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NEW ZEALAND DISASTERS AND TRAGEDIES
MISCELLANEOUS DROWNINGS
REPORT ON LEWIS ACKER AND AUSTRIAN JACK
09 MAY 1877

Thanks to Peter Armstrong of Devon, England for this;

FATAL BOAT ACCIDENT - The Southland Times, 8 June 1877

Many of our readers will remember Lewis Acker, a stalwart half-caste, who for some years back has been a successful contestant at the annual gatherings of the Caledonian Society. He left the Bluff some time ago as mate of the coasting schooner Sea Gull and has met an untimely end in Wellington harbor. The following particulars of the accident are taken from the Wellington Post of the 9th. May last. We learn that Austrian Jack was also at one time a resident of Invercargill:

Another fatal boat accident occurred in the harbor to-day, by which two men lost their lives. At 9 o’clock this morning three men, one of whom is named Peter Perare, another Austrian Jack, and the third a half-caste, who was known as Lewis Acker, went out in a small yacht named “The Maid of Kent,” the property of Mr Smith, fruiterer of Lambton Quay, on a fishing excursion. They proceeded from the wharf to a favorite fishing place near Somes’ Island, and, after catching some fish, were about to turn their boat, when a puff of wind caught them. The yacht had a good deal of sail on, and the wind caused her to heel over. Perare was in the forecastle lighting his pipe when the boat was struck, and seeing the danger, he immediately called to Austrian Jack to luff her. The boat, however, was full of water, and before anything could be done, she was found to be sinking. Finding that the yacht was sinking, the men threw themselves into the water, and Perare, being a good swimmer, called out that the others should remain paddling about where they were while he swam to the fishing boat May, which was rather more than a mile away. Although he was heavily dressed he managed to gain the May, which was in charge of Mr Nicholas, and was picked up. The May then headed for the scene of the accident, and on arriving there the men on board found that the yacht had sunk. The half-caste also had disappeared, but Austrian Jack was still floating, and Mr Nicholas managed to pull him on board. Austrian Jack was just sinking for the last time when he was picked up, and was quite insensible when he was drawn into the boat. He shuddered two or three times after getting into the boat, but after a few moments he ceased to breathe. A fruitless search having been made for the body of the half-caste, the May was rowed with all rapidity to the wharf and information regarding the accident was given to the police. The boy of Austrian Jack was immediately conveyed to the morgue, and the harbor will be dragged for that of Acker. A fine Newfoundland dog which was in the yacht was also drowned. The yacht has not been seen since, but Mr Smith expects that she will be raised. She is quite a new boat, and this was her first trip in Wellington harbor. Austrian Jack was about 24 years of age, and Acker 28. As far as we can learn, neither was married, but the former had a good deal of money in the Savings Bank.

JUSTICE - 77/1898 - Coroner. 12.5.77 - Wellington - S. 338-2276

Inq. Pro. On Colony of NEW ZEALAND to wit;

INFORMATIONS of WITNESSES severally taken and acknow- ledged on behalf of our Sovereign Lady the Queen, touching the death of a certain person commonly known as Austrian Jack at the dwelling house of Coroner’s Court Room known by the name of in The City of Wellington in the Province of Wellington in the Colony above mentioned, on Thursday the tenth day of May one thousand eight hundred and seventy- before Alexander Johnston MD one of the Coroners for the said Colony, on an Inquisition then and there taken on view of the body of a certain man, name unknown but commonly known as Austrian Jack then and there lying dead, as follows, to wit:-

