Archives For Merchant Vessels

Last night marked the 38th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a record breaking bulk carrier that operated on the Great Lakes from 1958 until 1975. Launched on June 7, 1958, the Edmund Fitzgerald was, for a time, the longest ship on the Great Lakes. Owned by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, but operated by Ogleby Norton Corporation, the Edmund Fitzgerald hauled ore from Minnesota’s iron mines to iron works in Michigan and Ohio. During her 17 years of service, the ship set multiple haulage records and became a local legend in her own time.

On the of afternoon of November 9, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald departed Superior, Wisconsin bound for Zug Island, Michigan with a cargo of 26,000 tons of ore pellets. As the ship made its way along the Canadian coast, it ran into a storm at 1am on November 10th. The Fitzgerald reported winds of 52 knots and 10 foot waves, but soldiered on through the night. As November 10th wore on, the storm increased in intensity with rogue waves as tall as 35 feet assaulting the ship with massive walls of water. Suddenly, shortly after her last radio communication at 7:10pm, the Fitzgerald plummeted to the lake floor and disappeared from the radar screen of a nearby ship. Despite a search by both nearby commercial vessels and the US Coast Guard, not a single member of the Fitzgerald’s 29 crew was found.

A subsequent search by the US Navy and the US Coast Guard discovered the wreck of the Fitzgerald in 530 feet of water. The ship had been rent in two and the bow and stern sections approximately 150 feet apart from one another. Several expeditions to the wreck site have occurred over the years, including one by two intrepid deep sea scuba divers. The expeditions have recovered the ship’s bell and helped clarify some of the facts surrounding the cause of the ship’s sinking which has never been fully explained.

Confederate warship

CSS Shenandoah Captures Whaling Fleet in the Arctic Ocean

A central tenet of the nascent Confederate Navy’s strategy during the American Civil War was to make Yankee merchants howl from the loss of their vessels and cargos. In order to achieve this aim, the Confederates commandeered suitable vessels in Southern ports to convert to armed merchant raiders, issued letters of marque and reprisal and procured vessels abroad. Because the Confederacy was not recognized as a sovereign nation by Great Britain or France, the ships procured or built there had to be built ostensibly as merchant vessels and later outfitted with armaments after leaving British territorial waters. Among the ships acquired by Confederate agent James Bulloch was the steamer Sea King.

Launched in Glasgow in August 1863, the Sea King was a 1,160 ton steamer equipped with auxiliary sails. After being purchased by Bulloch, the Sea King put to sea in October and rendezvoused with another ship off Madeira. On October 19, 1863 after several days of transfering cargo and mounting her guns, the Sea King was commissioned as CSS Shenandoah after the beautiful and bountiful Virginia valley. The ship’s design was perfect for raiding merchant vessels as she could raise and lower her steam funnel at will in order to change her identity from steam vessel to sailing vessel.

From the Madeiras, the Shenandoah and her new captain, commander James Iredell Waddell sailed through the South Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and captured nine US vessels. Shenandoah called at Melbourne, Australia where she re-provisioned and added forty more men to her crew. After departing Melbourne, Shenandoah ravaged her way north through the Pacific Ocean capturing four more Yankee vessels en route to the lucrative North Pacific whaling fleet. Unbeknownst to the Shenandoah and her crew, the Confederacy had effectively collapsed with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9. The news, though, would not reach the Shenandoah until after she had wreaked havoc among the American whaling fleet, capturing 24 ships in a period of 7 days from June 22 to June 28, 1865.

After learning of the Confederacy’s surrender on August 2 from newspapers aboard an English merchantman, Waddell successfully returned his ship to Liverpool where he struck the Confederate naval ensign and turned her over to the Royal Navy. An excellent account of the voyage, Last Flag Down, was published in 2007 by a descendant of one of the Shenandoah’s officers.

Brummer & Bremse

October 17, 2013 — Leave a comment

german cruiser

During World War One, Germany’s Kaiserliche Marine often sallied forth with light units and sometimes even battle cruisers to harass English fishing and merchant vessels and to bombard English coastal towns. One of these minor raids occurred early in the morning on October 17, 1916 when the German cruisers SMS Brummer and SMS Bremse chanced upon a convoy of twelve merchantmen escorted by 2 armed trawlers and 2 destroyers – the HMS Strongbow and Mary Rose. The Brummer and Bremse had been designed as minelaying light cruisers and were among the most modern ships in the German cruiser fleet at the time of the action.

Mistaking the German ships for British cruisers, the Strongbow and Mary Rose failed to engage the Brummer and Bremse until they were fired upon at the relatively close range of 2,700m. By comparison, the opening salvos of the Battle of Jutland earlier in the year had occurred at 14,000m. The two British destroyers were quickly sunk (the Mary Rose joining her earlier namesake in Davy Jones’ Locker) and the German cruisers proceeded to attack the now vulnerable merchantmen. The Brummer and Bremse sank 9 of the vessels before breaking off the engagement to avoid any Royal Navy response. The cruisers successfully returned to port and survived the war only to be scuttled in Scapa Flow in 1919.

Scapa Flow

SMS Brummer on the Scapa Flow seafloor
Sonar Image Courtesy of UK Department for Transport

Norwegian company NorSafe test drops a lifeboat from record-breaking 220 feet. More info here.


September 2, 1917 brought happy hunting to Commander Georg Schmidt and his crew aboard the U-28 as they came upon a convoy of helpless Allied merchantmen. Commander Schmidt navigated the U-28 among the Allied vessels and opened fire on the British steamer SS Olive Branch. All but one of the crew aboard the Olive Branch were able take to lifeboats and they immediately put as much distance as possible between themselves and their former ship. The crew knew something the doomed U-28 didn’t – that the Olive Branch was loaded to the gunwales with a load of highly volatile ammunition.

