Friday, August 7, 2015

The Sinking of the SS Sirio

High Tragedy at Sea

By Roger Weston

The Italian merchant steamer, SS Sirio, departed from Genoa on August 2, 1904, starting on a voyage that the Italian immigrants onboard believed would be a restful and peaceful ride to begin their new lives in Argentina. After picking up additional passengers in Barcelona, Spain, the ship, with almost 800 souls on board, set out for South America on August 4. However, she did not get far at all. In fact, she was only 2 ½ miles east of Cape Palos near Cartagena, Spain when she ran aground at full-speed on a reef off Hormigas Island.

Fishermen had taken notice of the SS Sirio, which was cruising close by in tricky waters. They heard a tremendous crashing noise when the ship hit a reef. They saw passengers knocked off their feet from the impact, falling hard onto the SS Sirio’s steel decks. For the fishermen, it was a grim moment to see the brutal crash. However, in the next four minutes, that moment of shock melted into a surreal experience as they watched the ship’s stern rapidly sink below the rippling, pulsating surface of the shiny blue waters. Fortunately, these fishermen were not passive men. They knew the sea as well as they knew their own mothers, maybe better. They were highly competent on the waters. Realizing that a disaster was unfolding, they flew into action. They needed little urging; however, they got some anyway. The stern of the SS Sirio sank so quickly that within just four minutes, it was underwater, and the fishermen could hear the screams of the drowning. The bow was still above the surface, like a dolphin sticking its nose out of the sea.

While the fishermen began their rescue efforts, a truly tragic, life-and-death drama was playing out on board ship. By one account, the captain was not on the bridge when the ship struck the reef; rather, he’d turned over the helm to an inexperienced third mate. If so, this was one of a series of misjudgments, which is surprising. After all, the captain had forty-six years experience and a flawless record. This was his final voyage before retirement. Perhaps he let his guard down and decided to relax a little on this last trip. Forty-six years experience. Flawless record. Hundreds of thousands of sea captains never achieved such an impressive record. Captain Giuseppe Piccone could sail a ship from Spain to Argentina in his sleep if he had to. Not, however, on this particular day, this most tragic day.

The fishermen and the passengers on the SS Sirio weren’t the only players in this epic tragedy. There was a full cast, and all the actors were on hand. There were other ships in the area. One of those vessels was the French steamer Marie Louise. Her captain saw the whole disaster unfold. He saw the SS Sirio on a risky course through a dangerous area when she crashed into a submerged obstacle. The bow of the doomed ship rose up out of the water like a breaching whale. The boiler exploded. It erupted like Mount Vesuvius, a tremendous explosion. Screams were heard. Bodies were suddenly floating past the Marie Louise.

“I want a boat in the water now,” the captain of the Marie Louise ordered. “Save anyone you can.”

Over on the SS Sirio, Captain Giuseppe Piccone had a different perspective because it was his ship that was sinking. One thing Piccone lacked was experience in dealing with shipwrecks and calamity. For forty-six years, he had avoided trouble. Conflicting accounts emerged in the press as to what happened on this fateful day. Some said the captain froze; others testified that panic broke out and he tried to contain it, but couldn’t. The captain himself later confessed that his actions were imprudent.

Why would a captain with forty-six years experience take imprudent actions? Why would he take a course that was obviously dangerous according to the captain of the Marie Louise? The SS Sirio was not just any ship. Her entire career had been devoted to delivering immigrants from Italy and Spain to South America. She had safely helped over 170,000 immigrants begin new lives in Argentina. Thousands and thousands of people had fond memories of this ship. It is reported, however, that these were not all legal immigrants.

The SS Sirio was known to frequently make unofficial stops along the coast of Spain where illegal immigrants were taken aboard for a steep price. These illegal immigrants made the trans-Atlantic journeys more profitable. Easy profits were enough to sway owners and captains to take extra risks.

In life, it is said that the toughest trees are those that must survive in the wind because they must grow the stoutest roots in order to withstand the harsh elements. As stated, Captain Giuseppe Piccone had enjoyed a smooth career. According to the press, when the tragedy sprung upon him, he froze, he choked, he couldn’t function. He was among the first to abandon ship.

Seeing the captain flee naturally distressed the hundreds of passengers. Chaos broke out on deck. As the stern quickly sank, passengers scrambled for the bow. They fought to get there first. They fought for real estate because prices were rising quickly.