Joseph Pierrie being sworn, saith that I am a Boarding House keeper, living in Wills Street - I knew the deceased personally, but I did not know his name. He was always known by the name of Jack, also[?] was known as Austrian Jack. He was about 25 or 26 years old. I do not know what part of Austria he came from. He was a sailor man, and used to come to my house. His occupation was the selling of fish. Yesterday Wednesday morning he came to my house and told me that the boat was ready to go out fishing. I went with him to Hunters Wharf and there found the Boat, with another man known of the name of Louis Ackers who was an American Halfcaste. We all three went in the Boat, we left [the] Hunters Wharf about 10 o’clock am. It was blowing Fresh and Puffy, we were going after Kawai [kahawai]. I advised that a reef should be taken in, but deceased said it was not necessary as we could go close to the land. The wind appeared to go down, as we approached Tuahurangha and nothing more was said about putting a reef in. There was another Boat out and she had two reefs in her sail, and we were working For Somes’ Island, intending to take in a reef as soon as we got under the lee of the island. When we were about a mile from the island about half way between Tuahurangha and the Island, I was steering the Boat. I then left the Rudder, & went under the Forecastle to light a cigar and the man ‘Louis’ took the helm. He was also a sailor man. The deceased was sitting on the Deck Halyards about the middle of the boat. We had no idea of any danger. The Boat was running with a Fine Breeze. While I was engaged lighting my cigar the boat keeled over and the water rushed over the bow. I shouted out to ‘Louis’ to luff her up to the wind, and he cried out that he could not get her up. I rushed out from under the Forecastle, and saw that the boat was getting full and we were all afloat in a moment. The Boat floated at the Bow for a few minutes and we all three held on to the jib boom until the boat sank. I asked Louis if he could swim, and he said No (I knew that Jack could swim). I then gave Louis a small paddle to help him, and the Boat went down. I did not see Louis again after giving him the paddle. Jack and I struck out for the other Boat which was close to Ngahuranghia [Ngauranga] about a mile away. I could swim faster than Jack as he had heavy sea boots on and I told him I could make for the other Boat & return to his assistance. I arrived safely at the Boat and was landed on board, and as soon as I was picked up we went back to search for my mates. We ran down to the spot where the Boat sank in a few minutes as we had a Fair & Fresh wind and found the deceased just sinking he was quite still as if his limbs were cramped and was three or four inches under the water. He was hauled into the Boat, and seemed to breathe once, but did not speak. He showed no more sign of life than the one inspiration. We looked all round to find Louis but could see nothing of him, and after sailing round to try to find him, we started for town, and as soon as we reached the Wharf I went home and the men men in the Boat who brought me ashore informed the Police at once and the deceased was brought to the Morgue. At the time of the accident the main sheet was loose, it had been a fair wind. the sheet was only made fast to the base and the Boom was touching the Rigging so that it could not be more free. I think if the deceased at the moment of the Boat first taking in water had [?] the peak, the Boat would have pulled herself up again. When I shouted out to the man at the Helm to luff her up and he said she would not luff. I shouted to the deceased to lower the Peak, but he did not do so. I suppose he got frightened. If he had been quick, he could have done it very well. I know the deceased to be an experienced boatman, but I knew nothing of ‘Louis’ except that he always talked as if he understood Boating well. The Boat belonged to Mr Smith, Fruiterer and Fish dealer of Lambton Quay. - J. Pierrie

George Nickles being sworn saith I am a fisherman, living in Wellington. Yesterday Wednesday morning, I was in the Boat ‘May’ fishing for Kawai [kahawai], between Somes’ Island and Tuahurangha. About 11 o’clock I saw another boat coming from Town. They passed on the weatherside of us, and they lowered the Peak down, as they went by. About 15 minutes after this upon looking round we missed the Boat. We thought that she had gone under the Island in order to keep her sail. We suddenly heard a cry from the water and upon looking out saw the last witness swimming toward us. I hauled him into the Boat. He was almost exhausted but he said that one of his mates was close at hand but that the other one could not swim. Upon searching around I saw the deceased just sinking, he was under the water when I first discovered him. I pulled him on board with the assistance of my mates. He breathed once after being taken on board, but showed no further sign of life. We tried to open his mouth but the teeth were clenched, and froth was coming from his mouth. We then set sail again and made a few tacks up and down looking for the Third man, but we could not find him. The last witness appeared to be getting very bad, he was very sick & vomited much and we made our way to town as fast as we could, and as soon as we arrived we informed the Police who came and took charge of the body of the deceased. I have known the deceased man for about eight months during which time he has been selling fish in the Town, I do not know his name beyond John; He was an Austrian, about 24 or 25 years old but I know nothing more about him. - George Nickles

