Cyclone Yasi devastated North Queensland on the 3rd of February 2011, destroying towns and changing the lives of thousands of people in its wake. Yasi also decimated many of the islands off the coast of Queensland, ripping back the dunes 20-30m and dropping the sand levels 5-10m, leaving the beach itself wider and more exposed than it had been in more than a hundred years. Yet, Yasi had uncovered something wonderful. Local anglers Phil Lowry, David Pearson and Denis King spotted the outline of a shipwreck visible in the sand at Ramsay Bay, Hinchinbrook Island (The Queensland Cabinet Ministerial Directory (QCMD) 2011:1; Townsville Bulletin 3 September 2013).
There were five possibilities for the identification of this shipwreck and the probability of positive identification was murky. Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection’s (DEHP) principal heritage investigator Paddy Waterson and his team, with Museum of Tropical Queensland’s then maritime archaeologist and curator Ed Slaughter, investigated the wreck, took wood samples and, along with colloquial misinterpretations, Belle was identified (QCMD 2011:2).
Fast forward two years and you arrive at a couple of weeks ago. In preparation for North Queelsnad weather and to get our hands dirty, five students (Chelsea Pasch, Kurt Bennett, Daniel Petraccaro, Jane Mitchell and myself), a Flinders University archaeologist and supervisor (Debra Shefi), and three Queensland Heritage staff (Paddy Waterson, Amelia Lacey and Ed Slaughter) ventured to Hinchinbrook Island.
It was clear that a catastrophic event had occurred on Hinchinbrook Island. The sand dunes had obviously receded and left trees at odd angles, while dead trees lay on the beach where they once stood. A lot of flotsam had collected and was pushed up onto the beach, including fishing floats, eskies, timbers and even airplane landing wheels.
All that we could see that indicated there was anything of interest were 2 iron wheels poking just above the sand, 1.975m apart, suggestive of a pump (Paddy Waterson, personal communication 2013). We used GPS coordinates from the 2011 survey to pinpoint the wreck itself and ground truthed to establish that we had the correct spot. There are no two ways about it: this was quick and dirty archaeology due to time constraints of daylight and intertidal zoning.
There were several goals for the Belle fieldwork that Queensland DEHP wanted to achieve. These included:
- Travel to the GPS coordinates from 2011
- Understand how much sand was now covering the site
- Ground truth the GPS coordinates if the wreck was covered
- Try to ascertain if a pile of cable or chain was associates with Belle
- Metal detect and probe the site (Waterson 2013:3)
- Key targets to be excavated, recorded, mapped and re-covered
- Excavation of the stern port quarter to determine if wreck was salvaged and/or suffered historic damage (Waterson 2013:3)
- Metal detect and probe South of Belle at 2011 GPS coordinates to determine if an identified debris field is associated with Belle and determine what is actually there (Waterson 2013:3)
Days 2 and 3 of fieldwork were devoted to Ramsay Bay, Belle and the south extension debris field (SEDF). On the 9th of July, we left camp and took a boat through the mangroves of Hinchinbrook to Ramsay Bay and walked north to Belle. Normally, Queensland has lovely weather compared to Adelaide this time of year. Let me tell you a little story of rain, winds of 20-35 knots and grey, Melbourne-esque skies. Ramsay Bay is also very exposed and south east winds whip across the beach, collecting sand and making it ripple like waves on its surface.
We excavated a number of frames and the bow of Belle with the break in the bow clearly visible under the 38cm of sand covering the site. Mr Waterson confirmed that this had not changed much since 2011. A pile of chain or cable was also excavated, and this in now thought to be cable un-associated with Belle wreck itself but it might have been used in the salvage of Belle.
Day 3 was spent metal detecting, probing and excavating the SEDF, which is about 350m south of Belle. Only a small amount of timber was noted on the excavated iron remains. Five trenches in total were excavated and these revealed:
- Trench 1- circular rings attached to square rings of the same size. Hypothesised to be used for logging.
- Trench 2- long cylindrical iron, possibly piping
- Trench 3- narrow cylindrical iron, possibly railing or cable
- Trench 4- very small piece of narrow cylindrical iron, possibly railing or cable
- Trench 5- iron fly wheel rod and gear
There are two hypotheses for the SEDF:
- The SEDF is not linked to the Belle site as the iron and metal objects were dumped by timber salvers either at one event or over a period of time.
- The remains are linked to a mast either of Belle or a more contemporary wreck (Debra Shefi, personal communication 2013).
Belle and its Demise
Belle was a 30m brigantine sailing vessel of 197.87 ton, built in 1865 in Prince Edward Island, Canada. Soon after construction, Belle was transporting goods to and from Adelaide and Newcastle. After being sold in 1872, Belle was sold again in 1875 and began operating out of Melbourne, occasionally taking supplies up to Far North Queensland and returning with cedar from the Daintree (The Queensland Cabinet Ministerial Directory 2011:3).
Another vessel, Merchant had been wrecked at Ramsay Bay with a load of cedar on-board and two other vessels had been engaged and wrecked while attempting to salvage the cedar from Merchant. Unfortunately for Belle, the same fate awaited on the 26th of January 1880, while attempting the cedar salvage, as a gale drove the ship ashore and the vessel wrecked. No lives were lost and all were rescued from the beach (Australian National Shipwreck Database 2011).
Belle is a good example of a shallow-hulled Canadian built trader sailing Australia’s coast. Its wrecking gives us an excellent insight into secondary and tertiary salvage according to what the colony needed at the time and the advantages and disadvantages of a mid 19th century brigantine. Certainly, there is more research to be done on the SEDF and its possible links to Belle, but also into the salvage practices of those companies charged with the task. Belle is protected under the Historic Shipwreck Act 1972.
Australian National Shipwreck Database 2011 View Shipwreck- Belle. Electronic document, http://www.environment.gov.au/shipwreck/public/wreck/wreck.do?key=2227, accessed July 4, 2013
Department Environment and Heritage Protection (DEHP) 2011 Shipwreck Heritage: The Belle. PowerPoint on file at Department Environment and Heritage Protection, Queensland
The Queensland Cabinet Ministerial Directory 2011 Media Statements: Mystery wreck uncovered by Yasi now has a name. Electronic document, http://statements.qld.gov.au/Statement/Id/76364, accessed July 4, 2013
Waterson, Paddy 2013 Hinchinbrook Field Practicum 7-15 July 2013: Information for Participants. Document on file at Department Environment and Heritage Protection, Queensland
Wolf, Kenneth Baxter 2009 Wolf family history: From Württemberg to California. Electronic document, http://pages.pomona.edu/~kbw14747/wolftree2.htm, accessed July 4, 2013