SHIPS That VANISH (Apr, 1934)

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by William McFEE – Noted Sea Writer

IN THESE days, when almost every boy has a radio, and even harbor tow-boats are in communication with the shore office by radio telephones, it sounds strange to say that ships still go to sea without radio equipment. Policemen in Ford cars are listening in on headquarters and television at home is creeping up on us, yet ships are allowed to go to sea legally without even a receiver.

It is only a few months since a ship with passengers vanished in the Florida channel and she was as completely cut off from the world as was Columbus when he Sailed into the unknown west. It is only a year and a half since a brand new British freighter sailed from England to the westward with a cargo of coal on her maiden voyage, and vanished with all hands. She carried no radio. Built in England for service on the Great Lakes, the vessel was exempt by British law from fitting wireless for the Atlantic voyage.

While the Vestris was sending out desperate calls for assistance and fighting for her life in November 1928, and the answering ships were driving through the storm to reach her in time, a small freighter without wireless passed close by her in the night, and might have saved her. But the master of the freighter knew nothing about the disaster until he read of it weeks later in the papers.

With all our modern mechanical and electrical marvels, ships continue to go out into the dark, they are spoken by passing vessels, they answer radio calls, and then there is silence. In the underwriter’s records they are “not since heard of.” They are posted as “missing” at Lloyds, and the big bell booms. Seventeen times in the past five years this has happened, but only to small cargo boats. It is easier for a land plane or an automobile to disappear than for a modern passenger vessel. She is in practically continuous contact with the shore and other ships.

It was not always so. It seems astonishing to us now, but at the beginning of radio, when Marconi was renting small equipment to ships, the big companies regarded it with skepticism and distrust. There was, of course, a great deal of static and sometimes nothing at all could be heard.

Thirty years ago, while I was fourth engineer of a ship that carried chilled meat from Buenos Aires to London, a brand new mail and passenger ship was launched in the Clyde, ran her trials at around 13 knots, classed A.1 at Lloyds, and made a successful maiden voyage to Australia and back to London via the Cape. This was the Waratah of the Blue Anchor Line. But although the meat ship carried no passengers she had wire- less, a small set with a range of sending up to 200 miles and receiving up to 400 miles. She carried one operator, and while he was asleep the officer on the bridge was supposed to go into the radio room every few minutes, put on the earphones and listen. If he heard Morse signals he had to call -the radio man, who would then listen in and take the message. This was considered up-to-date radio practice in those days. But the Waratah, 16,800 tons, twin screw and inspected for passenger and emigrant service, had no wireless.

Why was this? Simply because the chilled meat was a valuable, perishable cargo, and it was important to have accurate advance news of her position before arrival. Wireless was not considered of any particular value for safety of passengers.

It is very rarely that such an extraordinary mystery as the Waratah’s disappearance ever gets into the record. I can recall a small fruit ship, the Marowijne, with 97 souls on board, which vanished in the Gulf of Mexico in 1915, but it could not be called a mystery, for she was caught in a hurricane and lacked the size and stability to stand such a terrific wind. The Waratah was a good sized ship. She vanished, and not even a grating or a life buoy was ever found from her.

She was homeward bound from Australia and coaled at Durban, South Africa, on July 25, 1909. She had all the officers she had carried on her first voyage except one junior mate and two engineers. Leaving Durban with 10,000 tons of cargo and 92 passengers on board, she headed westward for Cape Town, her last call before turning north for England. While passing the Clan Maclntyre, an 11-knot freighter from Indian ports, the two ships spoke by Morse signal. All was well on board. The Waratah steamed on ahead. When the Clan Maclntyre lost sight of her that night she vanished from the world.

The Clan followed and after a southwesterly gale ran into a northwesterly wind that became a hurricane. She sighted ten other ships during the voyage to Cape Town and they all weathered the storm. None of them sighted any wreckage or dead bodies and it finally dawned on the people in Cape Town that a fine new steamer of nearly 17,000 tons, with over 200 souls on board, had gone to the bottom.

