While we are very fortunate that the prolific letter writer Allan Hughan has left behind evidence of what occurred on his schooner's last ever voyage, there are still some elements of the story that have not been clarified, and therefore some assumptions have had to be made by me, Allan's great-great-great niece, almost 140 years later.
For example, from a letter published in the Brisbane Courier following the wreck of the Pilot, we can pinpoint the approximate date of the schooner sailing from Gladstone as Saturday, July 30, 1870, and work out from this starting point the dates on which specific events occurred on the voyage.Using a calendar from 1870 and the newspaper article, all events have been allocated a date and fortunately everything correlates. Unfortunately, using the shipping news as published in the Brisbane Courier, I can find no record of the exact date the Pilot left Gladstone. I am very confident of the dates used by me in this report, and if they are in fact proven to be incorrect, the error of margin would not be greater than a day or two.
Also, it is unknown whether or not Allan's wife Phoebe and two daughters, Ruth and Minnie, were on board the Pilot on this ill-fated trip. There is no mention of them in the letter published in the Brisbane Courier, but in another letter written by Allan for publication in the Sydney Morning Herald in November of 1870, he writes " Of Captain Vollet and Lieutenant Ternet of H.I.M.S Gazelle, I cannot speak in high enough terms.Their extreme kindness and attention to my family and self, whilst conveying us from the coast of New Caledonia to Noumea, was beyond praise, and could not be exceeded in delicate politeness and sterling worth."
This insinuates that his family were indeed on the Pilot when she struck the reef, but earlier in the same letter Allan had written "Cast away on a sunken reef, at the north end of New Caledonia, my crew and myself were in a most helpless condition..."- here there is absolutely no indication that his wife and daughters were on board.
Ruth, the elder daughter, would have been about nine years of age, and little Minnie was almost exactly 3 and a half when the Pilot was lost...it would have been a terrifying experience to have such a small child underfoot on board a ship, let alone one that was stuck on a reef and sinking!
I will start the tale of the Pilot's last trip with what I DO know to be true...that on Saturday, July 30, 1870 ( or thereabouts!!), the Pilot set sail for Puebo, New Caledonia, with a main cargo of 36 head of cattle,307 sheep and one horse. Allan Hughan was captaining his vessel himself, after having hired Edward Augustus Flynn earlier in the year to captain the Pilot from New Caledonia to Sydney.
The Brisbane Courier reported that the "Wind and Weather" for Gladstone on July 30 and 31, 1870, was: "30 degrees, 9 a.m, calm and dull". There was most likely no indication of the terrible conditions that the Pilot would sail into before much time had passed.
I will use Allan Hughan's own words to describe what happened on the voyage, interspersed with my notations of day and date.Following was published in the Brisbane Courier on Monday, October 17, 1870:
" THE WRECK OF THE PILOT.- Captain Hughan has forwarded a letter to Mr. Friend, from which we (Gladstone Observer) glean the following particulars:-
"The voyage from Gladstone to New Caledonia was an eventful one. The first night (Saturday, July 30, 1870)we had a strong breeze.For two hours after I went below for a little much-needed rest, the vessel was kept under full sail, against my distinct orders.
When I came on deck, I took the sail off, but too much mischief had already been done to the cattle. I put the vessel round for Gladstone, but by noon next day (Sunday,July 31)the weather was so fine that we resumed our course.
That night a fearful gale set in. For thirty six hours after clearing Lady Elliot Island Light ( about 95 imperial miles from Gladstone in a direct line), we were hove-to.(NOTE: When a sailboat is set in a “hove- to” position, she slows down considerably and keeps moving forward at about 1 to 2 knots, but with a significant amount of drift. The drift creates some turbulence on the water, and that disturbance decreases significantly the sea's aggressiveness. The pounding felt when going upwind in strong seas almost miraculously disappears and the boat does not heel as much.)
The boat was washed away. The horse I had to shoot and cast overboard, owing to the battens on the floor of his box getting loose, each being fastened by only three short nails; the storm was too severe for us to get him up after the many times he had been down; we tried all sorts of make-shifts, and put on fresh battens as well as circumstances would allow, but in vain.
Several of the largest cattle died, and about forty sheep.
The vessel behaved nobly, shipping little water, but the last night of the storm the weather looked more and more threatening, and I thought we should probably founder before morning.
Fortunately, when all seemed most unpromising, the weather suddenly moderated, and continued to do so through Monday night (August 1), the sea, however,remaining high for several hours.
From that time till we sighted land on the tenth day( Monday,August 8), the weather was rather too fine., and we were doing far better with the stock than I could at one time have hoped.
When within ten miles of the Pass through the reef, a two days' calm set in.( August 9 and 10) I was able to keep the vessel clear of the reefs, and... (one line missing from paper)... set in, we got well through the Pass,(August 11) and were weathering Yande Island, deep, clear water all round, so the look-out said.
I was in the very act of tacking, the helm was down even, when "Reef, reef" was shouted, and we grounded very gently; the dazzling effect of the sun's rays on the water, prevented the reef from being seen till we were on it. Had I commenced putting the ship round half a minute sooner, all would have been well; an even when aground, no harm would have ensued, could we have got a kedge out, but our boat had been washed away.
A raft proved useless in the heavy swell; the wind freshened abeam, and when in half an hour the vessel backed a little, we only got into a worse position, the shallowest water being from 50 to 100 yards on our lee.
Two hours later the vessel partially filled, having four feet in her at high water.
Next morning ( Friday, August 12) we were making rafts to save our lives, the island being three miles away, when, to our deep gratitude, a boat put off to us, manned by blacks, the only white resident of the island being absent.The high wind and sea would have left us little chance on a raft, but here was rescue and assurance that the natives were friendly, and an Englishman near.
By evening next day(Saturday, August 13),all the sheep, our valuables, food etc were saved, but the poor cattle were still in the water.
On Sunday ( August 14), we could not board the wreck; on Monday (August 15) we got all the cattle on deck, and swam two ashore, but I had to kill one of these."
Captain Hughan goes on to speak of the kindness he received from Mr George Slade, the Englishman referred to, who worked himself and placed his boat and crew of Sandwich Islanders at his disposal.
On Thursday ( August 18, although another newspaper report states that it was in fact Sunday, August 13), the Challenge anchored at Yande, and Captain C.H Linklater agreed to take the stock to Puebo, sixty five miles distant, for fifty five pounds.
The Commandant of the station and a Mr Henry were also very kind. twenty head of cattle and 220 sheep were landed; the vessel sailed from Gladstone with 36 cattle, 307 sheep and 1 horse; the losses were therefore 16 cattle, 87 sheep, and the horse."
This is where the newspaper report leaves Allan Hughan- safe but still stranded on Yande Island.Thankfully, once back in Sydney, Allan writes to the Sydney Morning Herald and takes up his story where his letter to Mr. Friend left off.