The Deadwater Wreck

Wonnerup Beach presents the casual visitor with a delightful day by the sea, and the opportunity to etch your name in the sand, and Australian history all in the one afternoon.  Perhaps you might discover an ancient shipwreck, and create a new entry in the timeline of Australian maritime history. You may possibly stumble across the bones of Timothee Vasse, and resolve a 208 year old maritime mystery.  You might even just build a sand castle and go home.


The Legend:  Around 1846 a surveyor walking along an estuary east of Busselton, discovered the partially submerged wreckage of a mystery ship. It was located in a shallow estuary, covered by water, sand, and thick seaweed. Described as an ancient vessel of great tonnage, it was of good length with several decks. Some quicksilver (mercury), and silver coins were discovered close to the site. Resting in the still waters of the Wonnerup Estuary, the ship became known as the “Deadwater Wreck”. Local residents once fished from its decks, until it became rotten and unsafe. By the 1870’s it had almost completely sunk into the mud of the Deadwater.      Serious interest in the vessel had to wait until 1910.

Deadwater Wreck.

The "Deadwater Wreck" during the early 1700's.

Unfortunately it was too late. The passage of time, and it’s accessibility to amateur salvage enthusiasts had left no clues. Maritime archaeologists have a rough idea where it is, and a secret file bearing testimony to it’s existence.

The Location:

The Deadwater.

The Deadwater is a still body of water located behind the sand dunes at Wonnerup Beach. You should find it about 10 kilometres east of Busselton. It forms part of the Vasse-Wonnerup Wetland System. The systems two major components are the Vasse and Wonnerup Estuaries. They are no longer true estuaries, as the inflow of seawater is now managed by floodgates. You can think of them more as lagoons. The system regularly supports thousands of local, and migratory waterbirds.  The Wonnerup Inlet is obstructed by a seasonal sandbar. Shifting sands and tides, have altered the appearance of the inlet over the years. The inlet through which the Deadwater wreck entered some 400 years ago, may have been slightly east of its present location. The Vasse-Wonnerup system is very shallow, with the water depth rarely exceeding one metre. However the thick grey mud which surrounds the shore of the Deadwater is more than capable of swallowing an ancient ship.

The "Deadwater".

Wonnerup Beach - The Deadwater is behind the dunes.

Wonnerup Beach.

Wonnerup Inlet.

Wonnerup Inlet.

The muddy shores of the Deadwater.

Perhaps the Deadwater Wreck lies beneath these muddy shores.



Life On Perth examines the main contenders, and gives you the low down, on what went down in the Deadwater all those years ago. We rate your chances of becoming famous, and the probability of what you might discover. We take a fascinating journey into the maritime history of Western Australia. Just a small word of warning. All of our wrecks are protected by special legislation, so please contact the Maritime Museum if you strike it lucky. Otherwise we might have to lock you away, .....never to be seen again.

Portuguese Chinese
Dutch American
French British


Click on a flag to read their story.



Portuguese Flag.

Portuguese Caravel 1521 - 1816.
Fame Factor 9/10
Probability Factor 5/10

Portuguese sailors probably sighted the coast of Western Australia during the 1520’s. The emphasis is on probably.  If you manage to discover a Portuguese caravel from the 1521 expedition of Christopher de Mendonca, we could then say definitely.  Another tenuous Portuguese connection is the voyage of Jorge de Menezes in 1527. It is suggested that he sighted Western Australia, and was associated with the naming of the Abrolhos Island group. The Abrolhos Islands are one of only two Australian place names with a Portuguese origin. Despite these early claims, the earliest known Portuguese wreck on the Western Australian coast occurred on the 26th November 1816. This was fairly late in the scheme of things. It was a Portuguese dispatch vessel called the Correio da Azia. En route from Lisbon to Macau it ran aground on the Ningaloo Reef. Better late than never, though the Portuguese need something much older to authenticate their claims.

A popular Portuguese theory was expounded in Kenneth McIntyre’s 1977 book, The Secret Discovery of Australia, and further developed in Peter Trickett’s Beyond Capricorn (2007). Both authors rely heavily on a continent called “Java la Grande” which appears on a series of 16th century French world maps called the Dieppe Maps. The maps were produced in Dieppe, France by cartographers working from a collection of Portuguese charts which no longer exist. Many Portuguese journals and maps were lost when their repository in Lisbon was destroyed by a major earthquake in 1755.

