Wreck of the clipper ship Wild Wave

Interesting research related to Maritime Maine
By Charles H. Lagerbom | Apr 15, 2021
Courtesy of: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London This image of an oil painting depicts The Mutineers turning Lt. Bligh and part of the Officers and crew adrift from His Majesty's ship the Bounty, 29th April 1789.

While researching Maine-built ships that rounded Cape Horn, I came across reference to the clipper ship Wild Wave and its dramatic wreck near Pitcairn Island. That island is famous from the story of the HMS Bounty and its infamous mutiny led by Fletcher Christian. I have always wanted to go visit the place. So, a Maine connection with Pitcairn? Awesome!

In 1854, G.H. Ferrin launched Wild Wave in Richmond, Maine. The 1,547-ton clipper was designed and modeled by William L. Hanscom, naval constructor at Portsmouth’s Navy Yard. It was built of white oak.

Owned by Benjamin Bangs, its port was Boston. Wild Wave was considered a “particularly handsome ship, of a fine model for speed and carrying capacity.” Its only master was Capt. Josiah N. Knowles of Brewster, Mass. He sailed the medium (or half) clipper for four years, engaged in miscellaneous trade.

In August 1855, Wild Wave departed Gravesend for Callao, then on to the Chincha Islands off South America to load 1,600 tons of guano, then to Genoa. It arrived in Italy in February 1856, covering 25,000 miles in 198 days. Another guano run left Callao for Havre and arrived off Plymouth only 70 days out, a best time that has not been equaled before or since.

Wild Wave made its 1857 California run in 140 days, 20 of those spent in heavy Cape Horn weather. Off the Horn, its main topgallant mast was carried away, as well as two top-sails split.

In February 1858, it sailed in ballast from San Francisco for Valparaiso, Chile, with a crew of 30 and 10 passengers. On March 5, while sailing along at 13 knots, the lookout reported breakers ahead. At the same moment, Wild Wave struck the top of a coral reef. Terrific surf broke over both reef and ship; immediately all three masts went over the side. The surf was strong enough to toss around the deck big sheets of copper torn from the ship’s bottom by the coral.

In less than five minutes, Wild Wave had bilged and was full of water. At daybreak, Knowles discovered they had struck a circular reef about two miles off the uninhabited island of Oeno. The reef area they had hit was smooth; otherwise they most likely would have quickly torn out the bottom of the ship and probably gone down with all hands. Knowles noted the island, as indicated on his chart, was really 20 miles from its correct position, a cartographic mistake which now had cost him the ship.

Oeno Island is a low atoll located 76 miles northwest of Pitcairn Island. With a 600-yard-wide reef, it is less than a mile long, covered with low brush and thousands of land crabs that hide in shells and coconut husks and can bite deep, with claws like a lobster.

The crew hauled provisions through the surf and erected two large tents on the beach, one for ship officers and passengers, the other for crew. Plenty of water and seabird eggs as well as good fishing were found. There were also plenty of rats, rodent survivors of an even earlier shipwreck, the wooden debris and remains of which could still be seen.

Knowles figured they could sail one of their ship boats to Pitcairn Island, he thought to be 20 miles to the south; in reality it was nearly 80 miles. The mate Bartlett and five others went with him. They took along several live seabirds to be used as potential carrier messengers between the two parties. The 2nd mate remained behind.

On his way past Wild Wave’s wreckage, Knowles retrieved $18,000 in gold from the strongbox, which had weighed heavily on his mind. After a few days, they sighted Pitcairn Island, today’s least populous national jurisdiction in the world. In 2020, there were 43 inhabitants, mostly descendants from nine HMS Bounty mutineers and Polynesian islanders.

Pitcairn had first been sighted in 1767 by a British sloop and named after Robert Pitcairn, a 15-year-old crew member midshipman who had first sighted the island. He was the son of Marine Maj. John Pitcairn, who was killed eight years later at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Unable to make it to Pitcairn’s best landing site at Bounty Bay, Knowles found a place to beach their boat on the island’s far side. They then had to cross the island’s mountainous interior to get to a small settlement that had been started by Bounty mutineers. Knowles found the place abandoned, no one around. The Bounty inhabitants had earlier migrated to Norfolk Island, 3,300 miles away.

Their boat in the meantime was smashed to pieces by high surf, leaving nothing but a mast and a sail. Knowles and his men lived off goats, coconut milk and chickens from the abandoned settlement, as well as an occasional wild hog. They also began building another boat, making use of some old tools from the Bounty that they had found.

The men felled trees with rusty axes but had no saws to use. As a result, planks and timbers had to be hand-hewn. Some metal was scavenged by burning a few structures for nails, but Knowles also had to make do with many wooden pegs. They spent several rainy days crowded in the small, decrepit island church structure, tediously picking oakum from old ropes. Creating a rope walk, they were able to put together 45 fathoms or 270 feet of cordage!

By June, the hull of the 30-foot vessel was done. They used an old anvil for an anchor and a beat-up copper kettle for a stove. They even stitched together an ensign with red hangings from the church pulpit, white strips of an old shirt and blue pieces from a pair of tattered overalls. Knowles christened the little schooner John Adams, after a former Pitcairn inhabitant and Bounty mutineer.

They salted goat meat for the voyage, fashioned old barrels into water casks, wrote letters to leave behind, and on July 23 launched the vessel for Tahiti, 1,500 miles to the north. Three decided to remain behind. After 11 days at sea, Knowles reached the Marquesas, but war-like islanders caused them to continue toward Nukahiva.

Arriving Aug. 4, they decided that if there was no vessel there, they would then continue on to the Hawaiian Islands. As they rounded the headland, they saw the U.S. Navy sloop-of-war Vandalia at anchor, the only vessel in the harbor. And they were preparing to leave.

“So great was our joy that we were unable to speak for some time but could only sit and look at this, the first ship we had seen since leaving San Francisco six months before, and this one flying the stars and stripes.”

They were saved. Vandalia sailed for Oeno Island and found everyone there safe, except one who had died. The Oeno survivors had tried to build a boat from Wild Wave remains but had built it too large to be launched. Vandalia then sailed to Pitcairn for the three who had decided to remain behind there.

Capt. Knowles sold John Adams to a missionary for $250, hating to let it go. Fourteen years later in February 1872, on his way from San Francisco to Liverpool, Knowles stopped once again at Pitcairn Island.

“Went into my house. It looked as natural as could be. Everything just as I left it — the table I ate off all the time I was there, was in the same place as I left it.”

Upon leaving the sea after a long, successful maritime career, Josiah Knowles engaged in business in San Francisco, where he died June 10, 1896. Pieces of the Maine-built Wild Wave can still be found along the shore of tiny Oeno island, deep in the southeast Pacific. There are other Maine connections with Pitcairn Island; more on that later!

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of "Whaling in Maine," available through Historypress.com.

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