3 March 2019 | Part of the “A Pioneering Cruise Line” Anthology of Stories


Captain Gary Wilson

Captain Gary Wilson has had a long association with sailing in Australian waters, beginning his career as a cadet officer with BHP. In those days he sailed on many of ships carrying iron ore and limestone to its blast furnaces in Whyalla, Port Kembla and Newcastle and iron and steel products to many distant overseas ports. He has a vast maritime knowledge with an interest in square rigged sailing vessels, which he is able to master on the high seas. Gary was associated with the Duyfken Foundation from 2000 to 2010 and he has a passion for correctly interpreting historic events. His article below illustrates this point, particularly the part played by Willem Janszoon and the Duyfken in the discovery of Australia by Europeans.

But the core of Gary’s article is his retelling of the significant activities of Abel Tasman as he explored around many of the locations now visited by our passengers. Gary is the Senior Master for Coral Expeditions and on duty is Captain of Coral Discoverer.

Balmoral Hill, Port Davey. Southwest Tasmania.







Coral Expeditions’ pioneering cruises visit some of the most remote, scenic and exciting coastlines of Australia and neighbouring countries. In addition to colourful coral reefs, spectacular river gorges, rarely visited islands, a variety of marine and terrestrial wildlife and visits to culturally diverse villages. The areas that we travel to are rich in history, especially maritime history.

Indigenous mariners of pre-written history have been sailing these waters for thousands of years, settling, trading and fishing. Then it was the European explorers, in capable little sailing ships, that over several centuries, put these areas on the charts of the world and opened them up for further settlement and trade.

Our expeditions follow in the wake of some of these famous ships. Coral Discoverer visits the Spice Island of Banda. It was from here that Willem Janszoon sailed the jacht (an armed scout ship) Duyfken to Cape York becoming the first known European to touch and chart this part of the Australian coast in 1606. I was fortunate to sail as Mate, and later Master, of the replica Duyfken which retraced that voyage in 2000. Kimberley voyages aboard Coral Expeditions I and Coral Discoverer carry on the explorations made by Phillip Parker King in the cutter Mermaid and brig Bathurst on four journeys from 1817 to 1822.

Coral Expeditions II, on her voyages through the Great Barrier Reef, sails in waters first charted by James Cook in the ex-North Sea collier Endeavour – the replica of which I was also fortunate to command for a voyage.

However, there is one mariner, more than any other, who provides a historical connection to so many of the areas that Coral Expeditions visits – the Kimberley coast, Tasmania, New Zealand, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands. He was a superb seaman who, with his crews, made a series of remarkable voyages of exploration in some tough little ships that deserve to be better known in history – the Heemskerck, Zeehaen, Limmen, Zeemeeuw and Bracq. That man is Abel Janszoon Tasman.

In 1602, the VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or United East Indies Company) was formed in the Netherlands and went on to become the powerhouse in the world spice trade, displacing other Europeans from the control of the Spice Islands, located in modern Indonesia. With a near monopoly in the trade of nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, pepper and other spices, the VOC became widespread through the Spice Islands. As part of their burgeoning empire, their ships engaged in exploration and charting, intending to expand opportunities for profit. This led to the 1606 voyage of Duyfken and the discovery of the ‘Southland’, which along with subsequent voyages, added to the knowledge of that coast.

Abel Janszoon Tasman was born in Lutjegast in 1603 and joined the VOC around 1631. By 1634 he had command of a small jacht, involved in the spice trade centred on one of the main Spice Islands, Banda. After spending some time back in the Netherlands, Tasman returned to the East Indies in 1639, which by this stage had a new Governor-General, Anthony van Diemen. It was due to van Diemen’s search for new lands and new trading opportunities for the VOC, that Tasman began his voyages of exploration, undertaking a number of excursions to Japan. In 1642, he was given command of an expedition to determine if there was a passage from the Indian Ocean through to the Pacific, south of the ‘Southland’.

For this voyage, he was given two vessels, the jacht Heemskerck and the flute (an efficient and handy cargo carrier) Zeehaen. It was on this remarkable voyage that Tasman explored some of the areas now visited by Coral Expeditions on our own voyages of exploration. Tasman sailed from Batavia (modern Jakarta) on the 14th August 1642, anchoring at the northern end of the Sunda Strait the next day. From Tasman’s journal for the 16th August: “At our anchorage the wind was northeast, and we noticed a strong current flowing through Sunda Strait. In the evening, with the land breeze, we raised our anchors and shaped our course to pass between the Prince Islands and Krakatau.”

