The Rapid was a square sterned ship built in 1807 near Boston Massachusetts. She was 31 meters long and weighed around 370 tonnes. On the 28th September 1810 she set sail for China with 280,000 spanish pieces of eight.


She never made it, in the early hours of the 7th January 1811 the Rapid struck the Ningaloo reef. All hands made it to the life boats and after burning the ship to the water line to hide her from looters, set off for Batavia. It took 37 days at sea in 3 small boats to reach safety, an amazing feat in itself. The insurers of the Rapid did return to the wreck in 1813 and recovered 90,000 coins, but like most events of this era that happened on far away shores the Rapid was soon forgotten. With the march of time Stories of shipwreck became myth. Slowly as those that knew of her died, the Rapid disappeared from the minds of men, until 168 years later.


July 20th 1978


Frank Paxman, Barry Paxman, Glynn Dromey and Larry Patterson are Freediving just inside Black Rock Passage on the Ningaloo reef. An overcast and windy day the men decide to stay on the inside of the passage. It’s the last dive of the trip and Frank hangs back in the boat while the rest of the crew drops over the side and begin to swim out wide towards the main reef.


 One could imagine Frank was simply not in a rush and in this sort of weather was keen to see the boats anchor was holding. Gazing out across the sea Franks experienced gaze would have picked out the sea grass and deeper areas, not having dived this spot before he would have been keen to explore.


Quietly slipping beneath the waves Frank relaxed and moved off in search of a worthy adversary. A stud Baldchin Groper mooches around on the bottom and Frank is swift and sure as he lines the Baldchin up. As Frank pulls the trigger he catches sight of two long bolts standing proud of the bottom. His shot misses but Frank has already forgotten the Baldy. His mind races, he lists the wrecks he knows of quickly one by one in his head. None should be here. He dives again and floats silently over more wreckage, shapes begin to materialize, an anchor, ballast stones and blackened timber. Its like a dream, Frank still can’t believe it.

A site every diver longs to see: an anchor of an unknown shipwreck!


Returning to the surface Frank looks for the others and sees their snorkels cutting through the short chop, he yells for the boys attention but the wind steals his words and throws them cruelly back. He yells again, his voice hoarse with excitement. For some unknowing reason Barry lifts his head and hears his dad’s voice.

More wreckage: its not just a lost anchor!

Concerned Barry pops high out of the water to locate his father and begins to swim hard towards him. Frank dives again and swoops down on the wreck, a pile of strangely rounded black objects appears in front of him. Frank scoops them up and returns to the surface. Barry is looking for him when he pops up close by. Barry is watching his father rub at what looks like a black biscuit, the sun breaks from the clouds and the light catches the object in Frank’s hand. A flash of silver is all it takes, Frank’s whoop of joy startles the gulls on the beach 2km away. Silver, Frank has found a king’s ransom in Spanish pieces of eight!


A Spanish silver coin found on the Rapid


The story of the Rapid took until the 5th of May 1981 to uncover.

Divers excavating the Rapid: note the bag of silver in the foreground!


Graeme Henderson of the Maritime Museum in Western Australia found a column in the Columbian Sentinel dated 3 August 1811 under the heading Shipping Memoranda.

The ships bell: historically a major find!


It read:

Ship Rapid, Captain Dorr, of and from Boston, has been lost on the coast of New Holland. Captain and crew saved. Captain Dorr and part of the crew of the Rapid navigated to Philadelphia the schooner General Greene, she having lost her Captain and most of her crew at Batavia. This was the clue that led to the unraveling of the mystery wreck at Madman’s Corner discovered by Frank and the crew.


Below: more pictures from the excavation of the Rapid





Note: Historical shipwrecks have since been protected under state law. It is illegal to remove artifacts from known or unknown wrecks.