To mariners, ‘Corsair Rock’ is the infamous and terrifying rocky outcrop situate off the eastern side of Port Phillip Heads. The large, submerged rock is covered by some 3 m of water and has been the cause many shipwrecks.
When Matthew Flinders dared enter the narrow passage into Port Phillip Bay during his tour of discovery in 1802, he wrote:
” . . . On the west side of the rocky point, [Point Nepean] there was a small opening, with breaking water across it. However, on advancing a little more westward the opening assumed a more interesting aspect, and I bore away to have a nearer view. A large extent of water presently became visible withinside, and although the entrance seemed to be very narrow, and there were in it strong ripplings like breakers, I was induced to steer in at half-past one; the ship being close upon a wind and every man ready for tacking at a moment’s warning. The soundings were irregular, between 6 and 12 fathoms, until we got four miles within the entrance, when they shoaled quick to 2 3/4. We then tacked; and having a strong tide in our favour, worked to the eastward, between the shoal and the rocky point, with 12 fathoms for the deepest water. In making the last stretch from the shoal, the depth diminished from 10 fathoms quickly to 3; and before the ship could come round, the flood tide set her upon a mud bank and she stuck fast. A boat was lowered down to sound; and, finding the deep water lie to the north-west, a kedge anchor was carried out; and, having got the ship’s head in that direction, the sails were filled, and she drew off into 6 and 10 fathoms; and it being then dark, we came to an anchor . . . “
Source: Excerpt – ‘The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders R.N.’ – by Ernest Scott – Chapter 16 – published 1914
Looking at it today, it is hard to believe that this rocky outcrop was once frequented by seals and sea elephants. Mr. Tuckey, First-Lieutenant of H.M.S. Calcutta selected to convey Lieutenant-Governor David Collins and party to ‘Bass’s Strait’ in the attempted settlement of Port Phillip in the year 1803 wrote:
” . . . Fish, it may safely be asserted, is so scarce that it could never be depended on as a source of effectual relief in the event of scarcity. Several varieties of the ray were almost the only ones caught, with sometimes a few mullet, and other small fish; in general, a day’s work with the seine produced scarcely a good dish of fish. The number of sharks which infest the harbour may occasion this scarcity of small fish. The rocks outside the harbour’s mouth are frequented by seals and sea-elephants. The shell-fish are oysters, limpets, mussels, escalops, cockles, sea-cars; and very large cray-fish are found among the rocks. . . “
Source: Excerpt – ‘Port Phillip Settlement’ by James Bonwick, F.R.G.S. – Published 1883
On the 7th November 1853, the previously unnamed obstacle which was well known to sea pilots and mariners alike, was formally gazetted as a hazard. Having been officially located and charted by the sea pilots on the cutter ‘Corsair’ in the previous month – the rock was so named. Interestingly, when viewing the log of ships encountering the rock, the incidents are greatly reduced once it had been formally added to the maps.
The Cutter ‘Corsair’
The Corsair was a single-masted, 51-ton gross, cutter – built in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, England in 1832. She arrived in Williamstown on the 6th June 1853. The Port Phillip Pilots of the time recommended her as suitable pilot vessel and she was purchased by the Victorian Government. Shortly afterwards, the Sea Pilot service was privatised and the ‘Corsair’ was sold them them for £925 on the 26th August 1854.
The ‘Corsair’ was to meet her end some 20 years later, in a location not far from the rock named after her . . . During wild gale-force winds and high seas, she was swept onto the reef just inside the heads, on the eastward side, on the 24th May 1874. With the large seas breaking over the cutter, the ‘Corsair’ soon filled with water and became a total wreck . . .
Some of the ships that came to grief on ‘Corsair Rock’:
21 Mar 1852 – Wooden Ship ‘Isabella Watson‘ – struck ‘Corsair Rock’ & capsized in a violent squall – nine fatalities – wrecked
28 Dec 1852 – ‘St. George‘ – struck ‘Corsair Rock’ – continued but ran aground in Swan Bay – refloated & repaired
24 Sep 1853 – Brig ‘Prima Donna‘ – struck ‘Corsair Rock’ whilst inward bound – repaired & returned to service
14 Nov 1853 – French Barque ‘Marie‘ – struck ‘Corsair Rock’ whilst inward bound without a pilot – refloated
14 Nov 1853 – Barque ‘Ontario‘ – struck ‘Corsair Rock’ – wrecked
2 May 1854 – ‘Antoinette Cezard‘ – struck ‘Corsair Rock’ – attempted to enter Port Phillip without a pilot – repaired & returned to service as the ‘Thomas & Ann Cole’
28 Feb 1855 – Brig ‘Janet‘ – struck & stuck fast on ‘Corsair Rock’ – refloated & beached at Williamstown
24 Jul 1875 – Three Masted Iron Barque ‘Eliza Ramsden‘ – struck ‘Corsair Rock’ whilst outward bound without a pilot – wrecked
14 Nov 1882 – Three Masted Wooden Clipper ‘George Thompson‘ – struck ‘Corsair Rock’ inward bound & stuck fast – re-floated & towed to Melbourne
21 Jun 1904 – RMS Steamer ‘Australia‘ – struck ‘Corsair Rock’ at 15 knots – pilot error – wrecked
14 Jun 1914 – Norwegian Whaling Steamer ‘Campbell‘ – struck ‘Corsair Rock’ when overwhelmed by a strong current which drove her onto the rock – wrecked
10 Oct 1945 – Fishing Cutter ‘Thistle‘ – struck ‘Corsair Rock’ – wrecked
27 Aug 1949 – SS ‘Time‘ – struck ‘Corsair Rock’ – wrecked
17 Jul 1955 – SS ‘River Burnett‘ – struck ‘Corsair Rock’ – continued but sank due to damage – refloated 9 Sep 1955 & repaired
16 Sep 1963 – SS ‘Beltana‘ – struck ‘Corsair Rock’ whilst inward bound – wrecked
One can understand how ‘The Rip‘ which is the entrance into Port Phillip Bay, of which ‘Corsair Rock’ is one of the underwater hazards, filled captains and crew with dread . . .
– Located approximately 6.5 km from the Portsea Town Centre – obtain Directions here
– Located within Point Nepean National Park
– Parking at Gunners Cottage Car Park
– Facilities available at Portsea include:
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