They fought viciously. Fear rode on their backs. Pandemonium reigned. Primitive instincts ruled. Passengers who hours earlier treated each other as new friends now trampled over each other to save themselves. While attempts were made to deploy lifeboats, fights broke out—knife fights. This was truly survival of the fittest. It didn’t occur over millions of years; it played out in a matter of a few desperate minutes. Even fights to the death. Passengers were spared drowning because they were murdered in bloody brawls. The knowledge of economics proved less valuable than the knowledge of brute violence. Awful sounds carried across the waters—shouts of men, screams of women, and cries of children. The pretenses of civilized man were stripped away, revealing raw, savage survival instincts.

While some behaved badly under pressure, others responded differently. The Bishop of Sao Pablo was onboard and blessed drowning passengers as the ship went down. That is how he died. A monk died while kneeling on deck in prayer. The Austrian Consul to Rio de Janeiro leapt overboard in a life belt, but when he came across a mother and child about to give up to the sea, he gave them his life saving device. He then tried to fight the currents and swim for land without it. When a boat pulled him from the water, they said he was exhausted. Had they not saved him, he might well have perished.

A young mother clinging to her baby was told, “Dump the child, you fool! Save yourself!

“Never,” she cried. “We’ll die together!” As it turned out, they were among the survivors.

There were many survivors because various ships and trawlers in the area steamed to their rescue. One of these was the trawler Joven Miguel. The crew of the Joven Miguel, however, panicked and considered breaking away from the rescue because they feared they would be overloaded and sink. Facing a mutiny, the captain drew his pistol and shouted, “As long as it’s possible to take on another passenger, we will not move.” Fearing the captain more than the sea, they returned to the rescue.

As they took on more swimmers, the captain realized that they were becoming top heavy and might very well capsize. He ordered the survivors below decks, but they were gripped with fear and refused. The captain brought out his pistol again. He waved it around in the air. “Get below now or I’ll shoot you and throw you back into water.” The passengers, having just been rescued, now realized that they were at the mercy of a gun-wielding madman. They hurried below, which steadied the boat and kept her safe from capsizing. The madman saved 300 lives.

Another trawler, the Vicenta Llicano hauled out 200 people. An old man in a dinghy saved twelve more.

More fishermen along the coast sent out boats to rescue passengers. Some of those big-hearted mariners overloaded their boats with people. As a result, their boats overturned, dooming the fishermen along with those they had tried to save.

When all the survivors were brought ashore, a whole new tragic drama began. Parents who’d been separated from their children wept bitterly upon learning that their children were missing. One woman couldn’t take the agony and heartbreak. Her mental faculties fragmented. She literally went insane over her lost child. Many rescued children realized that their parents had died, leaving them as orphans. As they looked out to sea, they saw their parents’ graves. As they looked around on land, they saw their own scary, lonely futures.

In some cases, spirits were broken by adversity. Some of the survivors gave up their dreams of immigrating to Argentina. They resolved to return—by land—to their homeland—for good.

All told, 300 people died in the shipwreck of the SS Sirio. A year later, it was reported that Captain Giuseppe Piccone died of grief.

Author's note: After learning about the worst maritime disaster of all time, resulting in an even greater loss of life than the RMS Titanic, I wrote FATAL RETURN. This little known tragedy could also have been prevented if the captain of that ship had considered his situation a little more closely and made better decisions. To learn more about this shipwreck read FATAL RETURN
You can purchase it hereFATAL RETURN

 Roger Weston writes action-packed thrillers with a maritime twist.

You can find all of his books here: Roger Weston's Amazon Author Page 

Friday, July 31, 2015

Auction: The Mel & Deo Fisher Collection

Looking for shipwreck treasure? Mark your calendar for August 5th. is teaming up with Guernsey's to auction off 126 lots of sunken treasure from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, the most famous member of a fleet of Spanish ships that sank in 1622 after sailing into a violent hurricane. American treasure hunter Mel Fisher discovered the sunken treasure. To mark the thirty-year anniversary of this astonishing discovery, Guernsey's will auction off items from Fisher's Collection. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Michael Abt, Jr. Have a Heart Foundation, which works to provide Automatic External Defibrillators (AED) to schools nationwide.