Peter Trickett believes the "Vallard Map" of 1547, which shows the western coast of “Java la Grande”, is actually a depiction of Western Australia. He achieved a rather striking resemblance of our west coast, by first inverting the map and then realigning sections of the coastline. The realignment was required to correct errors introduced by the French cartographers when they were transposing the original Portuguese charts.

Vallard Map 1547 - Part of the Dieppe series of maps.


Section of the Vallard Map 1547 showing the coast of Western Australia. (Without error correction).

The next question was to determine who was responsible for the Portuguese charts. One name suggested was a Portuguese explorer named Christopher de Mendonca.  In 1521 he departed Malacca with a fleet of three ships to discover Marco Polo’s reputed "Island of Gold".  It was rumoured to be located somewhere south of Java. His orders came directly from the King of Portugal. It is therefore quite possible he explored, and charted the coast of Western Australia.


The first depiction of the Deadwater Wreck?

Geographe Bay is depicted on the Vallard Map, and is referred to as Baye Dangerrosa. Obviously Mendonca considered these waters hazardous. The illustrator of the map has included a drawing of a dismasted ship in the waters of Geographe Bay. Assuming the cartographers had access to Mendonca’s journals, the illustration maybe depicting an incident which occurred en route.  Perhaps this image could be the first depiction of the "Deadwater Wreck".

 Dismasted Ship.


Imagine  locating a lost  caravel  from  Mendonca’s  1521  expedition.  We would have to rewrite Australian history, just because you poked around behind the sand dunes after a swim. To receive the recognition you deserve, you’ll need to retrieve more than a piece of driftwood. Unfortunately one relic does not make a ship. We suggest you dig up the entire caravel, though please ask the Western Australian Maritime Museum first.

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Dutch Flag.

Dutch (United Dutch East India Company) 1602 - 1800.
Fame Factor 8/10
Probability Factor 8/10

On the 15th August 1617, the Dutch East India Company issued a directive to all it’s sailors who rounded the Cape of Good Hope en route to Batavia. The memo was called the Seynbrief. It reduced a twelve month journey down to six months, by instructing their ships to sail south from the Cape of Good Hope, and then be carried forth by strong westerly winds known as the "Roaring Forties".

The old route was pioneered by Portuguese traders, and involved a much longer journey around the Cape of Good Hope, and up the east coast of Africa. A Dutch explorer named Hendrick Brouwer discovered this new course in 1610. Sailors of the era could accurately measure latitude (distances north  or  south  of  the   Equator),  though  had  no

The Seynbrief.

accurate  equipment  to  calculate  longitude (distances east and west).  To confuse matters even more nobody was really sure how far east to sail.  The Seynbrief advised that the eastward journey should be at least 1000 miles.  Some Dutch navigators used the German mile which was about 5358 metres long.  Others adopted the newly extended measurement of 7158 metres.  Eventually somebody would sail too far east, and encounter the west coast of Australia. 


That somebody was Dirk Hartog, who in 1616 officially discovered the west coast of Australia, while commanding a ship called the Eendracht.  This was the first of many Dutch vessels to sight, or land on the west coast. The Dutch had some great adventures along the coast of Western Australia, which can be reviewed in our article on Dutch Shipwrecks. All of the celebrated Dutch wrecks have been discovered north of Perth, though statistically we should be due to find one on the south-west coast.

The Brouwer Route.

The Brouwer Route including the Shipwreck Deviation.


The Seynbrief should have guaranteed that a Dutch vessel would eventually be wrecked in the latitude of the Deadwater. An unidentified Dutch trading vessel would be of the right era, and description to be the "Deadwater Wreck". Unlike the Chinese and Portuguese theories, a Dutch wreck in the Deadwater, never had to be part of a unique expedition of world discovery. It would have just been a regular trading vessel carrying goods to Batavia. Some quicksilver (mercury), and silver coins have been found close to the site. These items further suggest the wreck may have been a trading vessel of Dutch origin.

