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The Riddle of the Rifleman
A mystery wreck off the dangerous west coast of the sub-antartic Auckland Islands.
Images from the John McCrystal's time spent researching the riddle of the Rifleman. He wrote a report for the Maritime Archaeological Association of New Zealand.
All photography by Mike Wilkinson. Used with permission.
The towering cliffs of the west coast of Auckland Island. This unforgiving coast looming from the mist was doubtless the first inkling the captain and crew of the Rifleman had that they were in mortal peril.
The fearsome coast upon which nine vessels are known to have come to grief. Others may await discovery.
Divers explore the west coast of Auckland Island looking for likely sites to dive in the search for the American ship, General Grant, wrecked here somewhere in 1866 with a significant quantity of gold on her cargo manifest.
The Half Crown Wreck site, with the Sea Watch moored on station. Having the salvage vessel right there greatly sped up the work, but it was a precarious position in which to park a ship. ‘We put our vessel in danger every day we went to work,’ expedition leader Bill Day says.
Divers looking for shipwrecks in the Aucklands must keep their eyes peeled for unnatural forms in the otherwise unvariegated jumble on the sea floor. Here, the breech of a cannon projects from the boulders.
A diver’s helmet is adjusted as he prepares for his stint below. Because favourable conditions were rare, the crew worked every possible moment on site. Air was pumped from the surface to their helmets, and hot water to their suits, reducing the energy-sapping effects of the cold water.
Far from being an intact hull sitting upright on a sandy bottom with sails wafting in the currents, wrecks on the Aucklands comprise a debris field covered with lava boulders. These needed to be shifted before the sand beneath could be searched. The largest the Sea Watch moved was the size of a small car. This hydraulic grab was tried, but was of limited use.
A diver works to move rubble so that the Half-Crown wreck site can be searched.
Raising the Rifleman’s anchor from where it has rested on the seabed for over 170 years. Most nineteenth century anchors had the name of the vessel engraved upon it, but no such identifying mark was found on this one.
This small brass button, 14mm across, is the clue that raises the probability that the Half Crown Wreck is the Rifleman to near certainty. The device is an anchor fouled by the Serpent of Asclepius, the insignia of the Royal Navy’s surgical corps. The Rifleman was taking William Porteous, RN home after he had come out to Tasmania aboard the convict ship Circassian as Surgeon-Superintendant.
The Sea Watch’s crew came seeking gold, and there was much excitement when the first sovereigns were found beneath the debris of the Half-Crown Wreck. Gold, as Bill Day reports, is incorruptible, and sparkles as brightly on the day it is found as it did on the day it went into the water.
Once the boulders had been shifted from the site, a venturi suction device was established to ‘vacuum’ the smaller debris from the sea floor. The material collected was dumped onto a conveyor belt on Sea Watch’s deck and inspected visually and with a metal detector.
One out of the box in the Auckland Islands, frequented by the worst weather on the planet. The Sea Watch’s crew were able to work only one day in four, but most of the days they worked were very different from this glorious calm.
The images in this gallery are used with permission and are subject to copyright conditions.