In the March 2017 newsletter some short articles about passenger ship losses, including the Wahine in 1968, the Oceanos in 1991 and the Duke of Sutherland in 1853 in Wellington, South Africa and Aberdeen respectively, also a short piece about the Atfeh a tug built in UK and shipped in pieces out to Egypt in the 1840s and a few reassuring words about passenger ships in general using the old P&O Canton as an example. 



I have been reviewing the report into the loss of the Herald of Free Enterprise in order tow write a separate article in the accident section of the website, and within it there are references to a number of other marine accidents which are in themselves fascinating and worth a bit of space in this newsletter, and so it is my intention to devote most of this edition to passenger ship accidents. The first is that concerning the Wahine which was a Union Steamship Company ro-ro which had been on a voyage between Lyttleton and Wellington on 10th April 1968. The ship was to sink on that day with the loss of 51 lives. The ship had left Lyttelton at 20.40 on 9th April with 734 passengers and crew on board and arrived off Wellington Harbour at 5.50 on the following morning. Although the wind was gusting at 50 knots numerous arrivals had taken place in this sort of weather and so the captain chose to start for the harbour. As the vessel was at the narrowest part of the approach the wind speed increased to about 100 knots with heavy rain reducing visibility to zero, and in the weather the radar ceased to operate. It seems that the captain changed his mind and tried to turn about and go back out to sea, but apparently losing his bearings he took the ship astern into the Barrett Reef at 06.40, knocking off one of the propellers and holing the double bottoms. The ship then drifted into deeper water again and the captain ordered the anchors dropped. At this time the weather prevented any rescue activities to take place, but later at about noon the harbourmaster was able to board by jumping from the pilot boat. So, a lot of time had passed and actually the ship was sinking. The vehicle deck was gradually filling up due to ingress of water through the pipework from the lower damaged compartments. So the passengers who had been unaware of the seriousness of the situation were surprised when told at 1330 to abandon ship, and there was considerable confusion, eventually resulting in four boats getting away, and three of them reaching the shore. Others were forced to jump into the sea mostly reaching the shore safely, but the majority of the loss of life was due to people dying of exposure after reaching the shore, or being dashed against the rocks



 Regular readers of this newsletter will know that I have a bit of a fascination with “knock down ships”, vessels constructed in Britain, bolted together for sea trials then dismantled and shipped to places in the world which did not have any shipyards, where they would be riveted together. I don’t know whether it is just me, but I think there is a book there, if someone wanted to write it. My latest discovery in the world of KDS relates to the development of the P&O Steamship Company’s service to India, taking in the necessity to travel between a port accessible from the Mediterranean to a port accessible from the Red Sea. By the 1840s P&O steamers were travelling to Alexandria from London, and also from Suez to Calcutta, and if the passengers were prepared to face the hardship of the 150 miles of desert between the two places they could cut weeks off the travelling time between Britain and India. The problem  was the overland route which was, as far as the P&O was concerned, in the hands of third parties, but even so they were blamed for its inefficient and vermin plagued service. The company chose to do what it could to improve the route and focused their attention on the sector between Alexandria and Cairo which was served by a canal 48 miles long, having been constructed by the Pasha with the help of 200,000 slaves. They built two barges for the carriage of baggage and a further two equipped with cabins for the passengers, and here’s the bit I really like, in order to tow the barges they had an iron tug constructed in UK, and shipped out in pieces, after it had been built, trialled and dismantled. It was the company’s first iron ship, and the first to be fitted with twin screws. It was called Atfeh.  



Oh dear, people by now might be thinking twice about ever going on a passenger ship again, and we might remember that when the Costa Concordia was being evacuated maybe the first man in a lifeboat was the captain, and he claimed to be able to control the emergency better from the shore. This is not the first time it happened. Back in 1991 the Greek passenger ship Oceanos suffered from an engine room explosion off south Africa which resulted in the ship gradually sinking mainly due to a break in the sewage system which resulted in water entering the accommodation through the lavatories, the showers and the drains. Alarmingly no-one told the passengers that things were going wrong, and it took the British entertainer Moss Hills to get to the bridge and broadcast an SOS. Many passengers and crew, got away in the lifeboats and everybody else, including the captain were rescued by South African military helicopters. Last off were the British entertainment staff who had organised the evacuation. All 571 people on board were saved.  



Back when I lived in Aberdeen I used to visit those Sunday antique fairs which can often be found in the ballrooms of mid range hotels, and would pick through the offerings on the stalls there. Usually there would be one or two book stalls, and I would often purchase a volume which interested me, on one occasion one called “Twenty-one Aberdeen Events of the Nineteenth Century.”  Which was published on 1st November 1912. Of the 21 events one concerned the sailing of the Fox in search of the remnants of the Franklin expedition, which it will be remembered has disappeared during a search for the Northwest passage, one concerned the sinking of the Torry ferry in 1876 which resulted in the construction of the Victoria bridge, one concerned itself with the building of the first steamship in Aberdeen in 1827 and three described wrecks of ships in the harbour entrance. And maybe importantly in relation to the histories of the loss of the ships was the fact, not recorded in the book, that Aberdeen had its first steam tug in attendance in 1827. It was called the Paul Jones, maybe even then a symbol of independence. So why, you might think did ship-owners not get the Paul Jones out there to help their ships into the port. The truth is that they were as tight fisted then as they are now, and would rather risk their craft piling up on the beach, than pay for the tug to get steam up.