Between 1694 and 1726 the Dutch East India Company lost three ships without trace, sailing the route from Cape Town to Batavia. No wreckage has ever been recovered, and no survivors lived to tell their fateful tales. It is possible that at least one of these ships may have been wrecked on the Western Australian coastline in the Deadwater.

Pictured here is the recovered stern section of the Dutch ship Batavia which was wrecked in 1629.  This should give you some idea of what to look for in the Deadwater.  Admittedly the Western Australian Maritime Museum spent over 40 000 working hours reassembling it, lost four archaeologists, and suffered six marriage breakdowns.  Still, you'll have to start somewhere.


Some Dutch Candidates For The "Deadwater" Wreck:

Ridderschap van Holland (1694)
The Ridderschap Van Holland disappeared after departing the Cape of Good Hope on February 5th 1694. It belonged to the largest class of the Dutch East India Company’s ships, being just over 45 metres long. It vanished with 325 passengers and crew. Such was the loss of this vessel, that Willem de Vlamingh was despatched in 1696, to search for wreckage and survivors. Commanding an expedition of three ships, he found no evidence of the vessel. His expedition charted much of the Western Australian coastline, and sighted the future location of the City of Perth.

There have been many tales concerning the fate of the Ridderschap van Holland.  One considers the possibility that Madagascan pirates attacked the vessel, and killed the entire crew.  A large Dutch ship was seen moored near the mouth of a river in Madagascar, and cargo observed being transferred to waiting boats.  After two months at anchor, a fierce storm drove the ship ashore.  Pirate stories are often vague, and lack solid supporting evidence.  The Dutch would have not sent a recovery expedition to Western Australia, if they believed these pirate tales.

Fortuin (1724)
The Fortuin disappeared on it’s maiden voyage to Batavia, after departing the Cape of Good Hope on January 18th 1724. Like the Ridderschap van Holland, it was a large vessel.  No wreckage or survivors were ever found.  Another Dutch vessel named the Graveland, left the Cape a fortnight after the Fortuin.  In early April they sighted a derelict Dutch ship floating in the Indian Ocean.  They were unable to identify the ship from the floating remnants, and it remains a mystery to this day.

Aagtekerke (1726)
After departing Cape Town on the 29th January 1726, the Aagtekerke sailed into oblivion. Also a large company vessel, no survivors lived to tell the tale.  It’s route may have wrecked it on the coast of Western Australia, possibly in the Deadwater.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to visualise a Dutch trading vessel being wrecked in the Deadwater. However if you can’t, we have done all the hard work for you (see right). The Dutch theory has been around ever since the first settlers arrived in Vasse during 1838. The settlers even organised an unsuccessful search for the remains of a Dutch wreck in the late 1850’s. One unfortunate treasure seeker was killed in 1855, over an argument about the hidden fortune. The official Receiver of Wrecks, reported that the vessel was evidently ancient, and very large. Just the sort of imagery to fire up the imagination of treasure hunters living in any century. 

Deadwater Wreck for those with no imagination.

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French Flag.

French Exploration 1504 - 1803.
Fame Factor 8/10   (9/10 if you discover a skeleton).
Probability Factor 10/10

Life comes with no guarantees, unless your hunting for the wreckage of a French ship in the Deadwater. We cannot guarantee you’ll find it, but we can guarantee they definitely wrecked a boat there in June 1801. You might even stumble across the skeletal remains of a missing French seaman named Timothee Vasse, and solve a 208 year old maritime mystery. Just the excuse to bring the bucket and spade along for some serious sandcastle action.

French maritime activity along the coast of Western Australia, intensified in the early 1800’s, though possibly had its origins as far back as 1504. This early account was made by French navigator Binot Paulmier de Gonneville, who claimed to have arrived at a land east of the Cape of Good Hope, after have being blown off course by strong winds in his ship the Espoir.  He named this unknown country “Terre Australe”, and stayed there with his crew for six months. In a stroke of bad luck, he lost his ship and journals on the French Atlantic coast during the journey home. He did however recount his adventure to French naval authorities, though without accurate navigational details, the exact location of his landing was never confirmed. Modern historians have proposed he landed on the island of Madagascar, or even on the coast of Brazil. The coast of Western Australia is still a good fit with Gonneville’s description of the journey. The powerful winds he encountered may have been the "Roaring Forties", and his time spent journeying at sea, works out about right for a west coast rendezvous.  Admittedly his opinion of the countryside, was extremely more flattering than those of the Dutch mariners over 100 years later. However the south-west coast is quite fertile during the winter months. Captain Stirling gave it a glowing review to the British Parliament before the first settlers arrived.

