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Passenger Ship Disasters - Part 9

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-The normal route from Kristiansand to the North Atlantic was through the Pentland Firth and north of Rockall. As the weather was calm, with good visibility, Captain Valdemar Johannes Gundel, elected to take Norge south of Rockall. Although the southerly route was considered more hazardous, because of stronger and unpredictable currents, Captain Gundel had used it many times as it postponed his ship’s entry into the Gulf Stream, with its often confused seas and restricted visibility.+The normal route from Kristiansand to the North Atlantic was through the Pentland Firth and north of Rockall. As the weather was calm, with good visibility, Captain Valdemar Johannes Gundel, elected to take Norge south of Rockall. Although the southerly route was considered more hazardous, because of stronger and unpredictable currents, Captain Gundel had used it many times, as it postponed his ship’s entry into the Gulf Stream, with its often confused seas and restricted visibility.
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-Initially some of the lifeboats remain together and shared their limited supplies, but eventually they all separated. When the Norge sank on 28 June 1904 she was carrying 8 lifeboats: -+Initially some of the lifeboats remained together and shared their limited supplies, but eventually they all separated. When the Norge sank on 28 June 1904 she was carrying 8 lifeboats: -
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*Boat 1 (designed for 48 persons) was found on 3 July and 71 persons rescued. *Boat 1 (designed for 48 persons) was found on 3 July and 71 persons rescued.
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*Boat 7 (23 person boat) was very overloaded and foundered when launched. *Boat 7 (23 person boat) was very overloaded and foundered when launched.
*Boat 8 (23 person boat) was found on 3 July and 35 persons rescued. *Boat 8 (23 person boat) was found on 3 July and 35 persons rescued.
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The ship’s 25 person liferaft was launched but was never found. The ship’s 25 person liferaft was launched but was never found.
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-It is believed that between 620 and 625 persons perished in the shipwreck of Norge. The confusion in the number of fatalities being caused by the treatment of child numbers in official tallies. In Denmark, Captain Gundel and DFDS were subject to a Court of Navigation enquiry and were also prosecuted by the Danish Justice Department. To continuing Norwegian anger the Judge in the Court of Navigation decided that all proceedings would be conducted in private, with press, public and other interested parties excluded. The Norwegian authorities were only permitted to submit written questions and not allowed to cross-question Captain Gundel. The same Judge presided over the Justice Department prosecution. All parties were acquitted.+It is believed that between 620 and 625 persons perished in the shipwreck of Norge. The confusion in the number of fatalities being caused by the treatment of child numbers in official tallies. In Denmark, Captain Gundel and DFDS were subject to a Court of Navigation enquiry and were also prosecuted by the Danish Justice Department. To continuing Norwegian anger, the Judge in the Court of Navigation decided that all proceedings would be conducted in private, with press, public and other interested parties excluded. The Norwegian authorities were only permitted to submit written questions and not allowed to cross-question Captain Gundel. The same Judge presided over the Justice Department prosecution. All parties were acquitted.

Revision as of 18:46, 13 January 2010

Contents

Introduction


This series of articles provides a listing of all major passenger ships that have been lost in service. For comparison, there are also articles covering some the most significant losses of smaller passenger vessels and ferries. The articles also provide commentary on some of the most significant incidents.

For practical and technical reasons, the Articles are presented in the following parts: -

  • Part 1. Definitions and the Development of International Passenger Ship Regulations
  • Part 2. Fire
  • Part 3. Collision,
  • Part 4. Other Navigational Error
  • Part 5. Structural Failure and Foundered
  • Part 6. Hostilities – World War 1 and the Spanish Civil War
  • Part 7. Hostilities – World War 2
  • Part 8. Ship Safety Analysis – Passenger vessels over 10,000 GRT
  • Part 9. Some smaller passenger vessel losses
  • Part 10. Some losses of ferries below 10,000 GRT in European Waters
  • Part 11. Some losses of ferries below 10,000 GRT outside European Waters



This article examines some of the passenger vessels below 10,000 GRT that have been lost at sea in peacetime.


