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The Trailblazing ketch Dawn
The Trailblazing ketch Dawn
By David Jones of the Qld Maritime Museum

The Trailblazing ketch Dawn Print E-mail

By David Jones of the Qld Maritime Museum


Typical of the small Australian trading vessels of colonial days was the 22m ketch Dawn, of 51 tonnes, which was built in Hobart in 1869.  In July of the following year she was carrying a cargo of saw-mill machinery to Bustard Head when a gale forced her to shelter under the lee of Double Island Point.  But when the wind veered she was exposed to its full force and her captain drove her ashore to avoid loss of life.

Finding her half buried in sand, Captain William Collin, one of the true pioneers of Queensland, took up the challenge of salvaging her.  This he achieved, refloating Dawn and pulling her through the surf, then safely delivering her cargo to its destination.  He then purchased the vessel to enhance his fleet.  For the next three years Collin used Dawn for trading as far afield as Normanton where he was engaged by the Queensland Government to install several beacons leading into the Norman River. 

This led to a much more vital work when Collin was commissioned to erect a series of beacons to mark a safe passage inside the Great Barrier Reef between Cooktown and Torres Strait.  Known as the Inner Route, this channel through a maze of coral reefs was narrow and hazardous, but its use was increasing.

Dawn sailed from Brisbane with Collin and half a dozen crewmen aboard on June 6, 1874 loaded with logs and equipment to erect 33 beacons.  Captain Heath, Portmaster of Queensland, had identified the reefs where these beacons were to be erected and supplied a flat bottom punt and sheer-legs to assist with the work.  Two weeks later they had reached the site for the first beacon.

Captain Collin soon discovered the difficulties he faced.  A moderate gale was blowing from the south-east whipping up rough seas which prevented any work that day.  The punt was moored at the reef overnight ready to start work next day, but in the morning they found it swamped.  Then only a few hours of work were possible as a rising tide swirled over the reef.  It took four days to erect the first beacon; hand screwing a 1.5m hole in the coral for the main pile, screwing three more holes for the three supporting stays, positioning the main pile and supports, then securing and painting the lattice framework and battens which were the beacon’s visual mark.

Work proceeded slowly over the next six weeks with another four beacons being built.  But the punt had taken a battering and needed major repairs.  More worrying still was the weather.  The wind blew strongly from the south-east, sweeping up the length of the Inner Route and bringing with it choppy seas.  This was the prevailing wind for nine months of the year and promised difficult conditions throughout the Dawn’s assignment.


Collin reassessed his approach and decided to move north to reefs which seemed more sheltered.  He would return to the sites he had bypassed later and erect those beacons on Dawn’s homeward journey.  This move payed off, as five more beacons were completed by the middle of August.  Further encouragement came from the captain of the mail steamer Gothenburg.  He was so pleased with the new beacons that he gave a sheep and a sack of potatoes to Dawn’s crew in appreciation of their work.

This was a welcome kindness for Collin and his crew.  They were working along an isolated coast with no European settlement for 600km between Cooktown and Torres Strait and the attitude of local aboriginals was uncertain.  Dawn’s supply of food and water was limited and Collin had to use all his resourcefulness to supply his crew and all the ship’s needs from this wilderness area for weeks on end.  Collin also spoke to every passing ship seeking both to receive mail and to post despatches to Brisbane.

By early October Dawn had completed more beacons, but the weather often interfered, delaying progress and damaging work already done.  One beacon was found blown over by a gale a week after completion and it had to be repositioned and strengthened.  Approaching Torres Strait Captain Collin found the tides “so strange I cannot understand them”.  With his crew working sometimes up to their waist to screw pile foundations, calm and slack water was needed to allow work to proceed.

By October 31, 1874 Dawn was in need of a good overhaul after more than four months working on the reefs.  Captain Collin took her to the Government outpost at Somerset on the tip of Cape York where Dawn was beached on a frame of logs cut by her crew and repaired.  By the time she was refloated 10 days later the wind had turned and the monsoonal north-westerlies had begun. 

Collin began erecting beacons in Torres Strait itself to aid navigation through the Prince of Wales Channel.  Here he found reefs of granite rock which defied the efforts of his hand-driven screws and required blasting with explosives.  The last of these marks was completed on November 20 and Collin turned his attention to the journey home.  But before departure there was another request for Dawn’s services.

The Dutch sailing vessel Botarell had been wrecked near Stephens Island in the Great North East Channel seven weeks earlier and Collin was asked to attempt her salvage.  He found the wreck too badly holed to refloat, but for the next eight days he set about recovering anchors, rigging, spars and such fittings as were still of value. 

Dawn finally sailed from Somerset on December 9 to retrace her path through the Inner Route southwards.  There was work to be done along the way.  Beacons still had to be erected at the sites which had been bypassed due to weather as she came north.  And all the beacons previously completed had to be checked for any repairs and repainted.  Two beacons had been blown over in the intervening weeks and another pillaged by local natives.  Those blown over were re-erected on new, more secure sites while repairs were made wherever necessary.


On January 20, 1875 the last of the beacons was finished and Collin took Dawn into Cardwell to report the completion of his assignment by telegraph.  It was a landmark achievement, and one which had been hard won through the labour, hardship and resourcefulness of Captain Collin and his men.  For the first time a passage through the treacherous Inner Route had been marked with navigation beacons allowing shipping to pass through safely.  The beacons were unlit, being daytime markers only, but it was a start.  Dawn’s trailblazing work formed a foundation which the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service has been built on for over a century since.  Their work improving lights and beacons around the Australian coast is well illustrated in the ‘Lighting the Darkness’ display at the Queensland Maritime Museum.

No sooner had Captain Collin returned to Brisbane in early 1875 than a severe cyclone hit the central Queensland coast which would open up a new chapter in his own story and that of the Dawn.  The eye of the cyclone passed over their good friend, the passenger steamer Gothenburg, sinking her with the loss of over 100 lives.  The storm also lifted the 80 tonne steamer Norseman high onto the reef at Lady Musgrave Island.  She defied early attempts at salvage and Collin purchased Norseman for a very small sum and set about the formidable task of refloating her. 

Taking Dawn to the reef, Collin applied two months of very hard work and ingenuity to pull the hulk off and put her back in the water.  It was a great day when Captain Collin sailed Norseman into Brisbane under jury rig.  He refitted her and put her into service as his flagship early in 1876. 

The wheel had come full circle for the Dawn.  Bought as a wreck by Captain Collin, she had served him well for six years and he had now used her to salvage another wreck.  But this was the end of their partnership.  Graduating to steam meant Collin no longer needed the Dawn and she was sold.  Captain William Collin went on to build a strong maritime business which lasted 100 years before the firm he founded was taken over by Pioneer Concrete in 1962. 

Though long gone, Collin’s little ketch Dawn holds a proud place in history.  She was the vessel that first marked the Great Barrier Reef’s Inner Route and made it safe for shipping.

Sources: Collin, W.A., The Story of the Ketch Dawn 1870-76, 21 March 1966, paper in Queensland Maritime Museum collection. “Collin Centenary Today”, article in The Courier Mail, Friday May 18, 1962, p.11. Parsons, Ronald, Shipping Losses and Casualties concerning Australian and New Zealand, Volume 1, published by Ronald Parsons, Goolwa, South Australia, in 2003.

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