While we might take the 1504 landing with a pinch of salt, the first verified French contact with Australia occurred during 1687. Captain Duquesne-Guitton sighted the west coast in the vicinity of the Swan River on the 4th of August 1687. He was en route to Siam (Thailand) to assist in the establishment of a French embassy. We have to wait another 85 years before the French reappeared on the west coast.


The French Annexation of Western Australia (1772)

The French still had a secret ambition to solve the mystery of Gonneville's  "Terra Australes", and claim this vast southern land for France.  In 1771 the King of France, gave his official support for an expedition.  Two ships, the Fortune and Gros Ventre  quietly departed France on 1st May 1771.  After a troublesome journey, the ships were separated during rough seas off Kerguelen Island  in February 1772.  Louis de Saint-Alouarn,  who was in command of the Gros Ventre  continued to sail east, and arrived off Flinders Bay, just to the south of Cape Leeuwin on 17th March 1772.  Not knowing the fate of the Fortune, they updated their charts, and sailed north along the coast of Western Australia.  They  anchored off Dirk Hartog Island, during the evening of 29th March 1772.  Saint-Alouarn had big plans in store for the following day.  On 30th March 1772 he sent a party ashore, and on the northern cliff of Dirk Hartog Island, they claimed Western Australia for France.  An "Act of Possession", was inserted into a bottle, and buried in the sand. Unfortunately they buried it too deep. Relics associated with the annexation were recovered from the sand 226 years later.  By then it was way too late to hand the west coast of Australia back to France.

1772 Annexation Bottle and Coin.

Pictured  here  is  a  French  bottle, and coin recovered in 1998 from Dirk Hartog Island.  It was buried by the Louis de Saint-Alouarn Expedition in 1772.  The French coin was sealed inside the bottle.  Unfortunately, the annexation document was not found.  It may have been eaten by insects, which had entered the bottle during it's 226 years in the sand.  Two early Dutch explorers left dinner plates on the island, as testimony to their landings.  Perhaps further historic kitchenware lies buried beneath the shores of Dirk Hartog Island.

There is a valid reason why the French didn’t follow up on their claim. Saint-Alouarn was actually the second in command of this two ship expedition in search of "Terra Australes".  The commander was Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Tremarec, whose name was always going to be too long for the history books. He captained the Fortune, and upon sighting an island thousands of kilometres from Australia, decided he had hit the jackpot.  After the two ships were separated in rough seas off the island,  he turned back to Mauritius, thinking he had discovered Gonneville‘s  "Terra Australes".  After arriving back in France he confidently claimed to have found  "Terra Australes".  Saint-Alouarn  was far wiser, and continued east to make his formal "Claim of Possession".  Unfortunately Saint-Alouarn died before returning to France.  He never had the opportunity to articulate his journey, so the expedition‘s results were not properly followed up.  Meanwhile, the French had their own distractions at home, which included a revolution, and wars throughout Europe.  If you pick up an atlas today, you will find a forgotten island in the middle of the southern Indian Ocean, called Kerguelen Island.   Saint-Alouarn  received very little credit for his achievements.


French Exploration in the Deadwater Region (1801 & 1803)

In the early 1800’s the French still had faint hopes of pursuing Saint-Alouarn’s 1772 claim. They wanted to establish a convict colony on the south-west coast, though had their plans dashed in 1826, when the British set up a garrison in King George Sound (Albany). The French expeditions of Baudin (1801 & 1803), still demonstrated their intense interest in the region.  It is from the 1801 expedition that you will stand your best chance of discovering a French boat in the Deadwater. Baudin was sent to confirm the discoveries made by Saint-Alouarn nearly 30 years earlier, accumulate scientific knowledge about the region, and chart the coastline. He delivered on all counts. On May 27th 1801, the Geographe commanded by Nicolas Baudin, and the Naturaliste captained by Jacques Felix Emmanuel Hamelin sighted Cape Leeuwin. 