This auction, The Mel & Deo Fisher Collection, starts at 7:00 PM EST on the 5th, and will feature a selection of 126 incredible treasure lots. On July 20, 1985 Fisher’s perseverance paid off: over 40 tons of silver and gold were located at the site of the wreck off the Marquesas Keys. Including more than 100,000 Spanish silver coins known as "pieces of eight," gold coins, the finest Colombian emeralds, silver and gold artifacts, and over 1,000 silver bars, the Atocha contained riches vast enough to replenish the nearly depleted treasury of the Spanish Crown.

Check out the amazing items below for a sampling of the pieces that will be up for auction on August 5th.

Lot 70: Atocha Emerald Ring

Estimated Price: $65,000 - $80,000

This elegant and delicate ring speaks for itself. A truly unique solitaire design recovered from the site of the shipwrecked Nuestra SeƱora de Atocha in 1994. The ring size is 5.5. The emerald is a brilliant green with a slight chip and weighs approximately 2.5 carats. It is set in a high-karat gold ring which was typical of the wealthier class during the early 17th century. This beautiful artifact is the property of Taffi Fisher, Mel's only daughter and youngest child.

Lot 71: Silver Brazier

Estimated Price: $10,000 - $12,000

This extravagant two-piece silver box was the 17th-century version of a portable heater. Having a personal source of heat was a luxury for the wealthy in the 1600s, and so braziers such as this were filled with warm coals to heat up a ship's cabin, or even be placed under the many layers of a woman's dress while she was seated. This piece remains unconserved and should be handled with care.

Lot 73: Gold Chalice

Estimated Price: $400,000 - $500,000

Since its discovery, the chalice has undergone conservation efforts lead by marine archaeologists, who also removed a layer of white, calcareous concretion -- no doubt the result of having been imbedded in the ocean floor for nearly four centuries. The rim of this gold chalice is etched with scrollwork, images of animals, and there is a crest in the center of the cup that remains in pristine condition. Although experts have not linked the crest to any of the ship's passengers, there is a helm above the engraving that could signify its owner as having been a Duke or a Baron. The gold shines radiantly with a deep hue and is of a high karat weight. A portion of a tax stamp is visible on the edge of the base, and another is present on the bottom of the cup. The base is threaded onto the bottom of the chalice and it turns as if it were made yesterday.

Check out other historical items and collectibles up for auction on

Information provided by Jordan Bellows of

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Shipwreck and the Lighthouse

The Shipwreck and the Lighthouse
July of 1865


Roger Weston

Wind blew with wild abandon, carrying sheets of rain in a massive downpour. Riding low in the water, carrying 244 passengers and crew, the side-wheeler, the S.S. Brother Jonathan, was en-route from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon. Her passengers, including dignitaries, settlers, freed slaves, prospectors, and a group of women living very hard lives—enjoyed first-class accommodations. Her cargo included gold. The 221-foot steamer got as far north as the Rogue River, but out at sea, the storm was fierce. Waves tossed the ship and crashed over her decks. She sank down into deep, watery valleys, and when she rose on big swells, she took the full force of the wind.

Fear gripped the hearts of many passengers and crewmen. As the S.S. Brother Jonathan pressed on, nature flung her unbridled wrath at the ship. Wind howled through the rigging. The hull creaked and moaned, and passengers feared she would break up. Anything not bolted down was thrown about. In the galley, plates flew out of storm shelves and crashed on the floor. Pots and pans crashed. The noise was tremendous. Sea sickness spread like wildfire. Passengers began retching all over the place, and the smell below decks was not pleasant. Children cried.

Finally, the captain made a dramatic, fateful decision. He would turn the boat around and head back to Crescent City, California to find shelter. The S.S. Brother Jonathan had Crescent City within her grasp when a particularly large swell lifted her on high. She then swooped down into the ensuing trough where an underwater granite spire punctured her hull, opening up a geyser inside the paddle wheeler. Water began to fill the ship.

The crew worked vigorously to deploy the lifeboats, but in those wild seas, it was perilous work. They successfully launched the first boat. However, she’d barely cleared the S.S. Brother Jonathan when a breaker capsized her, dooming 40 passengers who just moments before had thought themselves saved from the sinking ship.

Shocked and horrified, the crew had no time to mourn. There were more passengers to save and precious little time to save them. Crewmen struggled to keep their balance on the S.S. Brother Jonathan’s tilting, shifting decks. Wind threatened to knock them down or blow them overboard. Salty spray blew in their faces as they worked.

