The Sydney Cove departed Calcutta on 10 November 1796 and initially made good progress. The first hint of the voyage's poor fortune came on 13 December in latitude 15 degrees 30' when the ship encountered gale force winds and heavy seas which opened up a leak in the starboard bow. Subsequent repairs reduced the flow of water, however heavy weather encountered on 25 January 1797 whilst rounding the south-west coast of Australia caused further damage which forced the crew to operate the ship's pumps continuously.
In the two days following, five of the Indian seamen died from a combination of scurvy and exhaustion, before repairs could be made to reduce the rate at which water was entering the vessel. The already seriously damaged ship encountered yet more heavy weather on 8 February which caused the ship to begin taking on water faster than pumping and bailing could cope with. On 9 February, Captain Hamilton was forced to beach the waterlogged Sydney Cove at what is now known as Preservation Island.
Captain Hamilton ran the Sydney Cove aground at a well protected location, in relatively shallow water. This allowed a large proportion of the ships cargo to be salvaged by the crew in the weeks following the disaster. Following his observation of crew members broaching casks of spirits, Captain Hamilton had all the spirits removed to an adjacent small island which subsequently became known as Rum Island.
Plan of the wrecksite, drawn
by Matthew Flinders in 1798
The health of the crew deteriorated during the salvage operations, with four deaths recorded. During this time the carpenter modified the longboat to enable a small party to complete the voyage to Port Jackson and summon help. The longboat left Preservation Island on 27 February with a crew of 17 and was subsequently wrecked at the northern end of Ninety Mile Beach on what is now the Victorian coastline, leaving the crew facing an overland trek of some 600 kilometres to Port Jackson.
With no other option the longboat's crew began the arduous journey which was to take them two months and would see only 3 of them arrive in Port Jackson. The assistant supercargo, William Clark and two others were picked up by a fishing boat at Port Hacking on 15 May and arrived in Port Jackson the next day. On their arrival they notified Governor Hunter as to the whereabouts and plight of the remainder of the Sydney Cove's crew and cargo.
The 42 ton government schooner Francis and the 10 ton sloop Eliza arrived at Preservation Island on 10 June. After loading what salvaged cargo they could, the Francis and Eliza departed Preservation Island on 23 June. William Clark had sent extra labourers from Port Jackson to safeguard the cargo which would be left behind, however Captain Hamilton preferred to leave five of the lascar crewmen under the command of John Bennet who had survived the overland trek to Port Jackson.
The Eliza was lost on the return voyage along with its crew and eight of the Sydney Cove survivors. The Francis safely reached Port Jackson on 6 July after which Captain Hamilton lodged a formal account detailing the circumstances surrounding the voyage and subsequent shipwreck. The Francis undertook a second voyage to Preservation Island on 30 December, returning on 20 January. The final salvage voyage of the Francis left Port Jackson on 1 February. On board for this voyage was Lieutenant Matthew Flinders whose role was to make geographical and nautical observations of the area. The Francis returned from Preservation Island on 3 March carrying the last of the salvaged cargo and the remaining crew of the Sydney Cove.