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The hazards of Lord Howe Island

Jan 1, 2003

Lord Howe Island is 5 1/2 miles long and just a few wide, a speck in a windy part of the Tasman Sea, but despite its smallness, has had its full share of wrecks.

Maritime Heritage, New South Wales, Australia, lists 23 of them and points out that the sunken remains form part of Lord Howe's heritage and are interesting dive sites.

The Lord Howe group also includes Elizabeth and Middleton reefs, 100 nm to the north, extensive, almost entirely covered at high water and, of course, unlit. Historically, scores of wrecks in this area went unreported or were given brief mention: "Unidentified yacht, Middleton Reef."

On the east coast of Lord Howe is a number of islands and a scattering of rocks, among them Wolf Rock, on which the British Royal Navy destroyer Nottingham recently came to grief. Wolf Rock is linked to Mutton Bird Island, a mile to its north, by what the Admiralty Pilot describes as "very foul ground." It probably got its name from the whaler, Wolf, which foundered there in 1837, spewing out 1,700 barrels of whale oil.

North Pass is the recommended entrance to the lagoon on the west side, where visitors' moorings have been put down, but so many yachts have piled up here that the harbormaster, Clive Wilson, MBE, insists that all vessels call him on VHF before entering.

A man who had a spot of bother on his visit was Sir Francis Chichester, an aviator at the time and attempting the first-ever east-west, solo trans-Tasman flight in his de Havilland Gipsy Moth biplane. Refueling stops were scheduled to take place at Norfolk Island and Lord Howe. He was navigating with a sextant with a notepad strapped to his knee. To see both the sun and the horizon at the same time, he had to bank the little plane and manipulate the control stick with his elbow while he adjusted his sextant and timed his sight.

n his approach to Lord Howe, the plane began to vibrate alarmingly and, one by one, his instruments went haywire.

Thick clouds closed in and icy rain splashed into the cockpit. His chances of finding the speck of island were minimal, but through a break in the cloud he got a split-second glimpse of Ball's Pyramid, a vertical-sided rock a few miles south of the island. He found the lagoon and landed safely on the beach.

A typically windy Lord Howe night followed. At dawn, he walked to the lagoon. Only the tailpiece of the plane was showing; the wind had flipped it over.

He decided to salvage what he could and ship the bits to Sydney, but locals helped strip the engine and suggested that the fuselage and wings could be repaired on the island, despite the fact that it was the first plane they'd ever seen.

Three months later, after hours of painstaking work, Chichester was able to taxi across the lagoon and take off.


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