Smaller Passenger Vessels


The earlier parts of these articles set out to provide a comprehensive record of all passenger vessels above 10,000 GRT that have been lost. Excluding the effects of hostilities the world passenger ship fleet has suffered a total of 110 ship losses in the 120 years since the first ship over 10,000 GRT entered service. Of these 42 ships were lost to fire while in port (at a cost of 5 lives) and 68 at sea for all reasons (7,148 lives). This vessel size was selected for the earlier articles for practical reasons, plus the fact that during the period since the introduction of the first SOLAS regulations in 1914, 10,000 GRT became about the minimum acceptable size for ocean liner construction. Before 1888 however all passenger ships were smaller than this limit and from available records, it is clear that from the introduction of ocean going steamships a considerable number of these smaller ships perished.

At the present day, many ferries are over 10,000 GRT and these vessels feature prominently in the lists of larger passenger ships lost over the past 40 years. Even more of the smaller ferries have been lost however, especially those being operated in the national waters of developing countries. Some of these disasters are covered in Parts 10 and 11.


Sailing Ships


Sailing ships have been lost at sea since the beginnings of civilisation. Early records are of course not available, but even in the nineteenth century records are vague. The famous Aberdeen shipowner George Thompson owned at least 65 sailing ships between 1826 and 1906, including the great clippers Thermopylae and Miltiades, yet the final fate of 11 of these ships is unknown. Only 13 of the fleet are known to have been broken up, while 41 were lost as a result of shipwrecks, collision, fire and stranding, including 5 that left port and were never seen again. Travel by sailing ship was undoubtedly a risky undertaking.

Image:SS01_Militiades.jpg

Photo 1: A Jack Spurling painting of George Thompson’s great clipper Militiades


Transatlantic Passenger Steamers


One of the few comprehensive sources of historic maritime information is N R P Bonsor’s monumental 5 volume work “North Atlantic Seaway”, which provides fleet details for every shipping company that has operated steam or motor powered transatlantic passenger ships. Although this only covers one trade, it provides this sample of the hazards faced by smaller passenger vessels during the nineteenth and early twentieth century: -


President


As is well known, the first steam assisted transatlantic crossing was made by the paddle-steamer Savannah in 1819. Other pioneering voyages followed, but it was not until 1835 that the British & American Steam Navigation Company became the first North Atlantic steamship line to have its shares successfully floated to the public and in March 1838 it became the first company to start a transatlantic service, using the chartered 703 ton ship Sirius. This vessel was joined by the company’s new built British Queen (1,862 tons) in 1839 and the even larger President (2,366 tons) in 1840.

As built, both British Queen and President were fitted with improved paddle wheels, where the floats were arranged in a cycloidal curve, so that each board entered the water vertically, thereby greatly reducing its shock loading. Unfortunately this concept was covered by a patent issued to a Mr W Galloway, who obtained an injunction against the company. Subsequent attempts to reach an amicable settlement failed and the floats of both steamers had to be altered. Following this modification, President left New York on 11 March 1841 with 136 passengers and crew and was never heard of again.

The modified British Queen sailed from Liverpool a few days after President left New York. During the first six days of the voyage she lost, one by one, all the floats from her port paddle wheel. The crew managed to remove half the floats from the starboard paddle wheel and transfer them to the port wheel. The ship had just resumed her voyage when she ran into a hurricane. Considerable damage was done to the ship, which was forced to put into Halifax for repairs, before eventually reaching New York on 4 April. It is highly likely that the same combination of paddle wheel failure and the hurricane caused President to founder and earn the sad distinction of being the first transatlantic steamship casualty. In total 176 passenger vessels below 10,000 GRT were lost on transatlantic voyages between 1841 and 1926. Of these 23 went missing, 12 were known to founder and 8 were abandoned. These 43 vessels represent almost 25% of all small transatlantic vessel losses.