375 years later, Coral Discoverer was in the same area. After an overnight anchorage at Ujong Kulon National Park, on the south-west tip of Java, we stood north past Panaitan Island (Tasman’s “Prince” Island). From my own journal: “At daylight, we had a gentle W’ly breeze, but soon after had squalls with moderate rain. A waterspout developed a couple of miles ahead, opening slowly to starboard and lasting about 20 minutes. By 7am we were close E of Rakata Island in the Krakatau group essentially entering what remains of the caldera formed after the explosion in 1883.”

This explosion, the loudest and biggest in recorded history, means that the Krakatau we see today is very different to the Krakatau of Tasman’s time.

Heemskerck and Zeehaen then sailed across to Mauritius, to refit there, before heading down into the high latitudes of the Southern Ocean and running east with the westerly winds. It was a tough passage at times, as recorded on the 6th November: “Got a storm from the west with hail and snow. We scudded with a foresail which was scarcely at half-mast. The sea was very violent, and our people began to be afflicted by severe cold.”

But on 24th November 1642: “In the afternoon, about 4 o’clock, we saw land, which we had east by north from us by our estimate ten miles distant. It was very high land.” The following day, Tasman realised that this was a great discovery, as he recorded: “This land is the first land in the South Sea that we have met with and is yet known by no European nations. So, we have given this land the name of Anthony van Diemenslandt, in honour of the Most Honourable the Governor-General, our High Master, who sent us out to make these discoveries.”


Anak Krakatau, Sunda Strait. Indonesia

In 2015, this high land was again sighted by modern explorers, as Coral Expeditions I commenced voyages to Van Diemen’s Land, now named Tasmania after Tasman himself. De Witt and Maatsuyker Islands, named after officials of the VOC, Maria Island (for the wife of van Diemen) and Storm Bay (for the heavy weather Heemskerck and Zeehaenencountered there), are just some of the legacies of that 1642 voyage and provide highlights as our excursions follow in Tasman’s wake.

Leaving Tasmania, Tasman then continued east across the sea that was eventually to bear his name, until the 13th December 1642, when: “Towards noon we saw a large, high, elevated land bearing southeast from us about fifteen miles distance.” Unfortunately, a few days later, some crew from Zeehaen were killed following an altercation with the local inhabitants, in a place subsequently named Murderers Bay.

Tasman followed the coast north and went on to record the following: “This is the second land, which we have sailed along and discovered. This land we have given the name of ‘Staten Landt’ in honour of the High and Mighty States-General since we have deemed it quite possible that this land is joined to the great Staten Landt, but this is not certain.” This new land eventually proved not to be part of Staten Land, a large island off the south part of South America that was thought to be part of a great southern continent perhaps). It was eventually renamed New Zealand, another Zealand, another area that Coral Expeditions’ guests explore today aboard Coral Discoverer on voyages that take them to fascinating Stewart Island and the spectacular Fiordland featuring Dusky, Doubtful, Thompson, Breaksea and Milford Sounds. Overlapping with that other great explorer, James Cook, Coral Discoverer also sails into his favourite anchorage, Ship Cove in New Zealand’s Queen Charlotte Sound, where his ships, the Endeavour and Resolution spent many weeks.

But to return to Heemskerck and Zeehaen. One hundred and thirty years before Cook, Tasman sailed north from New Zealand into the Pacific Islands. He was the first European to sight the Fiji Islands and Tonga, charting the island groups along the way. Turning west then, the expedition sailed north of the Solomon Islands, which first saw European contact as early as 1568, when Alvaro de Mendana led a Spanish voyage there, but these islands were then ‘lost’ again to Europeans for two centuries. Coral Expeditions continues to explore this area, aboard Coral Discoverers ‘Islands of the South Pacific’ expeditions.

Tasman then steered north of New Britain and New Ireland and continued west along the coast of New Guinea. Once again, we find ourselves voyaging in his wake, with our own expeditions to this area. Coral Discoverer has encountered many of the same sights that Heemskerck and Zeehaen did.

On 22nd April 1643, Tasman wrote: “At sunrise, we got into very pale-coloured water, and at first thought, we had come upon a shoal, for which reason we forthwith turned our course to the north. At this time, we had the high burning mountain east-south-east and south-east by east of us at seven miles distance. At night the flames were very violent. We found here a low-lying land full of rivers, and saw many trunks of trees and other wood, together with a great quantity of green brushwood, come floating from the rivers with a flow of whitish sandy water… a large river south-south-west of us at two miles distance.”