As they lowered the second lifeboat, a moment of surreal horror registered in their brains as they watched a wave crush the lifeboat against the hull of the S.S. Brother Jonathan. Helpless to save another boatload of their fellow voyagers, the remaining crew and passengers watched them perish right before their eyes. The violent ocean devoured them. Onboard the S.S. Brother Jonathan, people who hadn’t prayed in years did so now with passion and urgency. One passenger wrote out his will. Others took stock of their lives. Their ordeal dragged out for 45 minutes, after which the S.S. Brother Jonathan sank like a rock.

During the mayhem, one lifeboat was successfully launched, and it carried nineteen people to shore. As those passengers reached land, they were gripped with conflicting emotions. There was thanksgiving and a level of appreciation for life that they had never known before. Men and women crawled on the sand and wept. A creeping sense of guilt touched some of them because they had lived while so many others had not. Out of 244 good people, those nineteen were the only survivors.

After the storm, bodies washed up on the shores of Northern California and Southern Oregon. One of the bodies was that of James Nisbet, the man who’d written out his will on the sinking ship. His will was recovered from his pocket and later the terms were carried out. Many more bodies washed ashore. These bodies brought news to Oregonians, sad news, news of life and death, of tragedy and warning. Such tragic news from the S.S. Brother Jonathan was not expected. She was known for bringing good news. Only six years previously, in 1859, the S.S. Brother Jonathan had brought Oregonians news that she had been admitted to the union as the 33rd state. Often she brought gold from the goldfields of California. In fact, she was carrying a payload on this trip. Some say she was overloaded with cargo, which is why she rode low in the water. Her cargo included mill machinery, mining equipment, horses, and even two camels. Part of that cargo was a treasure chest of gold. Her cargo also included rare San Francisco gold coins that had been minted the year of the shipwreck, 1865.

Such things, however, would not matter to the lost passengers of the S.S. Brother Jonathan. Gold counted as nothing. Statehood was irrelevant. Their bodies washed up on the beaches, carried there by life preservers that could not save them from hypothermia in the freezing waters.

In 1865, the loss of the S.S. Brother Jonathan was the deadliest shipwreck ever to occur on the Pacific Coast. However, it was many years before her wreckage was found.

It wasn't until the 1930s, that a fisherman hauled up a grimy load. It was an old metal lifeboat from the S.S. Brother Jonathan. Inspecting his catch, the curious fisherman found a rotten leather valise that was jammed under one of the seats.  When he opened the valise, he was stunned. It contained twenty-two pounds of gold. In his career as a fisherman, this was his most exciting catch ever. It was a gift from the long-lost shipwreck, the S.S. Brother Jonathan. It’s hard to explain how leather could last 70 years underwater. Perhaps it’s one of the mysteries of the sea. Perhaps the fisherman got his story wrong. Probably, we will never know. At the time, private ownership of gold was illegal, and the fisherman secreted away his catch, sealing his lips and keeping his mouth shut about his rare find. Later on, his memory failed him and he could not recall the exact location where he’d netted the lifeboat.

Then, i
n 1993, a treasure hunting expedition carried out by Deep Sea Research (DSR) found the wreckage at a depth of 250 feet with the help of a mini sub. She was found fully two miles from the best estimates of the shipwreck’s location. That she had moved so far underwater was attributed to the air pockets within the ship and the powerful currents. In 1996, DSR salvaged 1,206 Double Eagle $20 gold coins in near-mint condition. 

Government bureaucrats threatened legal action against DSR unless they received a cut of the bounty. DSR settled by turning over 200 coins to the State of California. DSR auctioned off  the rest of the coins bringing in $5.3 million dollars. 

Today in Crescent City, California, one can visit the Brother Jonathan Cemetery and Memorial; however, the memorial is not the only legacy of the Brother Jonathan. There is another, and on a clear day, it can be seen six miles off shore. It is the St. George Reef Lighthouse, which was constructed after the Brother Jonathan shipwreck. The beacon is situated on the Dragon Rocks of St. George Reef. Its purpose was to warn mariners of the rocks and thereby prevent another tragedy like that of the S.S. Brother Jonathan.

The St. George Lighthouse has stood tall and endured almost a century of powerful, frightful winter storms. During that time, four lighthouse keepers have been killed on the job. Service at St. George Lighthouse was considered to be the most dangerous assignment of the lighthouse service. The lighthouse is built on a low-lying, wave-thrashed rock, and even today, it is not safe for a boat to attempt a landing here. Operations were ceased in 1975; however, a group called the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society is dedicated to its maintenance and continuation. Thanks to their efforts, the light shines on.

