shore stripped and shredded. Of the crew’s 10 horses, only six could be mustered. Upon searching, the other four were found crushed to death by fallen trees.
The company salvaged what little they could and made ready to return to civilization, but they soon found themselves in a nearly unrecognizable land. Thick forests had become grotesque obstacle courses, littered with boulders and debris and uprooted trees. Local rivers, engorged by the deluge of rain and the unprecedented storm surge, were rendered temporarily impassable. With few other options, Kenny’s crew resolved to make the arduous journey back to Cooktown on foot.
• • • • • •
By evening, help had already arrived for Captain Porter and the Crest of the Wave. Responding to distress signals, a steamer from London named the Duke of Norfolk anchored nearby around 7:00 pm. Sending his wife and daughter on board for food and rest, the captain joined the steamer’s crew in searching for survivors. The search turned up 30 survivors and 32 men who’d already been buried by indigenous locals, along with reports of “many bodies” still floating at sea.
Further to the south, west of Howick Island, Douglas Pitt and his three companions from the Rattler finally drew within sight of land. Waves piled up as they approached the shore, breaking onto a shallow shelf strewn with slippery, jagged rocks and razor-sharp fragments of oyster shells. One by one, the group climbed ashore in between the wave crests. Utterly exhausted and unable to move any further, the survivors collapsed in silence. In all, they swam a remarkable 12 miles in heavy seas to reach the safety of the mainland.
• • • • • •
After more than a week of navigating broken terrain and swimming swollen rivers, Jack Kenny arrived at Cooktown to find that his job was not yet done. News of the calamity had already begun to spread, but little help had been sent and reliable reports were sparse. After a brief rest, the constable was assigned to return to the storm area, assist with the recovery efforts and report his findings to the government authorities.
Even as the disaster at Bathurst Bay began making headlines across the continent, one man who remained blissfully unaware was the person whose job was foreseeing such catastrophes. Clement Wragge, the Government Meteorologist for Queensland, was as confident and unperturbed as ever. He continued to issue anodyne forecasts reassuring the public that Mahina, the disturbance he’d first spotted in the Solomon Sea more than a week earlier, posed little threat to the mainland.
On March 8, Wragge’s analysis suggested Mahina was traversing the Coral Sea, placing it “300 miles south from the Louisiades” – a location hundreds of miles to the east of Cape Melville. On March 9, his charts showed the disturbance drifting even further to the south, seemingly eliminating any threat to Queensland’s shores. From his office in Brisbane, it appeared that everything had unfolded just as he’d expected. The next day, Wragge finally learned of the great cyclone that had devastated the Cape Melville area.
It didn’t take long for the meteorologist and his confident, reassuring forecasts to come under fire. The surviving captains of the pearling fleet, who had trusted and depended on Wragge’s forecasts to keep their crews safe, wondered how he could have possibly missed such an exceptionally large and violent storm. Many others, from his fellow meteorologists to the public at large, had the same question.
For his part, Wragge simply rewrote events to paint a more favorable narrative. It was, by his telling, an occurrence “unique in the annals of the Chief Weather Bureau,” as Mahina suddenly “coalesced with the monsoonal storm Nachon in the heart of Cape York Peninsula.” Furthermore, Wragge claimed, faulty barometers in his observation network gave him bad data and prevented him from tracking the disturbance properly. Such an extraordinary series of events, he protested, was beyond even his formidable prognosticating powers.
In truth, it’s more likely that Wragge was a victim of his own arrogance and stubbornness. Minor mistakes early in the development of the storm, rather than being corrected, were compounded in subsequent forecasts as the famously obstinate meteorologist refused to reassess his assumptions. In the end, the only advance warning of the cyclone’s approach would come from the storm itself.
• • • • • •
As Jack Kenny approached Cape Melville to begin his recovery mission, what he encountered was nearly incomprehensible. From Princess Charlotte Bay to the south of Ninian Bay, a stretch of coastline encompassing more than 40 miles, the devastation was virtually complete. A swath of debarked and uprooted trees, intermixed with jumbled deposits of debris, extended many miles from the coast. Even in the heart of the Cape York Peninsula, the cyclone blew down over 50 miles of telegraph wires and destroyed every building in the little outpost of Musgrave.
Making his way to the coast, Kenny was joined by a government official and trained anthropologist named Dr. Walter Roth. Across the area, the men discovered extraordinary evidence of Mahina’s staggering power. Huge, multi-ton boulders were thrown about and deposited at random. Many of the nearby islands were left pummeled, discolored and “bared of grass.” Where trees still stood, they occasionally found stones embedded into the trunks up to six inches deep.
The pair recovered and buried dozens of bodies during their search, some of them found hanging in the tops of trees. They documented dead sharks and porpoises carried ashore and dropped at heights of up to 20 feet.[d] Near Ninian Bay, Dr. Roth recorded fragments of Aboriginal canoes deposited in treetops that were “fully 70 and 80 feet above water level.” And everywhere they looked – from the rocky shores of the cape to the tops of 40-foot cliffs – they found the scattered wreckage of the pearling fleet.
