Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tsunami at Lyttleton, 15 August 1868

Lyttleton. Image from Wikipedia.

Following on from the post over at the OGSL blog, I noticed from Jayne's link that the New Zealand Maritime Record site said the tsunami at Lyttleton happened on August 16. Unfortunately, that's a day late. Te Ara has it right though, and has info on other tsunamis felt here in history.

The tsunami was the result of the 1868 Arica earthquake in Chile (but then, part of Peru), about magnitude 9.0 of the scale, so it was a bit of a monster. More info on the quake and it's effects here. The quake struck a day before Lyttleton got hit, so we may have any the effects of a rebounding slosh of the tides. It was bad enough, though.

From the Christchurch Star, 15 August 1868:


"The town of Lyttleton was this morning thrown into a state of the greatest excitement owing to a most extraordinary convulsion of nature. At present it is impossible to say what it is, whether a submarine eruption or a tidal wave, but the damage done to the vessels is considerable. We learn the following particulars from Mr Webb, nightwatchman on the railway.

"He states that at four this morning, on going his rounds, he noticed that the barque John Knox was lying on her starboard broadside, and her yards were nearly touching the screw-pile jetty alongside which she was discharging her cargo. He immediately gave an alarm, and aroused Captain Jenkins, who came on deck; he thought the coals in the vessel had shifted, but on looking over the side he saw that the harbour, from the wharf to Officers' Point, was quite dry, and that all the boats and vessels were high and dry; he called Webb's attention to this, and it was a fact that the harbour was empty.

"In a few minutes their attention was directed to a noise resembling thunder, coming from off Officers' Point. On looking, they saw an immense wave coming along the harbour with fearful velocity, and in a few minutes it was surging round tho vessels, tearing them from the different wharves and breaking the warps like twine. It caught the barque John Knox, and drove her against the screw-pile jetty, carrying away her starboard quarter, and snapping her mooring chain and hawsers which held her to the wharf. The ketch Margaret, lying on the beach, had her warps carried away. The wave caught her on the rebound, and she was.carried into the harbour, fouling the Annie Brown, schooner, and carrying away her bulwarks, stanchions, and mast, and doing damage to the schooner; she is in a sad state.

"The schooner Jeannie Duncan lying at the Hallway wharf recievcd serious damage; the Novelty, steamer, lying alongside of her carried away by collision, her bullwarks and stanchions from fore to main rigging, and her boat is broken in half.

"For some hours the tide kept rising and falling, sometimes three foot in five minutes. At half-past nine another small roller came in, and again caught the John Knox, which was at that time on the mud. In a few minutes the warps parted, and the vessel swung round fortunately clear of the wharf.

"At eleven o'clock, the steamer Taranaki came up harbour. As she stopped at the heads for some time it was feared there might be something wrong. It turned out however, she stopped to pick up part of a wreck of some vessel. The portion secured was a hatch covering, evidently belonging to a large vessel; she also passed a full-rigged mast outside the heads. Captain Francis informs us there were no signs of any eruption during the passage. We learn that the ketch Georgina has been wrecked in Rhodes' Bay.

"The following is Captain Jenkins' report;

"At 3.30 I heard a noise. The ship went down on her beam ends. I with difficulty got on deck and found tho ship lying with her yard-arm on the wharf. I could not conceive what was the matter, when I heard a noise like the rushing of a great body of water, or a strong wind. I looked out into the harbour. It was all dry as far as the breakwater, and a wave rolling in about 8 feet high; it came up against the ship with great force. A few minutes afterwards, it rebounded and caught tho ship's bow, carrying away two parts of an 8 inch warp and the best bower cable, which was shackled on to the wharf, dragging the anchor home with 60 fathoms cable. In 15 or 20 minutes after the wave came in, the water had been within three foot of the top of the wharf. In less than half an hour the ship was dry again. It rushed in and out at intervals until 10 a.m., when another rush ran out, and broke three parts of the stone warp, the ship swinging round again. Capt. Gibson sent his boat and crew and the Government warp, making it fast to the buoy and passing both ends on board ship; by so doing the ship was kept head and stern to the current as it ran in and out. Damage done -- Starboard quarter knocked in. She was bounded up against the wharf by the tidal wave."

It was reported that a 4 foot wave rushed up the Waimakariri River at Kaipoi, breaking the stern line of the S.S. Gazelle, shifting the schooner Challenge as well so the two ships collided. As happens with reports of tidal waves (human nature), a rush of sight-seers surged down to the harbour by 12.30 pm but, of course, by then it was all over (fortunately for them, and also fortunately it must have been a surge rather than a full tsunami.) Other areas from Bluff to Napier reported higher than normal tides during the period of the surge.

And ... what about Auckland?


We have received the following communication from a gentleman resident at the Tamaki. It is of considerable importance, as showing that the tidal movement, which was so powerful further south, extended to this district :—

"At low water about 9.30 a.m., Saturday, 15th instant, my attention was drawn to an unusual noise in the creek (which is a branch of the Tamaki river, about nine miles from the Heads) as of the approach of a whirlwind. On looking down the river I perceived a crested wave, which caused the noise, rushing up ; it passed within a few feet below me, at the rate of from 10 to 12 knots, against the wind and current. I went into the house to note the time. On passing out again, I observed that the water was receding rapidly. The above phenomenon was repeated three several times at intervals of half-an-hour, but with less violence each successive time, when it ebbed and flowed repeatedly up to 12.30 p.m., sometimes to a depth of from four to five feet, but without the wave, when the tide flowed on to high water about 6 p.m."

(Southern Cross, 27 August 1868)

Update 18 March 2011: Chatham Island was affected worst of all the country at the time.

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