It was so hard to believe that a search was made for the Waratah more thorough than any organized before or since. Three British warships made a systematic survey of hundreds of square miles of ocean between the spot where she was last seen and Cape Town. The Australian government chartered a ship which sailed nearly 3,000 miles to and fro. The Blue Anchor Line chartered a ship, the Sabine, which cruised for nearly three months and logged 14,000 miles, all to no effect. The Waratah was gone, and her secret has been securely kept for 28 years.

What happened? One man’s guess is as good as another’s, but it so chanced that I was on another ship in Glasgow in 1910, tied up in the Queen’s Dock at the foot of Finniestoun Street, in full view of the fitting-out basin of Barclay Curie and Co., the builders of the Waratah. There was another ship for the Blue Anchor Line fitting out at the time, and a young cousin of mine was an apprentice in the engine shops in the yard.

It was only natural that the conversation should turn to the Waratah, for my young cousin had worked on her engines in the shops and knew all about her sea trials. He said everybody in the yard knew she was extremely “tender.” It took very little to make her list over. She had a high structure amidships accommodating the passengers, and carried a lot of heavy wooden lifeboats on account of her emigrant trade. She had a bunker with 600 tons of coal on the spar deck, and I was told the, owners had insisted on an extra deck amidships, which was the cause of her being so tender.

Even so, why should a fine large ship capsize if she had already made a successful voyage and the captain, a man of 40 years experience, had lodged no complaints? Why should all five inspections — builders, owners, Lloyds, British Board of Trade and the Emigration Service, fail to discover the fact that she was not a safe ship? The leading experts in naval architecture declared she was a safe, well-designed ship.

Here again the evidence of one who has been through a hurricane blowing from the north off the southwest coast of Africa may be offered in illustration. In 1906 one of those terrible winds caught my ship at anchor in an open roadstead and we were nearly blown on the reef before we could get steam enough to head into the gale. That ship was an humble tramp, very low in the water and loaded with * nearly 6,000 tons of copper in her lower holds. She offered small resistance to the wind, yet her boats were lost or smashed, her deck steam pipes torn up, and her forecastle almost stove in. If the Waratah, with her boats 50 feet above the sea and a huge broadside area to the hurricane had been in that storm, all the naval architects in the world could not convince me that she would have survived. She was safe in all weathers except the type that comes once in 20 years or so off those coasts. She probably turned turtle and took everybody to the bottom.

A fate like this may have overtaken the United States collier Cyclops, whose disappearance is the classic American naval mystery of the World War. Built at Philadelphia in 1910 and of 19,000 tons displacement, this boat crossed the Atlantic safely in 1911 and went to Vera Cruz with the fleet in 1914 without incident. On March 4, 1918, the Cyclops left Barbados in the West Indies with a cargo of manganese ore for Norfolk and was never seen again. She carried 57 passengers and a crew of 221.

As there had been no bad weather reported in the vicinity and the Cyclops carried full radio equipment, it was at first believed that a sudden submarine attack had destroyed the collier. The end of the war, however, revealed that no German submarine had been so far abroad at the time. Since then there have been strange tales reported in floating bottles and rumors of bombs in the cargo but no bit of wreckage has ever been found. As the collier carried six heavy steel derricks aloft, the more logical explanation seemed to be that a sudden shifting of cargo, possibly because of a tidal wave, caused the Cyclops to overturn.

Since the World War, a number of ships have vanished into the unknown. The disappearance of the five-masted auxiliary training ship Kobenhaven threw the entire nation of Denmark into mourning. This vessel, described as the largest sailing ship in the world at the time, carried wireless, auxiliary engines, ample boats and a crew which included several naval cadets from the most prominent Danish families. The boat left Montevideo on December 14, 1929, for Melbourne, Australia, and failed to arrive.

A month later, Philip Lindsay, a missionary on the lonely island of Tristan de Cunha, saw a big sailing ship in distress, with the stern awash and drifting helplessly toward the inaccessible _ % rocks of the island. This prompted A. J. Villiers, the English journalist, to advance the theory that the ill-fated Kobenhaven struck ice in the South Atlantic and was abandoned. Though relatives of the cadets combed the sea graveyards of the world, no definite clue to their fate was found.