They sailed up the coast, and on June 4th 1801 set anchor for the fourth occasion in Geographe Bay. They were standing just off the Inlet to the Wonnerup Estuary, and in the vicinity of the mysterious Deadwater. The expedition wasted no time in organising landings. From June 4th to June 8th, they transferred many scientists and seamen, between both the ships, and the beach. On June 5th the weather deteriorated, and the seas became violent.


Artefacts from the Baudin Expedition (1801).

Wonnerup Beach - Visited by the Baudin Expedition in 1801.

The Geographe and Naturaliste dropped anchor in these waters.


The Wreck of the Chaloupe. (Search Item 1)

The expedition’s scientists were sent ashore on June 5th in a survey boat called a chaloupe. A chaloupe is a reasonably large, partly decked vessel fitted with one or two masts.



Wonnerup Beach.

Wonnerup Beach.

Dune vegetation - Watch out for angry wasps during summer!

Looking out to Geographe Bay from Wonnerup Beach.


With the scientists now exploring the Deadwater, the chaloupe had the misfortune to be cast ashore in the rough seas. It quickly filled with sand, and was left floundering on the beach. The chaloupe was important to the expedition, so Baudin organised a salvage operation. Carpenters worked overnight, though were unable to recover the vessel. They had to abandon the task, and leave valuable salvage equipment on the beach. Over the years, shifting tides carried the wreck into the estuary. Assuming a visiting American whaler didn't break it up for firewood, the remains of the chaloupe are still out there to be discovered. Perhaps the lost salvage equipment might also be uncovered. 


Did You Know?  A piece of wood from the Naturaliste  still exists today.  Read our article on the Cape Inscription Posts, to find out the full story.


The Scientist's Shelter. (Search Item 2)

Possible location of the Scientist's Shelter.  Wonnerup Beach is just over the ridge.

With the chaloupe wrecked on the shore, the scientists assembled a makeshift shelter behind the sand dunes. They erected their shelter from spars, and sails recovered from the chaloupe. You’ll have to leave your beach towel, and duck behind the dunes to look for this one. In theory it should be somewhere adjacent to the Deadwater. The scientists spent two very cold, and wet nights on the shore, before being rescued by one of Hamelin’s  small boats on June 8th. In their desperation to leave, the scientists left much of their equipment on the beach. The poor guys even had to eat the bird specimens they collected. So keep an eye out for some rusty relics, and the odd loose chicken bone in the sand.

The shelter was erected somewhere against these dunes.  It provided protection from the strong winds blowing across the bay.  The Deadwater is in the foreground, and Geographe Bay can be glimpsed  over the dunes.


The Skeletal Remains of Timothee Vasse. (Search Item 3)

Another small boat left the Naturaliste on June 8th to examine the wreckage on the beach. This excursion was not approved by Baudin. On board was a seaman named Timothee Vasse, who was washed overboard near the beach. Despite attempts to rescue him, Vasse  was never seen again.  He was officially recorded as drowned, though being a strong swimmer it is possible he dragged himself ashore. That night both ships set sail, as they dared not stay in the dangerous waters of the bay any longer. Imagine being alone on Wonnerup Beach in 1801, watching your only hope of rescue sail away. Your clothes drenched in water, your body shaking, and your mind pondering what the local indigenous people had planned for you that evening.  A river discovered by the expedition which flowed into the Wonnerup Inlet, was named in his honour.

Pictured right, are Timothee Vasse's lost sandals recovered in 2009 by Life On Perth.  The Western Australian Maritime Museum does not recognise these sandals, and prefers we wear more suitable footwear when viewing the exhibits.

Timothee Vasse's Lost Sandals!


Timothee's Sandals on Wonnerup Beach.


The Timothee Vasse Walk!