Built on a wave-washed rock, the base of the lighthouse consists of hundreds of granite blocks, which are able to endure the eternal pounding of the crashing surf. The tower rises 150 feet above the water and is topped off with a cast-iron lantern room, which today, thanks to the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society, is fully automated. Even today, sailors and fishermen are kept safe by the light.

Oh, and one more thing. The salvors of the SS Brother Jonathan revealed that 4/5 of the SS Brother Jonathan's treasure has not been found. The safe carrying the her gold is still missing.

Side note: I've always been fascinated by missing treasure. In The Golden Catch I wrote about what happens when crab fisherman and ex-assassin Frank Murdoch finds a cache of golden treasure on his remote Alaskan Island. If you liked action-packed thrillers set on the high seas you might want to give it a try. 
Available on Amazon: THE GOLDEN CATCH
 Roger Weston writes action-packed thrillers with a maritime twist.
You can find all of his books here: Roger Weston's Amazon Author Page 

If you enjoyed this story please share it by using one of the links below. To receive more shipwreck stories in your inbox sign up to receive my emails.   


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Shipwreck of Tears: The SS Norge

By Roger Weston

In 1903, a 37-year old Norwegian mother named Eline Sofie was on the most exciting trip of her life—a trans-Atlantic crossing on the passenger liner SS Norge. Along with her six children, she was sailing to America to join her husband and begin a new life in a country with more opportunity than anyplace else in the world. A fisherman named Jens Johansen Svartfjeld was also on board the ship. He was on his way to Minnesota along with his wife and five children.

On June 22, 1903, the SS Norge embarked from Copenhagen, Denmark under the experienced hand of Captain Gundel, who had sailed the ship since 1901. Onboard were 405 passengers from Denmark and a crew of 67. In Oslo, Norway, 232 passengers, including 70 children, came onboard for the journey across the Atlantic. All told, hundreds of people who were eager to start a new life in America were now passengers and closer by the hour to seeing their dreams come true.

There was no mystery as to why these people were going to the United States. It was a land of dreams, a place where people could start with nothing and achieve success. It didn’t matter if they were born poor. Unlike Europe, anybody could improve their situation in America. It didn’t matter what their status was. With hard work and ingenuity, anything was possible. To sail to America was like sailing on the clouds.
By the third day at sea, the excitement began to sink in.  The sky was blue. The sea glittered. Passengers began to mingle and tell their hard-luck stories of entrenched poverty in Europe and share their dreams for the future. Some of them danced on deck.

That night, some had a hard time sleeping due to their excitement, others because of the rough waters that had kicked up after dark. The boat was tossed around like a cork. Those who slept were jolted awake early in the morning, but not by the waves. A horrific crash shook the boat. The terrifying noise unleashed fear and dread in the hearts of the men, women, and children. Rudely awakened, they soon heard water sloshing around.  Panic ensued as hundreds of half-dressed people ran for the upper decks. The decks were crowded. The mass of panic-stricken people cried out in different languages when they realized they were on a sinking ship and the sea around them was actually their graveyard—and was presently whispering their name. 

A woman grabbed a crewman by the arm. “What’s happening?” she begged.

“Nothing to worry about, ma'am. Calm down. We hit a rock. The captain knows what to do.”

As people scrambled for life belts, the captain backed the ship off the rocks. No sooner had the ship regained headway when it was discovered that water was flooding the hold. This was called out in Scandinavian. A realization of imminent death stuck the hearts of the people. Fear swept over them and filled their souls with misery.

The sobs of old ladies filled the air. Screams added to the sense of panic. Women and children clung to each other. 240 Russians got down on their knees and prayed. Men wrung their hands. Little children cried.

The ship sunk lower into the sea as luggage and debris began floating on the decks.

Several quick-thinking men worked to free the life boats.

Women and children first!" The captain’s voice was barely heard over all the noise on deck, but some heard him. “Women and children first!"

Plenty of men ignored the captain if they heard him at all. They forced their way into the boats, leaving women and children behind on deck. One man who secured a spot was Fourth Mate Ankersen.

People continued to fight their way through the throng to get up front and secure a place. Many piled into overloaded boats. As a result, when the leaders tried to lower the boats into the water, the rusty equipment failed, dumping them all into the sea, rendering the boats worthless, dooming many souls.