With the loss of President, the British & American Steam Navigation Company was unable to continue in business and the British Queen was sold to the Belgian Government to start the first non-British North Atlantic steamship service. In a December 1841 statement to shareholders the British & American Steam Navigation Company disclosed that on her nine voyages British Queen had carried a total of 1,714 passengers and generated an average direct profit of £1,257 per voyage. President carried 414 passengers on her three voyages and generated an average £1,350 direct profit. These profit figures exclude interest charges, depreciation, insurance and management charges, which in aggregate turned the direct voyage profits into a substantial loss, forcing the company into liquidation. In the 1840s it was virtually impossible for any North Atlantic steamship line to remain in business without a Government subsidy.


Columbia


Prompted by the activities of the early transatlantic pioneers, in November 1839 the British Admiralty issued invitations to tender for the conveyance of mails from Britain to North America. The Nova Scotian entrepreneur Samuel Cunard received a copy of the tender documents in Halifax; after the closing date, but with the news that the Admiralty had rejected all of the proposals it had received. Although none of Cunard’s Halifax associates were interested in the project, he embarked for Falmouth in January 1839 on a Government sailing packet. Soon after his arrival in London, Cunard submitted a provisional tender that resulted in the Admiralty indicating that they were prepared to enter into negotiations.

On the advice the secretary of the East India Company, Cunard entered into an arrangement with Robert Napier of Glasgow, to design and quote for the construction of three ships based upon the Admiralty outline specification. His preparations completed, on 4 May 1839 Cunard entered into a seven year contract for a fortnightly mail service, at a price of £55,000 per year. In the meanwhile however, Napier undertook a series of steamship voyages between Glasgow and Belfast, to study the behaviour of the vessels employed on that route and came to the devastating conclusion that a reliable transatlantic service would require an additional ship and they would need to be significantly bigger and more powerful. The dismayed Cunard accepted Napier’s conclusions, but was unable to afford the additional capital cost. To overcome this problem, Napier introduced Cunard to the Glasgow shipowners James Donaldson, George Burns and David MacIver. The four men reached an agreement to form the British & North America Royal Mail Steam Packet Company to operate the service; although it was always popularly known as Cunard Line. Samuel Cunard persuaded the Admiralty to accept the necessary changes to the contract and to extend the service from Halifax to Boston for a revised subsidy of £60,000. This figure was later changed to £1,000 per voyage.

The small Burns Line steamer Unicorn sailed from Liverpool on 16 May 1840 to work as a feeder ship to Quebec, while the first transatlantic steamer, Britannia, undertook the first mail sailing on 4 July 1840. She was followed by her sisters Acadia, Caledonia and Columbia. The quartet immediately established a reputation for regularity and dependability, which was remarkable considering the small size of the ships: -

  • Length (overall) – 230 feet
  • Length (between figurehead and taffrail) – 207 feet
  • Beam (hull) – 34 feet 6 inches
  • Beam (over paddle boxes) – 56 feet
  • Machinery – 2 cylinder side lever; 440 NHP = 8.5 knots
  • Bunkers – 640 tons
  • Passengers – 115 cabin class
  • Crew – 89
  • Cargo & Mail – 225 tons



Image:SS02_Britannia.jpg

Photo 2: A Stephen J Card painting of Britannia in 1840; hove-to awaiting the arrival of a Boston Pilot


To provide a present day comparison; the pioneer Cunard transatlantic mail ships were smaller than the preserved excursion steamer Waverley: -

  • Length (overall) – 239 feet 11 inches
  • Beam (hull) – 30 feet 3 inches
  • Beam (over paddle boxes) – 57 feet 3 inches
  • Machinery – 3 cylinder, diagonal, triple expansion; 2,100 IHP = 14 knots service speed
  • Passengers (day) – 925