There are many tales concerning the fate of Timothee Vasse. Some say he grew thin, waiting on the beach for a ship to appear. Others suggest he walked to the south coast, where he was rescued by an American whaler. Baudin actually returned to Geographe Bay in 1803, though was unable to locate any wreckage on the beach. Sailing close inshore, the expedition was quite eager to recover the large quantity of lost salvage equipment. Despite their failure, it is still quite possible that a couple of kids playing on the beach, might one day discover the remains of Timothee Vasse.

Wonnerup Beach Trail - First walked by Timothee Vasse in 1801.


Did You Know?  Timothee Vasse came from Dieppe in France.  The Dieppe Maps  which are used to support the Portuguese theory for the Deadwater wreck, were drawn in Vasse's home town.  Even in Vasse's time it was a small, if somewhat slightly undiscovered world.

The Baudin expedition of 1801 has a rather serious implication for the Deadwater wreck theory. None of the scientists or crew reported an ancient wreck in the vicinity of the Deadwater. There could be several reasons for this:

  • The wreck was buried and not immediately obvious.

  • The French were too busy trying to save themselves, so did not notice it.

  • The French chaloupe  became the mysterious Deadwater wreck.

Some people think the chaloupe does not fit the description of the Deadwater wreck.  Descriptions of the wreck became greatly embellished over the years.   With so much variation between the eye witness accounts, it is difficult to establish a clear picture of it's appearance.  For this reason, we should not discount the chaloupe.  The wreck of the chaloupe is not a theory, but a well documented factual event.

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Chinese Flag.

Chinese Junk 1421 - 1423.
Fame Factor 10/10
Probability Factor 0/10

If you discover one of Hong Bao’s lost junks, the Chinese Government will probably keep you in rice for a lifetime. Make sure it’s special fried, as you’ll be joining thousands of other dreamers worldwide, each trying to authenticate Gavin Menzies 1421 Hypothesis. The theory suggests that during the Ming Dynasty the Chinese sent forth a mighty fleet of junks, and discovered the world between 1421 and 1423. As luck would have it, the depleted fleet returned to a politically unstable China, which promptly destroyed their journals, and trashed the junks. With no direct evidence to support the expedition, every unexplained coastal mystery across the world is now apparently Chinese.

This effectively means the coastlines of the world are littered with lost Chinese junks. The Chinese junks of the 1400’s were much bigger than the versions we know today. More than 100 metres long, they dwarfed even the largest European seafaring craft of the day. In reality they were too big, and cumbersome, to navigate the oceans of the world. There is no way an oversized 1421 junk would have been able to enter the Deadwater from Geographe Bay.

Yeah.... sure!

Chinese Junk attempting to enter the Wonnerup Inlet in 1421. 

According to the theory, the Deadwater wreck could be one of Hong Bao’s lost junks. Hong Bao was the mariner who commanded the fleet which landed on the south-west coast of Australia. Another admiral called Zhou Man sailed a fleet along the east coast of Australia.  Some of his junks may have also reached our western shores, after encountering an unusual natural disaster.  A large comet impacted the ocean about 90 kilometres from Zhou Man’s fleet, generating waves 200 metres high. Hundreds of Man’s junks were wrecked on the Australian coastline, with several being carried across the Southern Ocean by the tsunami. These tsunami surfing junks were cast ashore on the coast of Western Australia.  

No Junk Allowed!


Even today junk in the wetland is frowned upon.

You must have an open mind to accept the 1421 hypothesis. They even suggest Chinese mariners settled on Rottnest Island, and established a community around the inland Perth suburb of Helena Valley. No evidence exists to support any of these claims. If you do discover a piece of junk in the Deadwater, do the right thing, and dispose of it thoughtfully.

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USA Flag.

American Whaler 1789 - 1820.
Fame Factor 1/10
Probability Factor 7/10

If you stumble across an American Whaler in the Deadwater, pick yourself up and move on. You won’t be rewriting Australian History with this find, though front page on the local rag should be assured. These guys were chasing the dollar, so will not bring you the same kudos as discovering the wreck of a dedicated explorer. The Americans were very active in the area, and had been operating in the Indian Ocean since 1789. They visited the south-west coast years before the first settlers even arrived. During  the  1840’s  they   frequented  the

Castle Rock.

region in great numbers. During January 1841, there were 17 ships  moored  in  Geographe  Bay,   and most of them were whalers. The American whalers favoured the protected waters beside Castle Rock, as it offered a safe refuge for their ships during bad weather. They would also gather firewood in Castle Bay, and fresh water from wells they dug near the shore.  So popular was the area, that the Castle Bay Whaling Company was established in 1845.