Several of the life boats were properly deployed without exceeding their maximum loads. They now floated through a sea of drowning people—men, women, children, the suffering, and those unprepared to die, who certainly hadn’t expected to die. People treaded water and begged for salvation. They realized that death had stolen upon them like a thief in the night. Their final minutes were ticking off as their light dimmed in the early morning. They called out for help, but nobody who could help heard them. There weren’t nearly enough life boats, and the ones in sight were filled to capacity. Oars dipped in the water as the fortunate ones on board rowed to distance themselves and save themselves. One overloaded lifeboat sank beneath the waves.

In other boats, people watched in horror as the SS Norge was also going down. The front end went under first. Then the stern sank, carrying hundreds of people into the frigid depths. The captain was one of those who went down with the ship. However, by some miracle, the sea spit him back up and he was picked up by one of the lifeboats.

People in the boats sobbed. They wept bitterly because of what they had just seen—and because members of their own families had been on the ship. Nobody could hear their cries, though, due to the fierce wind. The wind was especially fierce in the moments when the lifeboats crested on the huge, black ocean swells. Yesterday they had dreamed of America. Now they dreamed of land—any land. The only opportunity that mattered now was the opportunity to survive another day.

Survival—it had all come down to that. Just to survive and to live another day was a precious gift beyond imagination. Poverty? Hardship? These were minor concerns. Lack of opportunity? Nonsense. There was opportunity where a body could find land—opportunity to wrap oneself in a dry blanket, to drink fresh water, to nibble on a slice of bread. That was opportunity of the most sublime type. Water, food  and solid ground—nothing else mattered. All of the things they’d worried about now seemed totally irrelevant. They could not imagine that they’d worried over such petty cares as they had. It was all rubbish now—totally irrelevant.

On one of the lifeboats, Fourth Mate Ankersen took off his boots. “Use them to bail water,” he said. He then jumped into the water. The others on the boat had just watched a man sacrifice himself so that they would have a better chance of survival. Or was it because of the guilt he felt?

On another boat, a brave young woman took the most dangerous spot as the craft rose and fell in the massive waves. She was constantly doused with freezing water. Thinly dressed, she ignored the cold. To her, suffering was irrelevant. Danger was nothing. She bailed frantically and all the while shouted words of encouragement to the others.

As the days passed, ships were spotted in the far distance. When sightings took place, an amazing thing happened on the boats. People that were previously demoralized and weak suddenly, as if by magic, regained their strength. Hope fueled them on the moment. Depression vanished into thin air to be replaced with excitement and adrenaline. But the people on the ships could not see the tiny life boats. The ships soon disappeared over the horizon.  Now the same hungry, thirsty people became even more despondent than before. 

The half-dressed survivors suffered through cold, wet nights. Fresh water was scarce, and thirst was a cruel tormentor. Some made the mistake of drinking salt water. Others cut themselves just to wet their miserable tongues and throats with their own blood. As the days passed, several of the children passed away. One who died was a Russian boy. His mother hid his body under her dress. She did this because she feared that the others would bury the child at sea. And this she would not allow. She steeled herself and held her boy close, protecting him from the pitiless ocean, determined to take him home. 

The various boats drifted apart. Then, over the next week, five of them were rescued by different ships on different days over the next week. One was picked up after twenty-four hours. Others drifted for five, six, and seven days. Three fully-loaded life boats were never seen again. They drifted into eternity.

What became of the 37-year old Norwegian mother named Eline Sofie, who along with her six children was traveling to America to join her husband in Minnesota?

The husband who anxiously awaited his young family never saw them again. Instead of a joyous reunion, of taking his wife in his arms and laughing with his children, he received the crushing news that his family had perished with the SS Norge two miles off the coast of Scotland.  They were gone. They were only memories now. The cold Minnesota winters would be even colder for this man. 

What about the fisherman named Jens Johansen Svartfjeld who was on his way to Minnesota along with his wife and five children? Their dreams all ended at sea. The entire family died.  The last tears of the children fell into the salty sea.

Many families either lost several members or were wiped out completely. As of 1903, the SS Norge was the worst civilian maritime disaster in the history of the Atlantic Ocean. This was eight years before the wreck of the RMS Titanic.

Author's Note:  The investigation following the accident revealed that several factors led to the SS Norge disaster, including captain error. For instance, the captain  chose to sail almost straight into the uninhabited remote granite islet in the North Atlantic Ocean called Rockall. He did this to show it to the passengers, reminding one of the more recent Costa Concordia disaster. 