Image:SS03_Waverley.jpg

Photo 3: Waverley is slightly larger than the first Cunard transatlantic mail steamers

Although the Cunard Line service was an outstanding success, its running costs turned out to be far in excess of its revenue and subsidy. In the spring of 1841 Cunard, Burns and MacIver supplied detail accounts to the Admiralty, explaining their inability to continue operations. After an intensive audit of the company’s accounts, the Admiralty agreed to increase the subsidy to £81,000 per year, on condition that Cunard provided a reserve steamer. In 1847 the service was expanded to weekly sailings during 8 months of the year and fortnightly during the winter; the route being to Halifax, then alternately to Boston and New York. The subsidy to support this service was increased to £156,000 per annum. Using the Retail Price Index to measure inflation the subsidy would be worth £10.5 million today. Calculated on an average earnings basis, the annual subsidy would be £113 million. Not surprisingly it was some years before Cunard faced serious competition on the transatlantic.

Cunard's reputation for safety was one of the significant factors in the firm's early success. Cunard's orders to his masters were, "Your ship is loaded, take her; speed is nothing, follow your own road, deliver her safe, bring her back safe - safety is all that is required.” Charles MacIver's constant inspections were a major additional reason for the firm's safety discipline.

One of Cunard’s very few accidents was the wrecking of Columbia on Seal Island, near Cape Sable, in dense fog on 2 July 1843. No lives were lost and both the cargo and mails were saved, but the ship could not be re-floated.


Norge


Shipwreck was the most common cause (55%) of transatlantic voyage losses of vessels under 10,000 GRT; largely due to the primitive navigational aids available in the nineteenth century. Fortunately there was no loss of life in most shipwrecks. Tragically this was not the case in the wreck of the Skandinavien-Amerika Linien steamer Norge, which caused the greatest number of fatalities in any loss of a transatlantic passenger vessel under 10,000 GRT and is the worst disaster in Danish shipping history.

Skandinavien-Amerika Linien was established in 1898, when the major Danish shipping group DFDS took over Dampskibs-Selskabet Thingvalla, which had been running a passenger and cargo service from Copenhagen to New York since 1880. Norge was acquired as part of the Thingvalla fleet. She was originally built in 1881 by Alexander Stephen’s, Glasgow as Pieter de Coninck for the Belgian transatlantic operator Engels Line and was bought by Thingvalla in 1889. Although only 3,310 GRT she was fitted to carry 5 first, 15 second and 900 Third Class passengers. This was later reduced to about 800 passengers.

Image:SS04_Norge.jpg

Photo 4: Skandinavien-Amerika Linien’s transatlantic steamer Norge

The last voyage of Norge began in Stetin, calling at Copenhagen, Kristiania (Oslo) and Kristiansand to embark passengers. When Norge left Kristiansand for New York on 25 June 1904, she is thought to be carrying some 727 passengers, including 223 children, plus 68 crew. Children under one years of age were not officially counted and between 1 and 12 were regarded as half a person in passenger totals. Norge was inspected by the port authorities before she left Kristiansand. She was fitted with 8 lifeboats with a design capacity for 252 persons, plus one 25 person liferaft, 843 lifejackets and 10 lifebouys. No lifeboat drill was carried out; no instructions were given on the correct way to fit lifejackets; no children’s lifejackets were carried.

The normal route from Kristiansand to the North Atlantic was through the Pentland Firth and north of Rockall. As the weather was calm, with good visibility, Captain Valdemar Johannes Gundel, elected to take Norge south of Rockall. Although the southerly route was considered more hazardous, because of stronger and unpredictable currents, Captain Gundel had used it many times, as it postponed his ship’s entry into the Gulf Stream, with its often confused seas and restricted visibility.

