THE "BENVENUE "
This ship is actually two ships, but we shall talk about the first BENVENUE. She was one of the smartest clippers made of iron. Launched by Barclay, Curie & Co., in May, 1867, she registered 999 tons. Her dimensions were: Length, 210 feet; breadth, 35 feet I inch; depth of hold, 20 feet 7 inches. She was a very handsome ship, crossing a main sky sail. Her raised quarter deck, which was 34 feet long, and her fo'c'sle-head were on a level with the main rail, thus showing the line of her sheer in its entirety.
During her early years, the BENVENUE was employed almost entirely in the Melbourne trade, in which she competed with the most famous clippers of the day. She was transferred to the New Zealand trade in 1876. Like all the early ships running out to New Zealand, she took her share of passenger and emigrant traffic, and in the late 70's carried many a well-known New Zealander, both in her cabin and her 'tween decks.
Her best known commander was Captain William McGowan, who was nicknamed Mad McGowan by his crew on account of the daring way in which he carried sail. Like most sailor men of the old school, he was a man of very strong personality. His ideas, however, were right up-to-date, especially those that had to do with his profession. In looking after his men he was a long way ahead of most officers of his time, and his interest in their welfare made him popular with foremast hands. Yet if he saw to it that his men were berthed and fed well, he also made them work. In the BENVENUE he used to carry on until the last possible moment. He knew the breaking strain of each rope in his ship, and when he gave the order for sail to be reduced it was not until it was necessary, but it was at such a moment, when the order had been given to shorten sail, that he expected his well fed hands to prove their worth and show their smartness in the matter of seamanship and sail handling.
Captain McGowan was one of the most experienced skippers in the New Zealand trade, but, even though he knew the coast very well, he had more than one narrow escape from shipwreck. One of the ships closest calls was in 1880, when she was bound to Wellington. Tremendous weather was experienced while running her easting down. Captain McGowan carried sail until the last possible moment resulting in overrunning his distance. Thus it happened that during a hard westerly gale, and on a pitch-dark night, it was suddenly discovered that she was running full tilt on to the Snares. All hands were called, and Captain McGowan decided to wear ship round in order to bring the wind on the other side. She was running under a main topgallant sail. When the helm was put up the main topgallant sail and mizzen lower topsail were blown away, along with the mainsail, which was torn out of the buntlines. There was a huge sea running, and as the wind came astern the vessel was pooped and the wheel damaged. As the BENVENUE came to the wind the Snares showed on her lee bow, and it was evident to everyone aboard that it was touch and go whether she would clear the rocks. It is a curious fact, but on such an occasion a sailing ship will often accomplish prodigies of sailing which would be quite beyond her powers under less nerve-racking conditions. There are many instances of this, and old sailors firmly believed that the spirit of the ship fought her hardest to save her crew from drowning. Instances are recorded of ships coming about in half the time that they usually needed in order to scrape clear of rocks or icebergs, and in this case the little ship screwed out to windward in a way which amazed even her captain; and so she went clear; and a few days later, on June 8th, she arrived in Wellington, 94 days out. Her best outward passage was made in 1881, when she made her passage from Gravesend to Port Chalmers in 77 days. On her last voyage the BENVENUE went out to Newcastle, N.S.W. At Newcastle, a cargo of coal was loaded, and she sailed for Timaru, where she arrived a week later on May 5h, 1882.
A week later, while she was discharging her cargo, it began to blow. She had both anchors out on May 13th in very high seas. During the day the worst of the wind began to lessen, but the seas which were rolling in grew steeper and steeper. These seas put a severe strain on the anchor cables. About midnight, with the turn of the tide, which swung the vessels stem-on to the breakers, the sea became still heavier, and several breaking rollers swept over the poop of the ship, bursting in the stem windows and doing other damage. The captain ordered stand-by call for all hands. No sooner were the men aft than an extra heavy comber struck the ship under her counter and broke her rudder, at the same time taking one of the boats off the skids. The seas were now described as "something fearful'. The weight of the breakers, aided by the run of the tide, next caused the ship to fall off into the trough of the sea, where she rolled so badly that the shifting boards in the hold were insufficient to keep the coals in their place, with the result that the 500 tons of coal on board were thrown over to starboard, listing the ship down on her beam ends. While the crew was vainly attempting to trim the coal over to port, the starboard cable parted at the 135-fathom mark.
With great difficulty a third anchor was got ready, on to which a steel hawser was bent. This had hardly been let go when the second cable parted. The ship was now practically adrift, and as she was settling further and further over, in spite of the efforts of the coal trimmers, Captain McGowan decided to get the boats over the side, ready to abandon ship. This job was managed successfully, and just before the BENVENUE drifted into the broken water of the surf the boats left her side. At the same time the abandoned ship slued around and headed directly for the shore, her last anchor having parted. She headed through the breakers as steadily as if she had had a crack helmsman at her wheel, but immediately she struck the shore of Caroline Bay. She was hurled broadside on by the terrific surf, and was soon a helpless wreck. She was too badly damaged at the end of the storm to be worth the expense of floating, and after everything movable had been taken off the wreck, she was sold for the paltry sum of 150 pounds.