So, on 1st April 1853 the SS Duke of Sutherland, a steamship belonging to the Aberdeen Steam Navigation Company, which had been built on the Clyde in 1847, arrived off the port with 25 passenger and 30 crew aboard, as well as a hold full of general cargo, having left London two days earlier. When it got to the harbour entrance there was an easterly gale blowing and a strong outflow down the River Dee caused by melting snows up in the hills. This caused a deal of turbulence in the channel, and even today similar conditions cause the harbour to be closed because there is danger of the ships bottoming in the channel.

But finally the harbourmaster determined that conditions were such that the harbour could be opened and a small vessel made it into the port, giving the captain of the Duke of Sutherland the confidence to have a go as well. His enthusiasm may have been enhanced by the need, as there always is, to get the passengers disembarked, and so the ship was directed towards the entrance. However just as it was passing the south breakwater a number of large waves propelled it towards the rocks. The captain gave an instruction to the helmsman to go hard to starboard but the ship did not respond, and so the engines were put full astern.

As steam enthusiast will know this is an instant action, just requiring the engineer to throw over the Stephenson’s link gear, with which we can assume the ship was fitted since it had been invented in 1842. However the emergency action was also ineffective and the ship piled up on the rocks which pierced the hull, resulting in an inrush of seawater which doused the fires and completely disabled it.

From that moment on the only thought was to rescue the passengers and crew. A boat was launched from the ship and seven people got into it before it was swept away, but thereafter it was beached and the people saved, and within thirty minutes the Aberdeen lifeboat was launched and managed to take off 15 people, before it was forced away from the scene having been damaged alongside the steamer.

The ship continued to break up, according to the narrative, separating into three parts and the remaining passengers and crew being clustered round the starboard paddle box. The harbourmaster brought out what was later to become the breaches buoy system, consisting of a rocket line, with which a larger line could be pulled to the casualty and the whole lot tightened up from the shore. The breaches buoy would then be hung from this hawser and pulled back and forth between the ship and the shore carrying a survivor on every trip. It seems likely that the system available in Aberdeen at the time was slightly more primitive, maybe consisting of a simple block and tackle, and initial efforts to fire the rocket line were unsuccessful, because as it turned out the rockets were losing powder before being fired. But later they discovered what the problem was and solved it, so the remains of the ship were  connected to the shore, and with some difficulty they managed to use it to recover passengers, one at a time and about twenty people were rescued using this technique.   

The ship was so close to the pier that the rescuers could see quite clearly what was happening aboard, and watched the drama as the captain attempted to rescue a woman who was entangled in the rigging. Before he could carry out the task he was hit by what is described as a “quarter boat” which appears to be a small craft usually hung from davits at the stern, and afterwards was seen hanging by his hands from the rescue hawser, before falling into the boiling waters and being lost.

Meanwhile the Aberdeen lifeboat, having landed the survivors previously rescued, put to sea again, but was unable to make progress towards the casualty, and so six men launched a “salmon coble” and started out towards the remains of the streamer, but the small boat capsized in the ferocious seas and five of the six men were lost.

In the end, of the 55 people who had been on board the ship 39 were saved. Those lost included the captain and amongst the others a Miss Bremner who was returning to Aberdeen to marry a local solicitor, and who had her wedding cake with her, and a Mr Burness who was returning from Australia where he had successfully prospected for gold and who’s body belt, when he was found contained £50.

The book makes special mention of the Chief Steward Mr Duncan Forbes Christie, who helped to get the fifteen passengers into the Aberdeen lifeboat and was the person who caught the rocket line, which they finally managed to get to work, and so hauled it in and attached it to the vessel, and so was said to have been directly instrumental in saving 19 lives. He was the last person to leave the ship and according to the book lived to the ripe old age of 80 dying on 20th June 1898.



It is easy to find and comment on the numerous marine disasters that have occurred over the centuries since records started to be kept, but we should remember that many millions of people travel by sea every year, and it is still much safer than travelling by road. Many ships have gone from the builders to the scrap heap without anyone aboard them suffering from loss of life, except from natural causes, although nearly all, we have to say, have gone aground at some time and have probably collided with something. One ship with a pretty blameless history was the P&O passenger ship Canton which was built in 1938 and apart from the war years when it served as an armed merchant cruiser, ran from Tilbury to India and onwards to the Far East. As a result it was very well known to the civilians and military, since for much of its life the usual means of travel was by sea. In 1962 it made its final commercial voyage taking in Bombay, Colombo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kobe and Yokohama and then returning by the same route. In Singapore Chinese chefs were taken on to serve the preferred food of the region, and down in third class people cooked their own meals using small stoves on the afterdeck. There was no air conditioning so it was always pretty warm in the cabins. On the final voyage the Canton departed from No 1 Berth in Singapore harbour and started to make her way westwards. Those on board were surprised when the first ship to be passed blew three long blasts and its officers stood it its bridge wing saluting. Someone operated the Canton’s steam whistle by swinging a great big handle on the rear bulkhead of the bridge. The exchange of salutes was repeated as every ship in the harbour was passed It was a moving event causing those prone to tears to well up, and everyone to remember that ships are more than inanimate objects. The painting of the Canton is by Neil Martin. He and I were apprentices on that memorable voyage.




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