Something scary to find in the Deadwater! No you haven't discovered Timothee Vasse!

A Typical Whaling Ship's Figurehead.

Most of the whalers arrived from Massachusetts, after a long sea voyage lasting about five months. The whaling ships were large vessels, with brightly painted figureheads. With so much whaling activity, it is not surprising that many of these ships were wrecked along the coastline. During a nasty gale on 8th July 1840 three American whalers were wrecked on the same day. The Samuel Wright, the North America, and the Governor Endiciott, each met an untimely demise. The Samuel Wright at 33.5 metres long, was considered one of America’s finest whaling vessels. You can therefore easily imagine an early unidentified American Whaler running aground in the Deadwater, during a wild night in the bay.

Eyewitness accounts of the Deadwater Wreck, suggest it should have been much older than an American Whaler. However, an early whaler wrecked between 1790 and 1810, would have been subject to the daily extremes of the weather, and also penetrated by the shifting mud of the Deadwater. This would have accelerated the aging process, and created the appearance of something many years older. To an untrained observer in 1870, the wreck would have looked decidedly ancient, and almost completely submerged in the mud.



With British settlement many decades away, any survivors probably perished near the shore, and then quietly vanished into history. Family at home would have endured over a year of anguish, before concluding they were lost at sea. Alternatively a small number of survivors may have been rescued by another whaling vessel visiting Geographe Bay. Perhaps they even attempted an ill fated trek to Albany, knowing that a whaling community existed in King George Sound. What we can presume, is that if anyone did survive they were not on the beach for long. Passing whalers, and two French surveys (1801 & 1803) ensured that an opportunity for rescue was intermittently on the horizon.

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British Flag.

British Trading Vessel 1620 - Settlement.
Fame Factor 4/10  (9/10 if it predates 1620)
Probability Factor 2/10


The British always had a preoccupation with the east coast of Australia, and initially showed little enthusiasm for exploring the west. Captain James Cook charted the east coast in 1770, before the arrival of the British settlers at Botany Bay in 1788. Meanwhile, Western Australia remained unoccupied. However the Dutch East India Company maintained a strong presence in the Indian Ocean during the 1600’s, and were actively mapping the west coast of Australia. It therefore seems most unlikely that a wreck as old as the Deadwater, would be of British origin. The British did mount a secret whaling expedition into King George Sound during 1800. They caught three whales, and then left as quietly as they arrived. Only in the early 1800’s, did the British become concerned by reports of a strong French interest, and growing American whaling activity in the west. So in 1826 they established a garrison at King George Sound (Albany), and later proclaimed the Swan River Colony in 1829.  It was only a few years later, that the Deadwater wreck was discovered.

Captain James Cook.

Captain Cook 
Strictly an East Coast man.



Despite their relatively late start in the region, we should not discount the British entirely. They do hold the title of “Australia’s Oldest Official Shipwreck”. Surprisingly they managed to surpass the Dutch, by wrecking a ship on the north-west coast of Australia in 1622. It was a British East India Company ship named the Trial, captained by John Brookes. On the 1st May 1622 the crew of the Trial, recorded the first English sighting of Australia, near present day Point Cloates. Then on the 25th May 1622 at between 10 and 11pm, they were wrecked on uncharted reefs near the Montebello Islands. The reef is now named the Trial Rocks. Captain Brookes and nine other crew escaped the wreck in a small skiff. Thomas Bright and another 35 people managed to salvage a longboat. Independently both groups sailed over 1800 km to Batavia, and then told their tales.

Unfortunately 93 people perished at the wreck site, though some may have struggled to nearby islands. Brookes was a dubious character, and was later accused by Bright of departing the wreck site immediately in his skiff, when he had room for additional survivors. Bright meanwhile filled his longboat to capacity, and had to pull away from the wreck in fear that any further survivors climbing onboard would capsize him. He watched the Trial go down mid-morning the following day. Both boats visited the Montebello Islands en-route to Batavia to search for water. This is the first recorded English landing on Australian soil. Bright stayed on an island for seven days, though Brookes in typical style is more vague on his encounter. William Dampier is credited as the first Englishman to have actually set foot on mainland  Australia in 1688.

