Disaster! – how did the Walter Hood come to grief in Wreck Bay?
For the Aboriginal people and Warden in Ulladulla to see the Walter Hood in a wild storm and driving rain, she must have been very close to the coast. And this is curious too, as not one of those on board later tells of seeing Warden Head that afternoon.
But why is the Walter Hood sailing so dangerously close to the coast in a south-easterly storm?
The answer is that we don’t really know, although we can guess. The last light seen by Latto and his crew was on Gabo Island, early in the morning of 25 April, a day and a half before it passes Ulladulla. Ulladulla’s lighthouse, originally on the harbour, wasn’t built until 1873. The Cape St George light, on the southern tip of Jervis Bay, was commissioned in 1860 but perhaps not visible in the storm.
Perhaps Latto just didn’t know where he was, so he was sailing closer to the coast to try and identify a landmark. But square-rigged sailing ships need plenty of room to manoeuvre and the eastward curve of Wreck Bay would soon trap him with nowhere to turn.
The map below shows how the coast curves out a long way to the east between Warden Head and St Georges Head (not to be confused with Cape St George to its north!)
This is why, in a south-easterly storm with high seas, a sailing ship would usually stay well off the coast. But with no modern navigation systems and little idea how far he might have been blown northward in the storm, perhaps Latto even thought he was near Sydney.
By 1870, Wreck Bay was aptly named and notorious among sailors. Although it has lovely beaches, between them are reefs and rocky headlands. It had already become the final resting place of the convict transport Hive in 1835, the schooner Blackbird in 1836, and the barque Juniper in 1850.
And it was here that the Walter Hood was trapped, by the storm, a south-easterly swell and her own difficulty in sailing closer than six and a half points to the wind. This meant that on a north-east tack, Latto couldn’t hope to get past St Georges Head as the ship would be pushed towards the coast.
The Walter Hood is now in Wreck Bay on a a starboard tack when, out of the gloom, the crew see they’ve only just missed a small rocky point by a few feet and then more land is spotted to the north-east, on the windward side. Latto immediately realises he’s in trouble and orders
to turn her into the wind. The Walter Hood turns but, without enough sail and the strong cross swell, she turns back again onto her starboard tack. As Latto can’t change her direction by turning her into the wind, his realises his only alternative now is to try and sail her through a 180 degree U-turn, and hope that he has enough room to do that without being driven onto the shore.
As the ship steers to the south-west, they finally see the light of Cape St George through the night and rain and mist. But there’s no hope now. The Walter Hood hits a submerged reef and is caught, bow down.
What is their hope of escape or rescue?