Joseph Pierry being recalled saith the Peak of my boat was lowered when we passed the Boat ‘May’, but we hauled it up again in about ten minutes as it was a Fair wind, and we did not think the wind too much for the Boat - J. Pierrie

[Sequel to No. 6.]- Colony of NEW ZEALAND to wit

THE above-named depositions of Joseph Pierrie and George Nickles

Written on six pages of paper, numbered con- secutively from one to six and by me affixed together, were taken and sworn before me, at Wellington in the said Colony, on the tenth day of May 1877 - Alexander Johnston MD - Coroner -Coroner, No.6A-339.

Colony of NEW ZEALAND to wit. TO Frederick Atcheson Inspector of Police Wellington

By virtue of my office as Coroner, these are, in Her Majesty’s name, to require and command you, immediately upon sight hereof, to summon and warn twenty-four good and lawful men to be and to appear before me, Alexander Johnston, MD Esquire, one of the Coroners for the Colony aforesaid, at The Coroners Court Room in Cuba [?] Street in Wellington aforesaid, in the said Colony, on Thursday the tenth day of May one thousand eight hundred seventy-seven at two o’clock in the afternoon of the same day, then and there to inquire of, do, and execute all such things as, on Her Majesty’s behalf, shall be lawfully given them in charge touching the death of a certain man whose name is unknown but commonly known as Austrian Jack

And be you or one of you then and there to certify what you shall have done in the premises, and further to do and execute what, in behalf of our said Lady the Queen, shall then and there en- joined you

Given under my hand and seal, at Wellington aforesaid, the ninth day of May 1877 - Alexander Johnston MD -Coroner

Coroner. - Precept to Constable.] - 2125

J. M. Ready Sergt. Of Police do swear that I served the undermentioned persons with a summons to attend the Coroner’s Courts on the 10th day of May 1877

Maurice Ready - Sworn to at Wellington this 10th day of May 1877 Before me James ?

Chas. Platt
Harry Aslit
Jas. Forbes
Joseph Williams
Wm. Firth
Jas. Saunders
George Richard Farley
Foreman - Herbert J. Williams
John G. Dudgeon
Joseph Cloves
Jas. Green
Jas. Chater
John Burgess

Colony of NEW ZEALAND to wit

AN INQUISITION indented, taken for our Sovereign Lady the Queen, at the Coroner’s Court Room at Wellington of Wellington in the said Colony, on the tenth day of May in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and seventy seven, before Alexander Johnston MD one of the Coroners of our Sovereign Lady the Queen for the said Colony, on view of the body of a certain man name Unknown, commonly known as Austrian Jack, then and there lying dead, upon the oath of Herbert J. Williams Foreman: Charles Platt: Henry Aslitt: James Forbes: Joseph Williams: William Firth: James Saunders Farley: John D. Dudgeon: Joseph Cloves: James Green: James Chater: John Burgess good and lawful men of the neighbourhood, duly chosen, and who being there and then duly sworn and charged to inquire for our Lady the Queen, when, how, and by what means the said man, known as Austrian Jack came to his death, do upon their oaths say - That The said man known as Austrian Jack, on the ninth day of May, in the year aforesaid, being in a certain Boat in Wellington Harbour, that the said Boat was accidentally upset, and overturned, and the said man known as Austrian Jack, was then and there, cast into the water, and was then and there accidentally drowned and so the Jurors aforesaid, do say that the said man, known as Austrian Jack, by the means aforesaid, Accidentally came to his death, and not otherwise.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, as well the said Coroner as the said Jurors aforesaid have hereunto set and subscribed their hands and seals the day and year first above written.- Alexander Johnston MD Coroner

Herbert James Williams FOREMAN
J.D. Dudgeon
John Burgess
Joseph Cloves
William Firth
Geo. R. Farley
James Green
Joseph Williams
James Saunders
Henry Aslat
Charles Platt
James Forbes
James Chater
852 - Coroner No.7] - 859

[The first page has written: Ackers on [? lodged] Files 21.5.77]

NOTES:

Kahawai: A common local fish is the kahawai (commonly pronounced as if it was spelt kawai "car-why"). It grows to a couple of feet long, swims in schools and is usually caught by trolling a line behind a moving boat. Often caught to be used as bait for more prized eating fish, but is also eaten itself.