As we sail along this coast, passing the active volcanic island of Manam, and entering the broad, fast-flowing Sepik River, those words could have come straight from my journal, rather than nearly 400 years earlier. Papua New Guinea remains a remote and little-explored part of the world, and our expeditions there visit islands and volcanoes, reefs and rivers, villages and anchorages that few people get to see, even today. Coral Discoverer and now Coral Expeditions I are indeed following Heemskerck and Zeehaen in this part of the world. Further west, crossing the modern border from Papua New Guinea into the West Papua region of Indonesia to spectacular Raja Ampat, Tasman passed through what is now Dampier Strait, named after yet another famous explorer in this region, William Dampier, who came through here in the Roebuck in 1699. Here are a myriad of islands and reefs, as Tasman noted on 23rd May 1643: “Here we again came close under a number of islands but at first found no anchorage. The coast of Nova Guinea in these parts is continually running in and out, with so many windings and so many large and small islands that there is no counting them.”

On our own voyages through the Raja Ampat region, Coral Discoverer has also sailed through many reefs and islands, many still little explored and featuring some of the best snorkelling in the world and fantastic wildlife, both above and below the water.

When Tasman arrived back in Batavia in June 1643, he had completed one of the greatest exploration voyages in history, circumnavigating the ‘Southland’, putting Van Diemen’s Land and Staten Landt on the chart of the world, and further exploring the Pacific Island groups, New Guinea and the Spice Islands. Today Coral Expeditions is proud to take its guests on voyages to rediscover all these areas, following in the wake of such an intrepid early explorer as Abel Tasman. But Tasman still had more to do.

Hollandia Nova. Image Credit Melchisdech Thevenot

Despite making one of the greatest exploration voyages in history, covering vast tracts of the Indian, Southern and Pacific Oceans, charting lands previously unknown to Europeans and bringing his two small ships safely home, his boss, van Diemen, was not satisfied with Tasman’s results. After all, despite circumnavigating the ‘Southland’ and thus firmly putting its position on the world map, he had found no new trade opportunities –and trade was everything to theVOC. Anthony van Diemenreported on Tasman that ‘he has notput too much effort into exploring the opportunities, appearance and nature of the discovered lands and people, but has principally left that toa more curious successor.’

Tasman was given another chance, with three ships this time, the jachts Limmen and Zeemeeuw and the galiot (a small single masted vessel) Bracq. This last vessel was a tender to the larger ships, allowing closer inshore exploration, much as we do with our own tenders Explorer and Xplorer. This voyage was to determine further details about the ‘Southland’ – including whether it was connected to New Guinea and van Diemen’s Land. Tasman’s three ships left Batavia on the 29th January 1644 and sailed east via Makassar and Ambon to Banda. Coral Expeditions’ voyages on our newest vessel the Coral Adventurer explore this area further.

Tasman then continued to one of our favourite historical stops, Banda, before following Janszoon’s 1606 Duyfken track to Cape York. He missed the strait, now named after Torres, the first European to transit through, also in 1606. If Tasman had sailed through that strait and gone on to chart the east coast, our Coral Expeditions II Cape York and Arnhem Land voyages would also be follow­ing in Tasman’s wake, rather than Cook’s!

Unfortunately the journal of the 1644 Tasman voyage has not been located, so we cannot be sure exactly where he landed, but we do know from charts of the area that he travelled right along the ‘Southland’ north coast, around what is now known as the Gulf of Carpentaria and Arnhem Land (all Dutch names) and eventually down that part of Australia’s north-west where we spend so much time exploring in Coral Expeditions I and Coral Discoverer: the Kimberley coast.

Returning to Batavia, Tasman had not fulfilled his mission but had still made another remarkable voyage, filling in more gaps in the coast and suggesting the name of New Holland for the whole continent – a name that remained in use until later when British explorers began using the New South Wales and eventually Australia.

I can only hope that one day, the 1644 Tasman journal will be found and instead of following the exploits of Phillip Parker King in the cutter Mermaid in 1820, we can instead go back 176 years earlier and follow how Tasman’s three little ships first worked through the formidable tides and labyrinth of islands, reefs and inlets that make up this remarkable coast. That would be exciting stuff indeed!

Abel Janszoon Tasman, with his tough little ships and skilled crews, was an explorer to be reckoned with. From the Kimberley to Tasmania, from the Spice Islands to Melanesia, from New Guinea to New Zealand, from Heemskerk to Coral Discoverer, Zeehaen to Coral Expeditions I, Limmen to Coral Expeditions II, Zeemeeuw to our original Coral Princess and Bracq to Xplorer, the ships, crews and guests of Coral Expeditions are truly following in Tasman’s wake.