This article was prepared for and published in the the November 2013 New Zealand Underwater Heritage Group Newsletter.

Awakening Dufresne’s Spirit: The Third Magnetometer Survey for Marion Dufresne’s Anchors - By Ewan Stevenson

On Thursday evening, October 31, 2013, Halloween night, Dave Moran, Richard Theakston and myself drove North to meet Brian Bailey’s 54-foot steel yacht Wyuna at Whangaroa Harbour. Our magnetometer electronics officer Nick Freeman was already on scene ready to go. The old Mazda ute was truly packed to the roof with battery banks, magnetometers, electronic navigation plotters, tanks, cameras, food…we noticed a few gouls and ghosts along the roadway Northwards but our thoughts were only on French explorer’s Marion Dufresne’s spirit (he was killed in the Bay of Islands by Maori in 1772). On April 16, 1772, his expedition of two ships the Mascarin and Marquis de Castries anchored for the first time on the New Zealand coast. The expedition was the fourth European one (that is well recorded) to ever reach New Zealand’s shores but within that first day moored on the coast, the whole mission nearly became a complete disaster. A North-East gale sprung up and blew straight into Spirits Bay where the two ships had set their anchors. The ships dragged anchor, additional bowers were deployed to no avail, and finally in the early hours of the following morning, anchors cables were frantically cut and the ships only just managed to clear Cape Reinga in their bid for open sea. There are several surviving journals from the 1772 expedition and they meticulous record the two French flutes abandoning five anchors in Spirits Bay that tumultuous day. The loss of such valuable anchors was very serious (half way around the planet, where are you going to find replacements? Burnsco? Mt Smart Marine?), so the French returned to Spirits Bay and spent much time dragging from longboats for the lost anchors in the bay and were successful in salvaging two of them. That meant the French left three wrought iron anchors about 1½ tons each sitting on the seafloor off the North end of New Zealand.

Two hundred and forty one years later, I was leading the most ambitious magnetometer survey yet to try and locate them. In two previous surveys, over the last three years, Nick Freeman and myself have dragged a 13-foot Zodiac RHIB across 250 meters of Spirits Bay sand and surf -launched to get to the remote survey area. On both occasions, the magnetic surveys had to be frustratingly curtailed as the survey boat was ridiculously small for what we were attempting, and seas coming onboard overwhelmed us and the $15,000 worth of electronics. I asked Des Cotman, the intrepid curator for the Far North museum, if he could help us launch at Piwhane (Spirits) Bay…he brought his whole family down to help! How many museum curators would do that? With such assistance, we have managed to mag survey from the Zodi, a portion of Spirits Bay, so that is progress. This latest trip was combining all our experience we had gained in the area and now we had a decent boat to work from.The seas in Spirits Bay haven’t calmed down one bit since the French had a rough time there.

From Whangaroa Harbour, the plan was to maximise survey time, and motor the yacht during the night to North Cape. As we drove North in the ute on Thursday evening, torrential rains and high winds of a South-wester just smashed us and in between the downpours we met Brian in the pitch black at Whangaroa. The harbour was choppy and cold. All the gear and ourselves would have got soaked through trying to load the yacht that evening, so thank goodness, we had Nick Freeman’s place at Kaeo to return to for the night instead. The next morning we were up early and it was bright, clear and dry. Hurray. We loaded the yacht with the tons of gear and set off. We motored all day and that evening dropped anchor behind Murimoto Island at North Cape. On the way Richard had jigged up a Kingfish. It was juicy Kingfish for dinner (…and breakfast the next morning!). We anchored just a few meters from the stern of the 1857 wreck of the early steamer William Denny and when I pointed out the site to Dave Moran, I could see a severe bout of wreck fever came over his face and he wanted to dive the old steamer wreck then and then which would have meant a night dive and missing the sizzling Kingfish and cocktails on the aft deck as the sunset faded.

By lunchtime the next day, we had crossed Tom Bowling Bay and began the magnetometer survey. Just before we deployed the magnetometer tow, we also cut loose the obstructing dingy we had been towing with Richard in it with strict instructions to bring back more fish for dinner. He was more than happy to oblige, as his sole reason for joining our mission was for the fishing that I had reminded him was out of this world in the region. Fortunately for me, this indeed proved to be the case, as he was catching 18 pound snappers in Tom Bowling Bay but with no ice aboard the dingy had to throw them all back. He brought back the solo photos to prove his catches too.

