Archives For Merchant Vessels

Texaco-Oklahoma

March 27, 2014 — 1 Comment

oil spillOn the night of March 27, 1971, the oil tanker SS Texaco Oklahoma was ploughing its way through heavy seas about 120 miles northeast of Cape Hatteras. Laden with 33,000 tons of crude oil bound from Port Arthur to Boston, the tanker was suddenly rent in two. The bow rolled over but stayed afloat while the stern section drifted for 32 hours. The thirteen crew members sleeping in the bow of the ship were never found, however, the remaining crew were able to abandon the stern section in a lifeboat. Unfortunately, only thirteen survivors were picked up.

The wreck resulted in extensive changes to American maritime safety regulations, including the decommissioning of 200+ WWII-era vessels. Five years later a memorial was erected to the fallen in Port Arthur and an annual memorial service continues to be held for all seaman lost at sea.

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george washington

Portrait of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale
Washington & Lee University

Today marks the official celebration of Washington’s Birthday (aka Presidents’ Day). Lighthorse Harry Lee described George Washington as “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” a fitting description for a man who personally shaped many of America’s first martial and political traditions. While George Washington and tales of cherry trees, providential safety in battle and his wooden false teeth are typical textbook fare, less well known is the story behind the Washington family’s emigration to the colonies.

Born around 1633 in England, George Washington’s great-great grandfather Lawrence Washington embarked aboard the Seahorse in 1656 to trade tobacco with Virginian colonists. As the Seahorse neared the Virginia coastline, the ship was caught in a storm and wrecked near The Clifts, a plantation owned by one Nathanael Pope (part of the plantation later became the Lee family home of Stratford Hall). Instead of returning to England, young Lawrence grew enamored with Nathanael’s daughter Anne and married her in 1658. Lawrence served his adopted colony of Virginia in her militia as well a the House of Burgesses and died with 8,500 acres to his name. Thus, if it weren’t for a shipwreck and a beguiling Southern belle, an English born George Washington may very well have been leading British and Hessian troops against the colonists in 1776.

SS Gairsoppa

February 16, 2014 — Leave a comment
sunken silver

SS Gairsoppa

At 10:30pm on February 16, 1941, U-101, captained by Korvetten-Kapitan Ernst Mengersen took up a firing position off the starboard midsection of a lone British freighter slowly making her way through heavy North Atlantic seas. Despite his first spread missing, Mengersen persisted with the attack and fired another torpedo which struck the freighter’s number two hold and caused a massive explosion to rip through the vessel. Less than 20 minutes later the ship slipped beneath the frigid waves of the North Atlantic. Unbeknownst to Mengersen or any of the crew of the U-101, the freighter they had sunk, the SS Gairsoppa, was laden with an incredibly valuable cargo of silver ingots bound from India to the United Kingdom.

Seventy years after the Gairsoppa sinking, an American company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, through a competitive bid was awarded the exclusive salvage contract by the UK government to recover the Gairsoppa’s silver cargo . The UK government’s Ministry of War Transport had paid out a war insurance claim on the silver during World War II and as a result was the legal owner of the silver. Under the contract, which followed standard commercial practices, Odyssey assumed the risk of search and recovery and retained 80% of the net salved value of Gairsoppa silver cargo. During 2012-2013 operations, Odyssey went to work discovering, mapping and recovering the Gairsoppa’s cargo. Over the course of two summers, Odyssey recovered more than 99% of the insured silver bars equaling more than 3.5 million ounces of silver. Although most of the silver was  sent to a UK refinery, investors and shipwreck enthusiasts can purchase 10oz silver ingots and 1/4oz silver Britannias struck by the Royal Mint from silver recovered from the Gairsoppa.

Odyssey Marine

Photo: Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc.

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.