Date: March 2006 - POLYNESIA
County of Roxburgh
In February 1906, the "County of Roxburgh", sails away to Australia after leaving Chile, but the most violent cyclone of the century is about to hit Polynesia...
The history of the South Seas is filled with shipwrecks stories that killed numbers of sailors. In February 1906, 100 years ago, one of these proud vessels, the four-mast "County of Roxburg", with a capacity of over 2,000 tonners, sails away toward Melbourne, Australia, after leaving Chile. Aboard the ship, Captain James C. Leslie is what is usually called an "old salt". This Scottman had just started crossing the Tuamotu archipelago. Vigilance is a must, even more so when predominant winds just got stronger. Surrounding atolls and shallow waters are so many traps to be avoided through skillful navigation. But quickly the weather gets worse. What he still does not know, is that the most violent cyclone of the century is about to hit Polynesia...
On the morning of February 6, the wind shifts, now blowing to Northeast doubling its strength. The barometer falls dramatically. About 100 miles norheast of Takaroa, the Captain decides to sail further south to get around the strong coming squall.
The next day, on February 8, the wind is so violent that the sails are ripped one after another. Despite increasing fear, the entire crew repairs them under hellish conditions. Order is given to haul down all fore sails. While daring sailors climb the masts to perform the manoeuver, one of them looking through a curtain of rain and surf spots a large white wall ahead of the ship: a reef barrier! He screams to warn the Captain. A large reef appears indeed less than a mile ahead of the "County of Roxburgh", across the entire horizon. The Captain tries with all his strength to change course. But the ship is out of control, she groans all over while getting into an infernal spiral. The shock sends six sailors overboard. Before anyone could do anything, they are lostr body and soul. Another sailor reaching for shelter is also swallowed by the swells...
Panic is now all over the ship. The crew tries to lower the life boats into the water, but the unleashed powers of both the sea and wind are such that this becomes impossible. In any case, it is too late, the "County of Roxburgh" hits the reef broadside while the crew yells with terror.
The ship is quickly dismantled by the repeated assaults of waves higher than 25 feet crashing on the reef. Inside the stuck shipwreck, the survivors are scratched and cut all over and petrified with fear. Minutes pass in an infernal brouhaha and suddenly, around 9AM, an even more powerful breaker takes the ship's carcasse away over the reef, in some apocalyptic uproar. After a few moment of stupor, one of the sailors gathers some courage and decides to try and reach the land. A good swimmer, Mr. Miller ties a rope around his waist and dive into a furious sea. Not without difficulties, he manages to reach the shore, only some 100 yards away.
To his greatest surprise, some thirty Polynesians wait for him on the beach, amid lashing gusts of wind, to give him help. After fastening the rope to a coconut tree, they manage to pull out, one by one, the surviving sailors from what is left of the "County of Roxburgh". The rescue mission continues for several hours. The last survivor to reach land is Captain James C. Leslie who immediately asks the name of this atoll. It is indeed Takaroa.
During the rest of the night, the people of Takaroa give first aid care to the survivors with the help of plants. The next day, two of the sailors who had disappeared in the waves during the ultimate desesperate manoeuvrer, reappear. Thye had survived, but had drifted most of the night in the unleashed surf. Altogether, three officers and thirteen saliors had survived the drama.
The following day, after the storm calmed down, the crew of the "County of Roxburgh" discovers with surprise that the ship had not suffered much, despite enormous holes all over the hull. Searches are started on all sides of the wreck, but no other survivors are found: ten men are therefore declared missing,
Life gets organized on the atoll, everybody helping everybody to patch the wounds from the cyclone. Two weeks later, a schooner picks up three surviving officers and takes them to Tahiti. The others, among whom James C. Leslie, stay a few more weeks in Takaroa during which they appreciate the kindness and the dedication of these "islanders from the end of the world".
As to the "County of Roxburgh", it continues its peaceful existence of a wreck on the Takaroa reef, even if a fire destroyed its deck in the 1970's. James C. Leslie ended up returning to England via San Francisco, but not without regrets. He died on the eve of the Second World War in Canada.
Today, 100 years after this drama, the great grandchildren of Captain Leslie have come to Polynesia to celebrate the 1906 drama with the inhabitants of Takaroa. They stayed there a few days to appreciate the hospitality mentioned a long time ago already by their ancestor.
See our article about 18th Century Sailors