Archives For Merchant Vessels


Wreck of Savonmaa

On January 20, 1937, the Finnish steamer Savonmaa and twenty-six of her crew met an untimely end when she ran aground in the Skaggerak during a heavy storm. The ship was bound for the UK with a cargo of paper and pitprops and undoubtedly caused much angst for UK paper-pushers.

For All the Tea in China

January 17, 2013 — 1 Comment
clipper ship

Tea Clipper Hallowe’en Aground

The ghostly image above resulted from the wreck of the record breaking clipper ship Hallowe’en on January 17, 1887. The Hallowe’en was loaded with 1600 tons of tea from Shanghai, China and she ran aground in a storm off Soar Mill Cove in the United Kingdom. Tea clippers were designed to quickly bring the latest crop of tea leaves from China to western markets. The Hallowe’en briefly held the record for fastest voyage from Shanghai to London in 1874 when she made the voyage in a mere 91 days. The ship eventually sank and can now be visited by divers.

confederate fort

Fort Fisher
CC Photo Courtesy of NC Culture on Flickr

At the beginning of 1865, General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan was slowly suffocating the Confederacy and only one major port, Wilmington, NC, remained open in defiance of the Yankee invaders. Wilmington’s location made it one of the South’s most successful ports for blockade runners. The city itself lay 30 miles up the Cape Fear River from the Atlantic Ocean and blockade runners had two islets from which to enter the Atlantic and evade the Union blockade fleet.

Early in the war, Confederate forces recognized the importance of securing the mouth of the Cape Fear. By 1865, what had begun life as a small artillery battery had become Fort Fisher, one of the largest coastal emplacements of the 19th century, and had been dubbed the Gibraltar of the South. Fort Fisher was shaped in the form of an L with a northern land face and a westward facing sea face.

In addition to its fearsome batteries of heavy guns, the fort’s commander, Colonel William Lamb, created a roving artillery unit equipped with advanced breech-loading Whitworth cannon. Colonel Lamb utilized the squadron to drive off Union warships that sought to attack blockade runners steaming through the surf zone or beached during an unsuccessful run.

On December 24, 1864 the Union Army and Navy attempted a combined operations attack on the fort, but were driven off thanks to the effective command of Colonel Lamb and the incompetence of the Union ground commander, Major General Benjamin “Spoons” Butler. Less than a month later, on January 12, 1865 a larger, better equipped Union force arrived off Fort Fisher determined to carry the fort regardless of the cost. On January 15, after a 60 hour bombardment, 8,000 Union troops surged forward and captured the fort after a fierce 6 hour battle. Fort Fisher’s capture sealed the fate of Wilmington and ensured that no more foreign war material would reach General Robert E. Lee’s beleaguered troops in Petersburg, Virginia.

Today the sea has claimed much of the fort and what little remains is a museum and historic site run by the state of North Carolina. Visitors to the museum should be sure to stop in at the world-class Fort Fisher Aquarium just down the road.

Operation Gratitude

January 12, 2013 — Leave a comment
cam ranh bay

Photo: US Navy

As war loomed between the United States and Imperial Japan, the US Navy began laying the groundwork for a network of coast watching and weather stations throughout the coasts and inland areas of China and Southeast Asia. Following Pearl Harbor, the US Navy dispatched Captain Milton Miles, an officer with pre-war experience in China, to establish what became known as the Sino-American Cooperation Organization (SACO). The organization contributed greatly to the war effort, but one of its biggest successes didn’t come until January 12, 1945.

SACO’s coast watchers observed a 26 ship convoy drop anchor in Cam Ranh Bay in French Asia. The convoy joined numerous other Japanese vessels and SACO quickly informed Admiral Bull Halsey and his Task Force 38 who were conducting operations (Operation Gratitude) in the South China Sea. Halsey worked up an assault plan and dispatched 82 TBM Avenger bombers to destroy the Japanese convoy. By the end of the day, more than 40 ships and 120,000 tons of enemy shipping lay at the bottom of Cam Ranh Bay. Thanks to a handful of American and Chinese SACO coast watchers, thousands of tons of much needed war material were destroyed and the noose tightened ever so tighter around Japan’s home islands.

Nuclear Ship Savannah

January 10, 2013 — Leave a comment

nuclear powered merchant ship

The early 1950s were the glory days of the Atomic Age as scientists and the public eagerly sought to apply atomic technology to as many uses as possible. Unlike today when there are enough anti-nuclear groups to populate a mid-size state, atomic energy was embraced as the wave of the future. Among the applications atomic power was devoted to was that of merchant shipping. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the construction of what was to become the NS Savannah as part of his “Atoms for Peace” initiative.

The Savannah was conceived as a proof of concept ship that could transport both cargo and passengers and sailed on her maiden voyage on August 20, 1962. It’s Babcock & Wilcox nuclear reactor was more than 50% of the cost of the $49.6 million ship and she could cruise at full power for 2 years before needing to re-fuel. Unfortunately, high operating costs made her unable to compete against oil-burning ships with oil at only a few dollars a barrel. Additionally, the cost of infrastructure required to support the ship couldn’t be spread across multiple vessels and her cargo holds weren’t designed for load efficiency. Thus, on January 10, 1972 the ship was taken out of active service.