Ice also has been suggested as an explanation for the disappearance of the Joseph Medill, largest all-welded vessel in the world, on her maiden voyage from Newcastle-on-Tyne to Montreal in 1935. As the 2,087-ton freighter was designed to carry wood pulp for the Chicago Tribune on the Great Lakes no radio equipment was carried. With a cargo of coal for ballast, Capt. James Macintosh and a crew of sixteen started across the Atlantic on Aug. 10 by the northerly route.

The east-bound Norwegian steamer Stavangerfjord reported the Medill in mid-Atlantic on Aug. 17. Officers of the S. S. Duchess of Bedford saw a lake type vessel ten miles away the next day. On Aug. 20, a storm swept part of the North Atlantic with a wind velocity of 90 miles an hour according to the S. S. Kingswood which arrived in Montreal Aug. 31, the day the Medill was due.

When the freighter failed to arrive on schedule, all vessels were asked to keep a lookout for wreckage. Patrol boats were dispatched from Newfoundland. The Chicago Tribune chartered the schooner Marie Yvonne which spent twelve days in a zig-zag search of 2,000 miles between the regular ship lanes. Nothing was found. Some believe the freighter struck a fog-shrouded iceberg. Others blame the hurricane. Her sister ship, of exactly the same construction, successfully weathered the same trip in stormy weather.

Four steel British ships of over 1,000 tons have vanished into the unknown in the past two years. The Sheaf Brook, 2,179 tons, sent a wireless call for help in November, 1935, while enroute from England to Hamburg with coal, and disappeared without trace. The Vardulia, 5,735 tons, enroute from Hartlepool to Botwood with coal, sent out calls for help Oct. 19, 1935, reporting a dangerous list and abandoning ship. An extensive search revealed no trace. The Blairgowrie, 3,259 tons, vanished after being reported Feb. 26, 1935, in Lat. 48.20 N. and Long. 27.1 W. on a voyage from Swansea to Boston with anthracite coal. Loaded with crude oil, the La Crescenta became a mystery after being spoken Dec. 6, 1935, enroute from San Luis, Cal., to Osaka.

Since 1935 similar fates have overtaken the Japanese steamers Unnan Maru and Yeiryo Maru and the Chinese steamers Tung Foo and Paringa. The Norwegian steamer Spec, 2,053 tons, has not been heard of since sailing from Glasgow Feb. 14, 1935, with coal for Boston. The Norwegian steamer Lysaker III vanished same month enroute from Rekefjord to Rotterdam with a cargo of iron ore. The Russian steamer Donetz, 1,710 tons, has not been reported since leaving Leningrad Dec. 29, 1935, with grain for Rotterdam.

The recent death of the Rev. Justin Moore, a Catholic missionary in China, recalled a sea tragedy as mysterious in some respects as any. In 1923, when he was twenty years old, Mr. Moore was radio operator on the Swift Star, a 8,206-ton tanker tied up at Hoboken for repairs. While waiting, he found a friend, also an operator, starving with a wife and family. Mr. Moore resigned in favor of the married man.

On the next return trip, the Swift Star disappeared with all hands somewhere between the Panama Canal and Fall River, Mass. Her wireless suddenly went dead while reporting her position. Off the coast of Santo Domingo Capt. F. J. Follett of the schooner Albert H. Willis found a battered lifeboat of the Swift Star. The charred body of a man wedged in a box was floating nearby. The sea was covered with oil. Captain Follett believed the tanker had been exploded by lightning. Radio operator Moore, who but for his kindness would have been aboard, became a Catholic priest.

Whenever sea mysteries are discussed it is usual to raise the old, well-whiskered story of the Marie Celeste, dramatically found with no one on board, all sails set, food in the galley, a meal on the table, and a piano in the captain’s cabin with a sheet of music on the rack. It has been my job to go into the case of the Mary Celeste, as she is called in the records of the New York Pilot Office. The real facts are simple and available to anyone who desires them. It is the standard sea mystery of the age, but has been made so by romantic writers and some of the biggest liars who ever shipped in the forecastle of a ship.

In the first place, when the Dei Gratia found the Mary Celeste a boat was missing, the log had not been written up for eleven days and the “piano” was a small harmonium such as skippers often carried to pass the long days at sea. The chronometer and sextant were missing, but the captain’s cash box was untouched. The Dei Gratia put its mate aboard of her and led the way into Gibraltar, where Her Majesty’s Attorney General held a survey and inquiry.

