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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 20, 2006

Wreck's discovery revives unusual survival tale

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

The Dunotter Castle, which sank on the reef off Kure Atoll 120 years ago, remains surprisingly intact 25 feet below the surface.

NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program

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The ocean has revealed a secret 120 years old on the most remote island in the Hawaiian chain. In July, state workers happened upon the wreck of the full-rigged ship Dunotter Castle, vintage Falls of Clyde, in 25 feet of crystal clear water off Kure Atoll, the last island beyond Midway.

The wreck made headlines in 1886 after seven survivors sailed 52 days and 1,200 miles in an open boat and were picked up off Kaua'i. A voyage to rescue crew members remaining on Kure set out the next day via the steamer Wai'ale'ale.

King Kalakaua himself came down to see the Wai'ale'ale off. The ship carried an artist, lumber to install a shelter with water catchment for future castaways on Kure, and a flag to claim the island for the kingdom.

Today, underwater archaeologist Hans Van Tilburg, who was at Kure with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says Dunotter Castle is the best-preserved wreck of a 19th-century ship he's ever seen.

"Where else would you find a 120-year-old ship on the bottom with so much intact that hasn't been carried off?" said Van Tilburg. "We've dived on 19th century vessels before but we see only portions. Here we see the bowsprit, anchor, hawse pipe, windless, capstan, ladders, hatch combing, rudder and 258 feet of hull. It reminded me of the Falls of Clyde sitting on the bottom."

One reason so much is left of the wreck is the remoteness of Kure, Van Tilburg said. It's difficult and expensive to reach. Part of why the wreck has not been discovered until now is that 30-foot waves sweep across the area during much of the year. The wreck was found by chance on a calm day when the staff of the state wildlife refuge, headed by Cynthia Vandelip, was returning across the lagoon in a small boat.

Van Tilburg said the team looked down and spotted the wrecked vessel.

"They radioed my NOAA team on the other side of the lagoon and said we might be interested in taking a look. They sounded excited," he said. "We were investigating two other wreck sites, the whale ship Parker and the USS Saginaw. I immediately guessed that they had found the Dunotter Castle."

He said storms have carried away all the wooden portions of the vessel, including the officers' quarters aft. What remains are the wrought-iron hull, heavy machinery and masts. The hull has fallen open. Tilburg said the wreck is home to huge schools of fish. Octopi hide beneath the ship from ravenous ulua.

The Dunotter Castle sailed from Sydney for lower California with a crew of 28 and a cargo of coal on June 9, 1886. Because of a faulty chronometer, she struck the reef at Kure on July 15. By noon the next day there was 23 feet of water in the hold. The crew landed what water and provisions they could on shore and set up camp.

Kure Atoll was a barren sandpit. The only water was a few brackish pools. The survivors found evidence of past wrecks on the island, the most famous of which was the USS Saginaw in 1870. The Saginaw had gone to Kure to aid another shipwrecked crew.

On July 24 the first mate of the Dunotter Castle, the boatswain and five of the crew set out for help in a lifeboat with 28 days' provisions and 283 gallons of water. The first land they sighted after more than a month was Necker Island, but they couldn't get closer than four miles. Next, the survivors attempted to make a landfall on nearby Bird Island, but they saw that it was bare rock with no water.

By this time, they had been three weeks on half rations. From Aug. 23 to Sept. 1 they lived on one biscuit and a pint of water a day.

Fifty-two days out, the men sighted Kaua'i, at Kalihi Wai near Hanalei. Starved, parched and weak, they were unable to come ashore through the surf. Hawaiians spotted the helpless sailors, came out in a canoe, brought them ashore, fed them and took them to Hanalei, where they found the small interisland steamer Makee.

Word of the shipwreck reached Honolulu on Sept. 10, 1886, when the Makee stopped at Wai'anae for cargo. By the time the survivors reached Honolulu, they had created a sensation and a minor international incident. Since the Dunotter Castle flew the British flag, the British commissioner in Honolulu chartered the steamer Wai'ale'ale for a rescue mission. Rumor had it that the commissioner intended to claim the island for Britain.

Hawaiian monarchy officials in Honolulu tried to charter another steamer to claim the island first, but there were no other ships available. A crisis was averted when the British commissioner, Major James Hay Wodehouse, agreed to share the cost of the charter with the Hawaiian government and permit the Hawaiian flag to be raised on Kure.

When the Wai'ale'ale arrived at Kure, the rescue team found the island deserted. A note in a bottle fastened to a post explained that all remaining survivors had been picked up by the ship Birnam Wood en route from Hong Kong to Valparaiso. They left behind a tent, scattered equipment and a barrel well sunk in the sand with drinkable water at the bottom.

Then Col. James Harbottle Boyd, special commissioner to Kalakaua, took possession of the island for the kingdom, and the Hawaiian flag was raised to three cheers. The rescue team put up a wooden one-room house with a tin roof and water catchment, and planted coconut palms. The house remained standing for years.

Van Tilburg said he will give a lecture about Kure Atoll shipwrecks, with color slides and underwater video, at the Hawai'i Maritime Center on Sept. 29. The lecture will feature the Dunotter Castle wreck but will also cover the Saginaw and the Parker wrecks.

Reach Bob Krauss at 525-8073.