I should at this point explain the condition of our electronics officer. Conveniently, the day before the expedition, Nick had discovered a certain side effect of the installing schist trade, that is, the product is HEAVY. His back was out. Actually he could barely walk. Lots of drugs (definitely legitimate pharmaceutical ones) later, we had him convinced he could do the trip, but the only way he could participate was horizontally. (Incidentally, Dave M, Richard and myself secretly thought Nick was a goddamned genius as we carried all his heavy gear aboard and waited on his every whim…). As we began the mag survey, we set up the Aquascan AX-2000 monitor in the saloon, with Nick lying on the sofa, he could watch the screen constantly for any “hit” that may crop up. He swallowed more painkillers; I hope the screen wasn’t hallucinating in front of him.

As soon as the boring mowing the lawn survey part began, the boat owner, Mr Bailey, quickly and happily turned the helm over to me, and as I had pre-programmed the survey area into the NZUHG plotter, it was real easy to see what to do. The hard part was keeping that 54-foot, 38 tons of steel moving in straight lines. At times the wind or current would hit the side or deep keel and push the SV to the side. In general, however, the yacht worked surprisingly well as a survey platform. Later in the afternoon as usual, the wind increased and the seas became choppy, and I sure was grateful I wasn’t back in the zodi getting wet. My expedition logbook notes “ceased survey at 1800”. Everything had worked well electronically but no sign of 1.5 tons of French steel. Tomorrow we would continue the survey, but now to find an anchorage and where was Richard? We motored back to Tom Bowling Bay and got under the lee of the coast there. Far ahead, looking very small indeed was a dingy with man in it. We pulled alongside and Richard and fresh snappers came aboard. He had thrown back the fish caught earlier in the day but towards evening had starting keeping a few for dinner. There was plenty for the five of us.

The next day, Richard kept fishing and we kept mowing the lawn, and in total we surveyed an area approximately two square km. One scare during the survey was some old cray pot buoys that popped up. I made a severe detour around them. To get the mag sensor caught up in them would have been very bad indeed. On another track, I didn’t spot a cray buoy until it was directly abeam 15 meters on the starboard side. With the current pulling the buoy over, it’s hard to tell where the buoy rope is going and so easy to get snarled up in it. Around the prop shaft, or magnetometer tow cable, and we were in big trouble! Suddenly, Nick, still lying on his back in the cabin, excitedly yelled “TARGET!”….just when the mag sensor would have been over the cray pot. At least we had confirmation the mag was working! We GPS marked the spot and will dive it in the future to make sure it is a pot. My log records, “1805- ceased survey- no sign”. We headed back to Tom Bowling and Richard. More fish came aboard and we were tired of it. It was spaghetti bolognaise that night.

We continued motoring and as the North Cape lighthouse blinked at our stern we crossed Great Exhibition Bay. Not a single other boat could be seen. The skipper had the music on, the stars were out, and the land was far away and surprisingly dark too. The stars were unbelievably bright, from horizon to horizon. The sea was so calm and black it was like it didn’t exist. It appeared like we were travelling in a big void inside a fish bowl of stairs. That night we didn’t stop motoring until we reach Whangaroa Harbour at 0635, Monday, 4 November. We may not have discovered Dufresne’s anchors on this trip, but we all had a fantastic voyage and a lot of fun trying. The planning and preparation has already begun for the next attempt. The author wishes to acknowledge Brian Bailey for his marine expertise, enthusiasm and support of the mission and the fantastic assistance of Dave Moran, Richard Theakston and Nick Freeman. A note about Mr. Bailey; he is one of the original, and one of the greatest South Pacific salvage divers of the 1960s and 1970s and is a true expert in underwater explosive demolition. The stories of underwater salvage, sharks, bombs, close-calls, funny incidents, diving accidents, collisions, storms, booty & salvage in the South Pacific that we were regaled with by the skipper made the trip a very special one indeed.

Dufresne search team

Members of Third magnetometer survey team at Whangaroa.
Dave Moran, Richard Theakson, Nick Freeman, Ewan Stevenson & Brian Bailey.

RV Wyuna

The “RV” Wyuna surveying in Spirits Bay, November 2013.

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