The captain overlooked the effects of the full moon on the current and tide. As a result, the ship was north of where the captain thought. The effect of the full moon was ignored and this proved to be a fatal oversight.  Not only that. but the SS Norge did not have enough lifeboats, had not drilled in emergency procedures, and its life belts were mostly rotted. All these factors resulted in the tragic loss of life on the SS Norge.

If you enjoyed this story please share it by using one of the links below. To receive more shipwreck stories in your inbox sign up to receive my emails. Thank you in advance for your support!  
After learning about the worst maritime disaster of all time, resulting in an even greater loss of life than the RMS Titanic, I wrote FATAL RETURN. This little known tragedy could also have been prevented if the captain of that ship had considered his situation a little more closely and made better decisions. To learn more about this shipwreck read FATAL RETURN
You can purchase it hereFATAL RETURN

 Roger Weston writes action-packed thrillers with a maritime twist.
You can find all of his books here: Roger Weston's Amazon Author Page 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Mystery of the Lusitania Shipwreck

Mystery of the Lusitania Shipwreck

by Roger Weston

Allegedly, anonymous and mysterious telegrams were received by some passengers just before they boarded the fateful journey of a glamorous passenger liner that was to depart from New York on May 1st, 1915. The telegrams warned of impending disaster. They were signed Morte.

Such was the beginning of the legendary final journey of the Lusitania, one of the most famous passenger liners ever. And in fact, she was about to play a stunning role in world history. 

Officials denied the reports of the threatening telegrams. Evidently they were persuasive because 1,256 passengers decided to go ahead with the trans-Atlantic crossing to England—as well as hundreds of crew members. There were other reasons for caution, too. The German embassy in Washington, for example, warned travelers that it was wartime and ships like the Lusitania were legitimate targets. Keep in mind that due to the ongoing hostilities in Europe, crossings were limited. After all, the Germans were sinking ships with stealthy submarines called U-boats.

The passengers had plausible reasons to think that they would survive the dangerous trip. After all, the Lusitania was a fast ocean liner. Combine speed with the safety precaution of following a zigzag pattern and they might well have made it. Other ships certainly did. It was also said that no submarine could outrun the Lusitania, winner of the Blue Riband for being the fastest transatlantic liner. There were added factors that would inspire confidence. Passengers felt certain that the Germans would not hit a passenger ship—especially one with Americans onboard. If all of that wasn’t enough, the ship’s brochure advertised that she was “unsinkable”. Many people have blind trust in authorities, and this claim must have given them comfort. The brochure also touted that the Lusitania and her sister ship were “the safest… in the world.” This is a logical conclusion: an unsinkable ship would be safe indeed. These claims could be backed up, too. The ship was constructed with 175 watertight compartments, so that if one compartment was flooded, the others would stay dry, and the boat would be fine—assuming all the watertight doors were closed.

Furthermore, the famous multimillionaire Alfred G. Vanderbilt would be along for the crossing. Surely, if well-connected people were taking the trip, everything would be okay. Or would it? It is unlikely that the captain of the German U-boat knew or cared whether or not there were celebrities on board.

Amidst all the rumors and hype, the ship kept her schedule. She slipped her moorings on May 1st, and five days later entered dangerous waters. To his credit, the captain took several wise precautions in a display of competence and efficiency. The lifeboats were uncovered and swung out on their davits; the crew was told to have them ready for launch in case of trouble. He also dictated that the ship be blacked out, which was a wise move. He ordered extra lookouts on deck. Then on May 6th, the Lusitania received what must have been a chilling message over the wireless: U-boat activity in the area.

Anyone who has been at sea knows that this is not the kind of news that you want to hear. Nevertheless, the Lusitania’s captain was not especially concerned. This much can be inferred from his subsequent actions—or shall we say lack of actions. For example, the British Admiralty had issued critical instructions, which the captain either misunderstood or ignored. No doubt many passengers who signed on for the journey had taken comfort in the Lusitania’s capabilities. She was known for her speed, which meant they could outrun a submarine. There were other precautions a captain could take such as running a zigzag course. This would have made it difficult for a submarine to sink them. The passengers were right to think that these factors worked in their favor; however, the captain, as has been said, ignored such instructions. He also ignored the order to keep clear of headlands and steam in mid-channel. He did the opposite. He ran a lackluster 18 knots, and he ran a straight course, hugging the coast a half mile offshore of the Coningbeg Lightship. He did all this in the very area where the submarines had been sighted. As a result, the Lusitania was an easy target. 