• • • • • • • • • • • •
A true accounting of Mahina’s wrath may never be possible, but there is little doubt those souls who found themselves in and around Bathurst Bay on March 5, 1899, experienced one of the most extraordinary extreme weather events ever recorded. The final death toll is generally estimated at between 300 and 400, though poor documentation leaves the actual number open to question. It remains Australia’s deadliest cyclone and one of its deadliest natural disasters.
Thanks to the bravery, skill and good fortune of Captain William Porter and his crew, we can also say with some confidence that Cyclone Mahina ranks among the strongest tropical systems ever recorded. Porter was an experienced, well-respected captain and the Crest of the Wave was equipped with a high-quality barometer. His observation of 26 inches of mercury (880.46 millibars) is generally credible and substantiated in his personal communications.
This measurement makes Mahina the most powerful tropical system ever documented in the Southern Hemisphere and one of only 10 in world history to reach a pressure of 880 mb or below. In fact, outside of the hyperactive Western Pacific basin, only one tropical cyclone in recorded history (Hurricane Patricia in 2015 – 872 mb) has reached a lower minimum central pressure than Mahina. According to paleotempestological studies, cyclones of such ferocious intensity strike the Queensland coast perhaps only once every two to three centuries.
Even more remarkable – though also more open to interpretation – is the extraordinary storm surge to which Jack Kenny and his men bore witness. On the evening of March 4, Kenny made camp on a sand ridge that he estimated to be about half a mile from the beach and 40 feet above sea level. As the surge swept inland early the next morning, overtopping the ridge and crashing through the campsite, Kenny described the water as being waist-deep at its peak. This suggests perhaps another two to three feet of height, bringing the total surge to at least 42 feet.
Such a stunning storm surge height is absolutely unprecedented, exceeding anything in the known historical record. The deadliest cyclone in world history, known as the Bhola cyclone, brought a storm surge possibly in excess of 33 feet to the Ganges Delta on November 12, 1970, killing an estimated 500,000 people. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina drove a storm surge into the Gulf Coast that reached 28 feet near Pass Christian, Mississippi. Few other verifiable events even come close. Indeed, the World Meteorological Organization lists the 42-foot surge as a world record.
Not surprisingly, this figure – based largely on Jack Kenny’s personal testimony – has long been called into question. Subsequent contemporary accounts of debris and dead animals being found at great elevations provide additional support, but most physical evidence is long gone after more than a century. The most compelling evidence comes from a 2014 study based on numerical storm surge modeling. Using Captain Porter’s observed pressure reading of 880 mb, computer models suggest a cyclone of Mahina’s intensity could have produced a maximum surge of approximately 31 feet. Combined with tidal effects, wave runup and other factors, however, a total inundation of more than 40 feet may indeed have been possible.
Many questions remain about the events of March 4-5, 1899, but there is no doubting that it remains one of the most extraordinary and violent weather phenomena humans have ever recorded.
^ a: This is approximately true of storms in the Southern Hemisphere. In the Northern Hemisphere, this is reversed and the low-pressure center would be on the left. Because of the effects of friction, changes in the pressure gradient force and other forces, Buys-Ballots law is generally only applicable to low-pressure systems at sea in higher latitudes; on land and at lower latitudes the law becomes less useful.
^ b: There exist several different accounts of the events surrounding the Rattler, including various numbers of survivors, but reliable records are sparse. The four survivors listed here appear most often, but other passengers may have survived as well.
^ c: As with many historical events, specific details are often sparse and difficult to verify. The lowest pressure observed during Mahina’s passage has been variously recorded as either 26 inches (880 mb) or 27 inches (914 mb). The former originates with Captain Porter himself, attested to in a letter written to his parents shortly after the storm and also reported to the captains of several ships sent to aid in recovery. Because Captain Porter is the primary source, I’ve gone with this figure. The lower pressure is also supported by computer modeling of the cyclone and its storm surge.
^ d: Again, accounts offer varying details. Some contemporary reports suggest porpoises were found “at heights of 50 feet,” but that number is likely due to a mistake by a telegraph operator. More credible accounts suggest figures ranging from 15 to 20 feet.
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^ 1: Australian Government. Australia’s Pearling Industry.
^ 3: Townsend, Ian. “Introducing.. Extreme Weather.” Lecture, State Library of Queensland, Queensland, Australia, March 7, 2007.
^ 4: Porter, William, Miranda Field Law, and Garry Law. Recollections of a Voyage to South Australia and New Zealand. Auckland, N.Z.: Maruiwi Press, 2007. (p. 84). Print.
^ 5: “The Late Northern Hurricane.” The Brisbane Courier (Queensland), April 18, 1899.
^ 6: William Field Porter letter to Parents, March 6, 1899.
^ 7: “THE RECENT HURRICANE—A CORRECTION.” The Queenslander (Brisbane), April 1, 1899.
^ 8: Morton, Clive. “Douglas Pitt – Elder and Younger.” Mulgrave Shire Historical Bulletin 9 (1978).
^ 9: “The Late Hurricane.” The Brisbane Courier (Queensland), March 15, 1899.
^ 10: “The Disaster to the Pearling Fleet.” The Thames Star (New Zealand), April 10, 1899.
^ 11: Nott J, Hayne M. High frequency of ‘super-cyclones’ along the Great Barrier Reef over the past 5,000 years. Nature. 2001 Oct 4;413(6855):508-12. doi: 10.1038/35097055. PMID: 11586356.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11586356/