Image:SS05_Rockall_Map.jpg

Photo 5: Rockall

The night of 27/28 June 1904 was sparklingly clear, with a full moon. Captain Gundel decided to sail closer than usual to Rockall, as he calculated Norge would pass the rock about breakfast-time and it would provide an interesting spectacle for his passengers. Fatally he navigated entirely by dead-reckoning and failed to verify his estimated position by star sights. The full moon was his undoing, for it greatly strengthened the tidal currents in the area and disturbed the accuracy of the primitive magnetic compass designs available at the time.

In the early hours of 28 June the sky clouded over and fog banks began to form. Captain Gundel realised that a close-pass of Rockall was too hazardous in these conditions, but he was now too late to obtain a star sight. He decided to turn his ship due south to obtain more sea-room, not knowing that in reality Norge was at that time some 23 nautical miles north of his estimated position and north of Rockall. After steaming south to establish what he regarded as a margin of safety, Captain Gundel turned Norge back onto a westerly heading – steering directly towards the Rockall perils.

Image:SS06_Rockall.jpg

Photo 6: Rockall

Rockall is the eroded core of an extinct volcano. The remains of the mountain lie at various depths beneath the surface and are known as the Rockall Bank. A reef runs close to the surface for about five miles from the visible part of Rockall. Norge ran onto St Helen’s Reef at full speed, while most of her passengers were still in their bunks. Captain Gundel’s final major contribution to the tragedy was to instinctively order Full Astern, before checking the damage his ship had sustained. Norge came off the reef and began to rapidly sink. Captain Gundel gave orders to abandon ship.

The passengers were awakened by the horror of the noise of their ship running onto the reef; followed by the noise of her been torn off again; then the cries of “Abandon Ship”. When the confused passengers emerged on deck they were handed lifejackets (without instructions how to fit them) only to find that most were useless, as the fastening ropes had perished. At the same time Captain Gundel was bellowing “Women and children first” from the bridge.

Perhaps unsurprisingly panic swept through the ship and the officers lost control of the situation. A near riot ensued with fighting to board the lifeboats. Once launched, many of the often overloaded lifeboats rowed as quickly as possible away from the wreck, to avoid being swamped by swimmers trying to board.

Those passengers who were fortunate enough to obtain a place in a lifeboat found that their problems were far from over. Many of the lifeboats had serious leaks, requiring continuous hand bailing to remain afloat. The fresh water tanks were empty in some of the boats and ship’s biscuits stores were well below requirements. Norge sank as they rowed clear. Astonishingly Captain Gundel, who went down with the ship, surfaced and was picked up by a lifeboat.

Initially some of the lifeboats remained together and shared their limited supplies, but eventually they all separated. When the Norge sank on 28 June 1904 she was carrying 8 lifeboats: -

  • Boat 1 (designed for 48 persons) was found on 3 July and 71 persons rescued.
  • Boat 2 (48 person boat) was seen to fill with water when launched and was never found.
  • Boat 3 (28 person boat) was found on 29 June and 28 persons rescued.
  • Boat 4 (28 person boat) was found on 5 July and 19 persons rescued.
  • Boat 5 (27 person boat) was found on 4 July and 17 persons rescued.
  • Boat 6 (27 person boat) was never found.
  • Boat 7 (23 person boat) was very overloaded and foundered when launched.
  • Boat 8 (23 person boat) was found on 3 July and 35 persons rescued.


The ship’s 25 person liferaft was launched but was never found.

It is believed that between 620 and 625 persons perished in the shipwreck of Norge. The confusion in the number of fatalities being caused by the treatment of child numbers in official tallies. In Denmark, Captain Gundel and DFDS were subject to a Court of Navigation enquiry and were also prosecuted by the Danish Justice Department. To continuing Norwegian anger, the Judge in the Court of Navigation decided that all proceedings would be conducted in private, with press, public and other interested parties excluded. The Norwegian authorities were only permitted to submit written questions and not allowed to cross-question Captain Gundel. The same Judge presided over the Justice Department prosecution. All parties were acquitted.



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