Annie and the Shipwreck
‘Bin or keep?’
Annie glanced up. Harry was waving a faded newspaper cutting on which sailed a minute ship dwarfed by a seething ocean. On Harry’s lap lay a carefully folded blanket.
Annie’s whole body tensed. She felt as if a shadow had crawled into the dusty attic and was now sitting right beside her son – a shade risen from an old grave.
‘The S.S Georgette,’ read Harry, his eyes squinting at the fine black and white print. ‘It’s about a shipwreck, Ma.’ There was a question in his voice.
‘It was a long time ago,’ said Annie. Her mind reached back to a time when they had lived in Australia, before the long sea crossing to America and a new life. ‘You were just a baby, Harry. Six months old.’
Harry heard the catch in her voice and looked up.
The floorboards beneath Annie’s feet seemed to shift, rising and falling as she recalled events she had buried deep in the past.
‘You and I were on our way to meet Papa,’ she said quietly. ‘The steamship was nearing the south-west tip of Australia, making its way from Fremantle to Adelaide.’
30 November 1876
‘Wake up, Miss.’
Annie’s eyes fluttered opened. The cabin boy, James Noonan, was standing over her, his hair lit by the lantern in his hand. ‘All passengers are to come on deck. It’s the ship, Miss.’
Annie sat up too quickly and the cabin spun. She immediately felt sick, her stomach rolling and heaving in the ocean swell.
‘Hurry now, Miss. Captain’s orders.’
Gently, so as not to wake Harry, Annie slid out of their bunk, hugging the baby to her chest. Barefoot and clothed in nothing but an old dress she hurried after the young sailor. A hand clutched at her sleeve. It was Mrs Dickson, and the young woman’s eyes were wild.
‘They say we’re taking in water, Annie. The men have been asked to help bail. There’s a leak in the hold. I’ve heard it said we’re sinking.’
‘But the pumps,’ began Annie. ‘Surely -’
‘Not working, Miss.’ The cabin boy hurried them on.
A fierce breeze whipped hair into Annie’s eyes as they clambered up onto the deck. Everything was cold and dark. When James turned to leave, Annie grabbed him by the arm. ‘Fetch the baby a blanket, James. Please. He’s cold.’
Around them, a long line of men was passing along buckets filled with water and tipping the contents over the side.
Snippets of conversation flowed all around Annie in whispers and shouts.
‘… die, Ma?’
‘… seawater’s flooded the engines ….’
‘… says we’ll sink ….’
‘…to lower the lifeboats?’
Very slowly the sky began to lighten. Annie could just make out a wall of cliffs and a roaring line of surf. She couldn’t see any homes, or any other signs of life, except the gulls that swooped low across the waves.
When James returned with a light blanket, Annie wrapped it tightly around Harry, shielding him from the early morning chill.
‘Quickly does it, Miss.’ James guided them forward, towards the port side of the ship where a lifeboat, already knee-deep with seawater, banged against the hull with each rising wave. Annie’s heart began to thud. The lifeboat was filling fast, women and children struggling to find their feet as they were handed over the side, infants bawling for their mothers.
‘You can’t expect me to get in that!’ gasped Annie. ‘It’s half-filled with water.’ One of the sailors tore Harry out of her arms. When she tried to grab him back, another seized her around the waist. Annie screamed as the sky swung above her. Everything was happening so fast.
Suddenly she found herself in the lifeboat, and Harry was handed back to her. Then, almost as soon as she’d got her balance again, the world around them exploded.
The wave was enormous, lifting the lifeboat away from the ship then smashing it hard against the Georgette’s hull. Wood splintered and burst and the floor of the lifeboat disappeared. There was no time even to take a breath. Cold water gushed into Annie’s eyes, nose, and mouth, and soaked her clothes, dragging her under the waves. A young boy, clutching at her arm, was swept out of sight. She glimpsed the Georgette once, then the mighty waves rushed her away.