As more of the U-28’s shells found their mark, one struck the Olive Branch’s less than peaceful cargo and a spectacular explosion destroyed the Olive Branch and heavily damaged the U-28. Instead of extending an olive branch to the now shipwrecked German crew of the U-28, the convoy sailed on and all 39 hands aboard the U-28 were lost to the clutches of the Arctic Ocean.


Today, two bottles of scotch from the wreck of the 8,000 ton SS Politician went up for auction on Scotch Whisky Auctions’ website. Politican departed Liverpool in February 1941 with a general cargo bound for Kingston, Jamaica and New Orleans. Stuffed within the ship’s holds were 28,000 case of malt whisky. While sailing around the Outer Hebrides, the Politician wrecked off the island of Eriska and the local islanders moved quickly to salvage the cargo and quench their war-deprived thirst.

Forty six years later, in 1987, professional diver Donald MacPhee discovered 8 bottles of whisky on the wreck which were subsequently auctioned by Christie’s for £4,000. As of this writing the winning bid for just 2 of the bottles at the Scotch Whisky Auctions site is £2,400 – a tidy profit for the previous owner.

norway naval battle

Wreck of German Destroyer in Narvik Fjord
CC Image Courtesy of Eugene van Grinsven on Flickr

On the morning of April 9, 1940, the quiet tranquillity of Narvik Fjord was shattered by the arrival of a flotilla of 10 Kriegsmarine destroyers with orders to capture the strategically significant port of Narvik. Despite only possessing the two obsolete coastal defence ships HNoMS Norge and HNoMS Eidsvold, Norwegian naval commander Odd Isaachsen Willoch refused to surrender and the fjord soon echoed with the sound of screaming shells and whooshing torpedoes. Unfortunately for the Norwegians, their outclassed ships were sunk in a battle lasting a mere 20 minutes with the loss of more than 300 sailors. The victorious Kriegsmarine force quickly took possession of the port and the multitude of ships riding at anchor in the harbor.

The next day, though, saw the arrival of a flotilla of Royal Navy destroyers. Among the flotilla was HMS Hotspur which unfortunately was not captained by Commander Hornblower. Engaging the German force, the Royal Navy’s destroyers acquitted themselves well trading the loss of 2 destroyers and 1 heavily damaged for 2 German destroyers sunk, 4 damaged and 7 cargo vessels destroyed. Three days following this engagement, a Royal Navy task force consisting of the battleship HMS Warspite, 9 destroyers and aircraft from HMS Furious unleashed their fury on the remaining German destroyers. Running low on fuel and ammunition, the German flotilla was at the mercy of the British task force and all 8 destroyers along with 2 u-boats were sent to the bottom of Narvik Fjord. Despite their overwhelming victory, the Allies were unable to follow up for lack of ground forces and Narvik remained in German hands.

battle of narvik

Battle of Narvik
CC Image Courtesy of Arkiv i Nordland on Flickr

battle of the atlantic

Blackett’s War documents the application of science to the Battle of the Atlantic and the outsized impact a small collection of British scientists had on its outcome. Author Stephen Budiansky charts the life of Nobel Prize winner Patrick Blackett, a British naval officer turned scientist, from his service in World War I to his 1930s academic life and conversion from civilian scientist to architect of a scientific method of fighting the Battle of the Atlantic. In the first section of the book, Budiansky follows Blackett’s World War I and inter-war experiences as well as those of the United Kingdom as a whole. In particular, Budiansky focuses on the deployment of the submarine as an unconventional offensive weapon and how it nearly brought Britain to her knees in World War I.

As the tale progresses, other scientists and historical events are woven into the story to add context and depth to the fascinating melding of ruthless warfare with statistical analysis, cryptography and electronic detection and countermeasures. While this often helps advance the storyline, at times it becomes difficult to keep track of the countless characters and events. If there is any flaw in the book, it is that the inclusion of these characters renders the title slightly misleading. The book is less about Patrick Blackett than it is about the scientific teams on both sides of the Atlantic that fought both their own civilian and military bureaucracy and the Kriegsmarine to win the naval war. Overall Blackett’s War is an intriguing read that provides a unique blend of scientific and military history.

clipper ship

Clipper Blue Jacket Aflame
Photo: Wrecksite

In 1869 the clipper ship Blue Jacket embarked 71 passengers and crew and departed Lyttelton, New Zealand bound for Liverpool. On March 9, off the coast of the Falkland Islands, the ship caught fire and was abandoned. A total of 39 survivors were picked up with 36 having spent a week adrift and 3 spending 3 weeks subject to the vagaries of the South Atlantic. While March 9th may have signaled the end of the Blue Jacket’s voyage, it marked the beginning of a voyage of a different sort for her figurehead. For nearly 20 months the Blue Jacket’s figurehead floated with the currents and on December 8, 1871 washed ashore on Rottnest Island near Perth, Australia – 6,000 miles from where the Blue Jacket was abandoned.

Negligence (n.)

February 22, 2013 — Leave a comment

S/V Speke Aground

Negligence (n.) – the defendant had a duty to the plaintiff, the defendant breached that duty by failing to conform to the required standard of conduct, the defendant’s negligent conduct was the cause of the harm to the plaintiff, and the plaintiff was, in fact, harmed or damaged.

On February 22, 1906, the S/V Speke ran aground off Phillip Island south of Melbourne, Australia due to the negligence of her captain in properly navigating the ship. Speke was the second-largest ship-rigged vessel in existence at the time of her destruction and was bested in size only by her sister ship Bragdo. The vessels were built in Southampton in 1891 and Speke plied the South America-Australia trade route. Thankfully only one crew member perished as a result of the catastrophe.