The Poor Ketch ‘Coquette’

February 7th, 2019 | Maritime history, Sailing, Songs, Stories for adults

I have always loved the idea of taking interesting events from Australia’s maritime history and shaping them into poems or song lyrics for contemporary audiences. Stan Rogers, the Canadian singer songwriter, is the master of this, with songs such as ‘The Mary Ellen Carter’ and ‘Barrett’s Privateers’. I can’t really think of an Australian equivalent. We have plenty of songs about shearers and drovers, but we have never mythologised our maritime history, rich as it is.

Since becoming friends with Maggie Somerville and staying at her house in Foster, I have begun to reacquaint myself with the history of South Gippsland, much of which is, of course, maritime.

It is tempting to simply write about shipwrecks, but that seems such a cheap way of approaching the subject – of course they are going to be tragic, and there is no shortage of them to choose from.

That is why the story of the ketch ‘Coquette’ struck my fancy. I first heard of the ‘Coquette’ in a book entitled ‘They Fished in Wooden Boats – A History of Port Franklin District and the Fishing Families’, by Neil Everitt, which I found in the Visitors’ Information Centre at Wilsons Prom several years ago. Pages 22 – 23 are devoted to the story of the landing of gold prospectors by boats and ships at Stockyard Creek to take them to the diggings. (Stockyard Creek was also an early name for Foster.) A number of vessels are referred to, including the ’41-ton ketch Coquette.’ I decided to see if ‘Trove’ could tell me anything about the ‘Coquette.’

Turned out it most definitely could. Yes, the ‘Coquette’ sank, but nobody was killed, and the events both preceding and following are interesting and, thanks to Trove, readily accessible in considerable detail. Of further appeal to me was that the ‘Coquette’ sank in Waratah Bay, a part of the coastline that Maggie has especially taken to heart. (She even wrote a song about it!)

The first article, published in Sydney in the Australian Town and Country Journal on Saturday 12 November 1892, tells us that the four masted ship ‘Drumblair’ has become stranded on the sand in Waratah Bay on the way from Sydney to Port Pirie in South Australia.

The second article, published in Melbourne in The Argus on Friday 23 December 1892, tells us that the Drumblair was winched off the sand with the help of anchors that were left behind, and are obviously very valuable. The ketch ‘Coquette’ has been sent from Melbourne to retrieve the anchors and related gear (presumably pulleys and ropes/cables). An anchor is successfully winched out of the sea but, unfortunately, it smashes against the bow of the ‘Coquette’, and causes sufficient damage to the hull that the ‘Coquette’ sinks within ten minutes, in about eight fathoms (48 feet) of water. The crew take to a dinghy, arrive safely on shore, and return to Melbourne overland.

The third and final article, published in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate on Wednesday 22 Feb 1893, tells us that a steamer, ‘Albatross’, has been despatched from Melbourne to raise the ‘Coquette’. Alas, the attempt was unsuccessful. All the hawsers broke before she could be brought to the surface. The ketch was ‘only slewed around’, and has been ‘abandoned to her fate.’

What was her fate? Was the ‘Coquette’ ever raised from the sea floor? Did she simply disintegrate on the seabed? Do traces of her remain? I have been unable to answer any of these questions.

Meanwhile, here is the song lyric I pieced together from these three articles.

The Poor Ketch ‘Coquette’

Chorus
For the poor ketch ‘Coquette’
The saddest fate yet –
It’s sunk beneath Waratah Bay.
We all have high hopes
We can lift her with ropes.
Alas, it will not be today,
No,
Alas it will not be today.

Verse 1
Through storm she sailed, but did not veer
From her task, to bring back gear
And anchors from the rescue mission grand
For that four-masted ship ‘Dumblair’
Which slowly dragged it, with great care,
From where it lay so helpless on the sand.

Verse 2
Alas, an anchor, swinging high
Beneath her bow went all awry.
It struck her stem, and wrenched it from its planks.
Amid the tumult and the din
The ocean quickly rushed right in.
She sank, but none were drowned – a cause for thanks.

Verse 3
The steamer ‘Albatross’ then sailed
Where others had so often failed
To raise the ketch ‘Coquette’ from where it sat.
It could not lift her from the ground,
But simply slew the ship around
And that it seems, at least for now, is that.

© Stephen Whiteside 02.02.2019

I am sure Stan Rogers could have created something far more entertaining and engaging, but I guess it is still better than nothing!

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