Rapid (1811)

Rapid was an early 19th-century American China trader wrecked on the north-west coast of Western Australia in 1811. The three-masted, 367 ton, two-decked, 32 metre long vessel was built in 1807. As the pride of the American fleet, China traders were large, well-founded, speedy vessels built specially for lucrative, but competitive and rigorous trade. Archaeological investigation of Rapid provided the opportunity to re-examine an American outward-bound China.

The Wrecking Event

Rapid departed Boston for Canton (modern day Guangzhou) on 28 September 1810. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope the vessel sailed across the southern Indian Ocean before heading north-east towards North-West Cape on the Australian coast. It looked like being a fast voyage, but disaster struck on the 11 January 1811 when Rapid hit a reef in the middle of the night. The next day, a storm was raging and the crew set fire to the ship, sacrificing everything so that the wreck would not appear above water and attract other ships to the scene before the Captain could return to save the 280,000 Spanish silver dollars carried on board.

Remarkably, the entire crew of the Rapid reached Batavia (modern day Jakarta) alive, although a number died afterwards. Captain Henry Dorr, his clerk and three sailors survived 37 days of deprivation in the 16-foot, very leaky boat with only limited rations. At Christmas Island the crew found resources like rats and crabs to eat but no water other than what they had collected in the sails.

Six weeks after arriving in Batavia the opportunity of a passage home presented itself. The American schooner General Greene had lost its captain and most of its crew at Batavia, so Henry Dorr and part of the Rapid’s crew offered to navigate the schooner to America, arriving in Philadelphia on 27 July 1811.

Salvage of the wreck’s money was a matter of immediacy for Rapid’s owners. The town of Boston was already suffering commercial distress, added to which were the deteriorating relations between America and Britain that eventuated in war in 1812. Most of the coins were salvaged during the months after the wreck and approximately $91,000 were transported to Canton in 1813, with more held by salvagers at Madras and Java.

The Discovery and Excavation

In 1978, a spearfishing group recovered a large amount of coins from an unidentified wreck off Point Cloates on Ningaloo Reef. The Museum subsequently carried out two 8-week excavations from 1979-1980. Archaeologists from the Department of Maritime Archaeology and the Maritime Archaeological Association of Western Australia (MAWAA) surveyed the ship’s timbers, and removed the artefacts from within the hull, including 20,000 remaining Spanish eight-real coins.

The excavation provided a unique insight into the life on board one of these fast ships. The ship’s fittings, provisions and the personal possessions of the crew survived in reasonable condition on the site. A wooden cask, containing salt meat and bones, with the inscription ‘Mess Beef Boston Mass’ was also recovered from the site, this cask is currently on display in the Shipwreck Galleries at Fremantle.

The hull survey provided sufficiently comprehensive data for the lines of the vessel to be reconstructed and gave vital information about a vessel type that had been frequently referred to in the literature, but never comprehensively described.

Work During the Roaring Forties Project

As part of the Roaring Forties Project, Rapid has once again come to the focus of archaeologists. Dr Jennifer McKinnon of East Carolina University (US) and Masters student Ivor Mollema organised for Ivor to intern with the WA Museum and work on the Rapid data.

Ivor worked on reconstructing the ships lines of Rapid, whilst also attemting to 3D render the ship structure from legacy images and the artefacts within the Museum. After locating section drawings and reconstruction plans, further efforts focused on 3D rendering the shipwreck, Ivor reviewed reconstruction efforts on other vessels and set up a plan for 3D digital reconstruction. Using the Rhino 5 software with the Orca plugin, a full 3D rendering can be created. Using new historical and archaeological data, some changes were made to the existing plans.

A full 3D reconstruction of the lines should be available by January 2016.