The number of theories to explain why the captain and crew of the Mary Celeste abandoned her, run to a score or more. It is forgotten or not known by many that she had a cargo of alcohol for Genoa. The alcohol was in barrels and the weather was hot. The captain had his wife and child on board. An extremely volatile liquid like alcohol probably burst a barrel head and alarmed the captain. With his family on board he probably ordered out the boat and decided to stand off for a while, intending to return if nothing further happened. He was unable to get back to her and they were cast away in heavy weather on the coast of the Azores.

Those who laugh at this explanation are invited to find a better one and to stick to recorded facts. Alcohol evaporates and leaves no sign. Alcohol was not understood then as it is now. Admitting that there are holes in my theory it holds much more water than the fantastic rubbish many people have invented about a phantom ship called the Marie Celeste.

Time solves some riddles of the sea. In the early months of the World War, while searching for the German raider Dresden, the British cruiser Glasgow found, in a lonely Tierra del Fuego creek, the wreck of a Nova Scotian bark which had been missing for fifty years. Skeletons of the crew lay about the rotting decks of the wooden vessel. For forty years the fate of the French exploring expedition commanded by La Perouse was a mystery of the Pacific. Finally a British ship found parts of the vessels on Vanikoro Island where most of the French had been drowned or massacred.

Other secrets the sea keeps. The fate of beautiful Theodosia Burr, daughter of Aaron Burr, vice president of the United States, and wife of a governor of South Carolina, is as much a mystery today as when the schooner Patriot vanished with her after leaving Charleston Dec. 30, 1812. Various dying seamen have been said to have confessed that they were members of a pirate crew that captured the ship and carried Theodosia away. It is more logical to believe that the schooner went down in a violent storm.

The middle of the 19th century was marked by the disappearance of several vessels with hundreds aboard. The City of Glasgow vanished after leaving Liverpool, in March, 1854, for Philadelphia with 450 passengers. The ship was one of the first iron steamers and the loss of life for a ship that simply disappeared is a record. The steamer Pacific of the Collins line vanished in 1856 with 288 aboard and on Feb. 26, 1857, the Anchor liner Tempest sailed into the unknown with 150 on board.

Nowadays only small ships leave port and vanish without a word or after a call for help.

There was the case of the Miramar, the cruising houseboat of E. M. Statler, the hotel man. With Capt. Thomas Farrington and a crew of 11 aboard, the vessel left Charleston, S. C., Nov. 30, 1925, for Palm Beach and did not arrive.

Thirty-six destroyers failed to find a trace of the U. S. Naval Tug Conestoga and her crew of 43 after she left San Francisco March 21, 1921, for Guam, and the freighter Gilda Scudari, with a cargo of scrap iron loaded at Houston, Tex., vanished into the Pacific in 1929 en route to Yohohama after wintering at Sealevel, Alaska. The boat was to have been broken up at the end of the voyage and the fact that a woman was aboard her from Houston to Panama caused the superstitious to speculate.

As no one returns to tell the tale, we have to guess at the reason for a ship disappearing. Overloading or bad stowage are two of the causes, and steering gear often carries away in a gale, leaving the ship broached to. Her wooden hatches are stove in and she fills. Hatches are the weak spot in all cargo ships, for they are made of wood covered with tarpaulins, both of which are perishable and easily damaged. Steel hatches are coming into use, just as aluminum life boats will be common practice soon. If no water can enter a ship and her top weight is reduced she has a chance of coming through all kinds of weather. It will not be long before every ship that clears for sea will be compelled by law to carry wireless and competent operators. There is no excuse nowadays for a ship to sail beyond the reach of human aid or to go down in darkness without sending out a call.

  1. Charlene says: April 25, 201112:47 pm

    Great article. Most of the wrecks McFee discusses have never been found: a lifeboat and human remains were found off the coast of West Africa in 1935 that might have come from the Kobenhavn, but otherwise everything in this article still holds true.

    Charlie, I think you have the year wrong on this, though: it’s from 1937, not 1934.

  2. Charlie says: April 25, 20111:15 pm

    Charlene: ugh, you’re right. Apparently I mixed the two in one folder. I’ll have to dig them out and figure out which articles are from which.

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