The wreck of the Trial  was discovered in 1969, and was properly investigated in 1971. Assorted artefacts, several anchors, and six cannons were located at the site. Nothing raised to date conclusively proves it is the Trial, though circumstantial evidence suggests there is a 99.99% chance it is. Pictured here is a cast iron cannon recovered in 1985. The guncarriage was constructed by museum staff to an English design.   We are 100% sure on that one.

Cannon from Australia's Oldest Shipwreck - Trial 1622.

Cannon recovered from the Trial. 

The Trial collected a tidy bundle of unique historical firsts in Australian history. This can be attributed to some good record keeping, some regretful navigational errors by Captain Brookes, and some survivors landing in Batavia to tell the story. The Dutch still played a silent role in the circumstances leading to the wreck of the Trial. Brookes was actually trying to follow the new route to Batavia, pioneered by a Dutch captain named Brouwer  in 1610.  Rather than sail diagonally across the Indian Ocean from the Cape of Good Hope, Brouwer discovered it was much quicker to sail due east in the lower latitudes, and catch a free ride on the powerful “Roaring Forties”  winds. This was providing you turned north several hundred nautical miles before hitting Australia.

Brookes was not the first Englishman to attempt this journey. Captain Humphrey Fitzherbert  followed the Brouwer route in 1620, on a British East India Company ship called the Royal Exchange. He preceded the Trial  into the waters off Point Cloates, and is sometimes credited for the first English sighting of Australia in 1620. Fitzherbert sighted an island, though it is possible he actually viewed Point Cloates on mainland Australia. Due to hidden features along the coast, Point Cloates was for many years mistaken as an island when viewed from the sea. The jury is still out on this one.  What we do know, is that Brookes blamed Fitzherbert for his misfortune. Brookes followed Fitzherbert’s charts, and was surprised to hit rocks where the maps said there were none. In reality Brookes had sailed further east than Fitzherbert, and had not posted a proper lookout on that fateful night.  Definitely a case of Trial by error.


Shipwrecks can be a hit and miss affair. The Dutch nearly pipped the British in 1622. They had two near misses on the west coast that same year.  The Dutch East India ship Leeuwin, nearly came to grief on the south-west coast during March, at what is now known as Cape Leeuwin.  Another ship called the Wapen van Hoorn actually ran aground on a reef in the Shark Bay region during June. Luckily they managed to refloat the vessel.  However the Trial was the first to hit our shores in a big way, and is now firmly written into shipwreck history.  Unless of course, you discover the Deadwater wreck, and push them all into second place.

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Even if you don’t discover the actual Deadwater wreck, there should still be plenty of relics and flotsam in the vicinity to keep you busy. The 1801 expedition of Nicolas Baudin, left an amazing amount of equipment on the beach. Judging by the number of accounts from local residents, there may be several wrecks in the Vasse-Wonnerup Estuary System.  In addition to the French chaloupe, a wreck of a more ancient origin may have disappeared completely into the mud around 1870. The possibility of it being a Dutch trading vessel carries more credibility, than the Portuguese and Chinese theories. The Dutch theory was first suggested by the early settlers in the Vasse region, and still holds up well today.

Bird life is abundant in the Wonnerup Estuary.


Bird life in the Wonnerup Estuary.

The Portuguese and Chinese theories are founded on more recent ideas, which rely too heavily on unsubstantiated claims. They both manipulate evidence to support their outcomes, and suggest the wreck must be from a landmark expedition of world discovery. The 1421 hypothesis is the most imaginative of them all. As time went by, even the descriptions of the wreck became greatly embellished.  It evolved into a 17th century pirate ship, complete with a poop deck and treasure chest.

You cannot help but feel the history when you walk along Wonnerup Beach today. Hopefully we will one day uncover the true story of the Deadwater Wreck.  For as the world grows older, unrecovered artefacts from the early voyages of discovery, will eventually return to the earth, and be lost forever.


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