All around Annie the ocean rose and fell like a wild animal, the water snapping and crashing, jagged and as sharp as teeth. Back and forth Annie was tossed, the current dragging her one way and then another, the salt stinging her eyes.
Annie turned onto her back, desperately keeping her limbs rigid to stay afloat. Poor Harry was soaked to the bone and hoarse from screaming. She hugged him close to her heart, terrified that, at any moment, the waves might sweep him away. Twice she was ducked under and twice she fought back. Her heart was hammering. She and Harry were completely alone and drifting. Totally exhausted, Annie closed her eyes.
‘But you didn’t!’
Annie’s eyes snapped open. Harry was staring back at her, perched on the edge of an old crate, his body tense, the attic growing dark behind him. ‘You didn’t let me go. We didn’t drown, Ma.’ His voice was a whisper. ‘How? What did you do?’
Annie tried to remember what had happened next. ‘Luck or a miracle, Harry. I don’t know which. Something was tugging at my hair. When I looked up …’
A young man was staring down at her. James Noonan, the cabin boy, his arms outstretched. Behind him was Mrs Dickson.
‘The baby, Miss. Give me the boy.’
Hands seized Harry and lifted him. Then Annie was grabbed and pulled out of the water and dragged into the bottom of a small boat, where she lay gasping like a stunned fish. She moved to sit up but a hand stopped her.
‘Keep your head down!’
A red-haired sailor was straining to row, fighting to guide their tiny boat as it rose and dropped with the swell. Annie ducked as his elbow swung above her face. She curled up between the sailor’s legs. Oily water sloshed around her. She counted fourteen survivors in all, bruised and battered, their lips moving in silent prayer or shivering from shock.
The sun appeared and disappeared, as clouds swallowed the light, then spat it back. The day became warm then hot. Salt dried on Annie’s face and arms. To and fro the boat swung, this way and that, up and down until Annie grew sick and thirsty. As the sun began to set, hope turned to despair, and many of the survivors started to sob loudly.
‘We need a sail!’ cried one.
Annie saw the cabin boy glance at Harry wrapped in the blanket. ‘Give me your shirt and you can have it,’ Annie said to James.
The first mate passed back one of the oars to use as a mast, and the sailors used the blanket to rig a clumsy sail. Within minutes the little boat was skidding along, headed towards the shore. By the time Annie heard the surf, they were sailing beneath a bright moon, the beach a crescent of white backed by trees.
‘It was your blanket that saved us,’ Annie said quietly.
Harry looked down at the folded length of grey that lay across his lap. ‘Is this it?’
She nodded. ‘I kept it. And the newspaper cutting. To remind me.’
‘What happened? After we landed?’
‘The men went off to look for help. We were lucky, Harry. In the morning, two women arrived on horseback, one with a pony for me to ride, as I’d hurt my foot in the wreck. We must have looked a sorry little band as we straggled along the beach. Most of the men were barely half clothed. My dress was hanging in shreds. That night we rode slowly through the bush. It wasn’t until two o’clock in the morning that we finally arrived to safety.’ A cold shiver ran down her spine. ‘Twelve people died that day, Harry. Mostly women and children.’
Harry lifted up the blanket in silent astonishment. ‘And I never even knew.’
‘No,’ Annie said. ‘Some stories aren’t easy to tell.’
‘I’m glad,’ said Harry firmly. ‘I’m glad you told me, Ma. Some things shouldn’t be forgotten.’
Annie smiled. ‘So we keep them then? The blanket and the newspaper cutting?’
‘Absolutely!’ Harry exclaimed. ‘Don’t you dare throw them away.’
Annie let out a laugh and picked up a moth-eaten teddy bear with a single button for an eye. ‘Now, Harry, how about this? Bin or keep?’
On a calm day, it is possible to snorkel above the wreck of the Georgette which is located about 90 metres off the Northern end of Redgate Beach in Western Australia. Shortly after arriving in Adelaide, Mr and Mrs Simpson and their baby, Harry, sailed for America, where their ancestors still live today.