Ngahuranghia : A location/suburb in Wellington on the edge of the harbour a few kms north of the main city is Ngauranga. It is the site of a break in the hills along the coast and is a readily recognisable landmark from the harbour.

Tuahurangha: No idea, but given the fractured spelling of the previous terms it should perhaps be Tuauranga ? It depends on the context.

Reef: These are short pieces of rope across a sail. If the wind gets too strong these are used to reduce the size of the sail, and thus the risk of damage or capsizing.

Halyards: The halyards are the ropes that hoist the sail.

Jib boom: a boom is the long pole that goes along the bottom of a sail, with one end attached to the mast; in this case the jib, one of the triangular front sails.

Main sheets. Sheets are the lengths of rope attached to the bottom of a sail; in this case the biggest sail on the main (or highest) mast, the main sail. These should not be flapping loose, particularly in such a high wind that they had to shorten sail.

They may have had what's called a 'gaff' rig; that is there was another pole along the top of the mainsail: the 'gaff'.

As they were a bit worried about the strength of the wind before they set off, they had discussed 'reefing' the mainsail; that is reducing its surface area by tying up the small lengths of rope across its surface. They decided against this, but had apparently 'dropped the peak' at one point; that is slightly lowered the gaff, which would have the same effect. They had noticed that the other boat had its sail reduced by 'two reefs'.

Because everything seemed OK, Joseph Pierrie had gone to the shelter of the front of the boat to smoke a cigar, leaving Louis in charge of the steering at the back, and with Austrian Jack sitting somewhere on the deck, on top of the ropes used to haul the sail up (they come through pulleys, and then are tied up at one point, usually near the base of the mast: he could have sat on top of that).

There must have been a sudden stronger gust of wind, because Joseph noticed that the boat heeled right over, and water starting coming over the bow. He shouted to Louis to 'luff' the boat up into the wind. This means to turn the boat towards the wind direction. This reduces the sideways force, makes the boat sit up straight again, and usually stops it moving at all to give time to sort things out. Joseph pointed out that Louis could also dropped the top of the sail, and that the ropes at the base of the mainsail were also quite loose, with the boom along the bottom having freedom of movement. One way out of trouble, if you get suddenly caught by a gust, is to just let go of all the ropes. This means that the boat tends to stop moving, the force on the sails drops and the boat tends to turn up into the wind naturally.

Joseph suggested that Louis wasn't able to do this, and it's possible that he panicked, or didn't think quickly enough, and just kept holding onto everything. Whatever the reason, the boat must have filled up with water very quickly, and soon had only the bow out of the water. Hence they could hang onto the boom attached to the bottom of the fore sail, the jib, until the boat finally sank completely.

To take a reef is to reduce the amount of sail - this would have been done by lowering the sail slightly and tying a set of reef points (X below) so that the sail looked like this(seen from behind): | | x\ ||| ||| <- reefed area of sail |V | "The deceased was sitting on the deck halyards" This doesn't make sense; the halyard (haulyard) is used to raise and lower a sail. He may have been sitting on the deck on on the PEAK halyard which was coiled down on the deck.

The mainsheet is used to control the mainsail (sheet means rope, and there would also be a jibsheet); in extreme conditions this would be let loose so that the sail was free to flap.

If the boat had capsized turning it bow into the wind would make it MUCH easier to right; this is called LUFFING - the term is used when the boat is upright as well! The rescuing boat would have been gaff-rigged, as was the capsized one - this from reference to PEAK halyards which controlled the gaff. But all small sailing craft in those days, and most large ones with fore and aft sails were gaff rigged. Lowering the peak of the sail is a quick means of reducing sail in an emergency situation.


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