Today the ship is moored in Baltimore, Maryland where it is hoped she can become a museum ship after her nuclear reactor is decommissoined. Savannah stands as a memorial to a time when Americans dreamed big and stood as a beacon of freedom in a squall of socialism and devastation wrought by world war.

wrecked ship

SS Knud Aground
Photo: Wrecksite

Some of the most impressive maritime images are derived from ships being found in places where they are completely out of their element. Blogger gCaptain compiled a grouping of photos the top ten maritime incidents of 2012 and many of them are ship’s aground in spectacular locations or angles. More than a century ago, the Danish steamer SS Knud created a similar image when it ran aground in Robin Hood’s Bay on January 2, 1900. The steamer had been launched on October 19, 1871 and was a Clyde built merchant steamship of 1,185 tons. When she ran aground she was loaded with a cargo of ballast, but thankfully none of her crew were lost in the debacle. The cargo was later salvaged and the ship sold for scrap.

coastal steamer

SS Robin
CC Image Courtesy of Paul Hudson on Flickr

Entering service in December 1890, the SS Robin is the world’s oldest coastal cargo steamer still in existence. Robin spent the first 10 years of her life shuttling between British, Irish and continental ports. In 1900, Robin was sold to Spanish owners, renamed the Maria and spent the next 72 years plying Spanish and French coastal waters. The ship survived the ravages of both World Wars as well as the Spanish Civil War and was destined for the breakers yard in the early 1970s when the Maritime Trust purchased the ship intending to restore her for use as a museum ship.

After extensive restoration from 1974-1975 the Robin was placed on display until 1991 when the ship was mothballed. The ship was purchased by the SS Robin Trust in 2002. Beginning in 2008 the Robin was subjected to a multi-million dollar exterior and interior restoration which is now nearing completion. The Robin now resides atop a custom built floating dock reminiscent of a heavy lift ship like the M/V Blue MarlinThe interior of the floating dock will house exhibits detailing Robin’s history as a coastal steamer. SS Robin’s website describes the ship as possessing True Grit for surviving as long as she has. On a slightly related note, Charles Portis, the author of the American novel True Gritresides in Little Rock, Arkansas – the location of last week’s featured museum ship. Even though the Robin won’t be open to visitors until next year, its website extensively documents the ship’s history and provides a 360 degree virtual tour of the area surrounding the vessel.

City of Medicine Hat

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
CC Image Courtesy of Space Ritual on Flickr

The Star Phoenix reported earlier last week that more than 1,000 artifacts have been recovered from what is believed to the wreck of the SS City of Medicine Hat. Designed and built by the wealthy and eccentric Scottish nobleman Horatio Hamilton Ross, the ship was intended to operate as an inland steamer in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Canada.The ship sank on her maiden voyage from Medicine Hat, Alberta to Winnipeg, Manitoba on June 7, 1908. City of Medicine Hat’s rudder was rendered inoperable when it snagged an underwater obstacle and the vessel drifted against a bridge abutment where it capsized under the swift river currents of the South Saskatchewan River.

There were no casualties in the sinking and the ship sank into both metaphysical and physical obscurity. This August, though, a crew working to replace a bridge across the South Saskatchewan River recovered more than 1,000 artifacts from approximately 25 feet below the surface. Archaeologists working with the project believe with substantial certainty that the artifacts belong to the City of Medicine Hat. Miscellaneous artifacts such as an anchor were previously recovered in 2006 and 2008, but this is the first comprehensive recovery of items since initial salvage efforts concluded on the vessel in 1908. While the final disposition of the artifacts is still in question, they most certainly will assist historians in painting a more complete picture of turn of the century riverine life in central Canada.

tall ship hawaii

Falls of Clyde
CC Image Courtesy of Wally Gobetz on Flickr

Falls of Clyde is today the only surviving four masted iron-hulled sailing ship. Built in Scotland in 1878 when the clipper ship reigned supreme, the Falls of Clyde operated as a tramp merchantman between the US and locations in the British Empire. Falls of Clyde later was converted to use as an oil tanker and even served as a floating fuel depot in Alaska.

Perhaps the most intriguing fact about the Falls of Clyde is her backdoor entry into US passenger and cargo service at the turn of the 20th century. The Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 prohibited foreign flagged/built ships from ferrying passengers between US ports. Today, the Jones Act (passed in 1920) maintains a similar prohibition. A US company purchased the Falls of Clyde in 1899 and registered the ship under the Republic of Hawaii’s flag. Thus, in 1900 when the US annexed Hawaii the Falls of Clyde, despite her foreign origins, was allowed to fly the US flag and operate between US ports.

Falls of Clyde was restored in the late 1960s and served as a museum ship in Honolulu, Hawaii however the ship fell into disrepair after neglect by her parent museum. In 2008, the Friends of the Falls of Clyde purchased the ship and are working to restore her.

Falklands War

Captain Ian North
Photo: Commander Nick Messinger

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War. A solitary remnant of the British Empire, the Falklands Islands have long been claimed by Argentina. In 1982 the Falklands were invaded by an Argentinian government looking to distract its citizens from deteriorating economic conditions at home. Faced with the possibility of ceding the Falklands (and their citizens who overwhelmingly identify as British subjects) to Argentina, the British government, led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, organized a task force to re-take the islands.

Among the vessels selected for the mission was the container ship M/V Atlantic Conveyor, captained by Ian North, a 33 year veteran of the British Merchant Navy. Argentinian Super Etendard jets attacked the British task force several times and on May 25, 1982, the Argies were successful in striking the Atlantic Conveyor with a pair of Exocet missiles. Fires quickly spread throughout the ship and forced its evacuation. A dozen crew perished when the ship sank, among them Captain North.

The Atlantic Conveyor was loaded with the majority of the task force’s transport helicopters and as a result the assault forces encountered greater difficulties than expected in invading the islands. The Argentinian commander of the Super Etendard squadron eulogized Captain North, writing “Captain North was a real sea-dog with his snowy beard, he was a great and brave man.” For his superb service, Captain North was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.