At 1:20 p.m., a U-boat spotted the massive ocean liner and fired a torpedo, which struck the leviathan amidships. A second blast within the hull was even more powerful. This explosion in the boiler room was probably a detonation of the coal dust. However, the captain of the Lusitania had a secret. He was delivering more than just passengers to England; he was also delivering ammunition for the war against Germany. There were 5,000 cases of cartridges and 1,500 cases of shells. Furthermore, these were stored against the bulkhead leading into the No. 1 boiler room. Some have suggested that the ammunition caused the secondary explosion. Perhaps it did.

Either way, the damage was fatal. The ship listed to starboard. Within minutes, she tilted forward and buried her nose in the frigid water. Within 18 minutes, she made her descent to the bottom. Almost 1,200 doomed passengers and crew members made the deep fall with her; by the time the silt settled, they had surely passed on, and the ship had become their watery tombstone.

It may seem that this was a routine disaster where a ship was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong captain. And that may be the case. However, there is a mystery associated with the Lusitania. Some writers have claimed that Winston Churchill, who was at the time first lord of the Admiralty, wanted this disaster. They have suggested that because there were over a hundred Americans aboard, their deaths at the hands of Germans would lure the Americans into the War. It is true that England was in dire straits and desperately needed military help from reluctant America. It is true that this disaster helped tilt the scales toward America entering the war, although not for a couple more years. While this is possible, at least for now, these claims are just conspiracy theories—at least until convincing evidence emerges, which so far has not yet happened after a hundred years.

On May 7, 1915, off the coast of Ireland, 1,198 people perished. These were mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. These people took a risk that didn’t pay off. A hotel manager named Albert Bilicke took the cruise for his health because he was recovering from abdominal surhgery. His recovery was cut short by the German torpedo. A 24-year old Canadian girl named Dorothy Braithwaite was on the Lusitania to visit her sisters in London, who had been widowed on the same day. Dorothy never got a chance to console them. Emily Hadfield of Ontario, Canada, was traveling with her 8-month old baby. Emily perished in the shipwreck; however, her baby was plucked out of the water and survived. An opera singer named Millie Baker had been training her voice in France and Spain and was planning to make her stage debut with the Opera Comique, but she was deprived of her big chance. After her death on the Lusitania, her mother received a note in the mail, sent on May 1st, 1915, signed, “Love always, your Millie.” Father Basil W. Maturin, stayed on the sinking ship and never attempted to board a lifeboat. Instead he gave absolution to all who requested it, and he handed a child onto the last lifeboat.

More than seven hundred survived the shipwreck, but many endured trauma and survived as a testament of the human spirit. They clung to floating debris and held on for their lives. One woman floated to shore in an armchair. Another woman gave birth in the water. She and her baby survived. A new bride was sucked into one of the funnels of the sinking ship, but was then spit out. She splashed down into the water near her husband’s lifeboat.

As we now approach the 100-year anniversary of the tragic shipwreck, we honor and remember the passengers of the Lusitania.

Roger Weston writes action-packed thrillers with a maritime twistYou can find his books at: 
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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Forgotten Rescue: The Suevic

The Forgotten Rescue
by Roger Weston

In March of 1907, a ferocious storm raked the gloomy waters off the Cornish coast. Thick fog buried the Lizard peninsula. This treacherous outcrop was the home of many small fishing communities. On this night in the Ides of March, a fisherman’s wife spotted an ominous red glow in the fog. Word spread quickly in the small community. Bearded fishermen leapt into action. It was clear that this red glow was no weather phenomenon. It was the distress flare of a ship. The news could not have been more grim given that the conditions were brutal, and the chances seemed high that some if not all of the mysterious ship’s passengers would die if they were not soon rescued.

The fishermen of the Lizard Peninsula knew the sea like their own mother, but on this night the sea raged out of control. The men knew well the power of storms like they knew the frailty of men in peril. They knew the code of the sea demanded their action. Four crews of men took to the oars of four rescue boats and set out to sea in fog so dense they could see nothing at all. In these eerie conditions, they rode the wild horse of the sea’s towering waves. Huge waves thrust them high in the fog and they could see nothing but the distant red glow. They rose and fell, rose and fell. The men fought with all their might against a powerful south-westerly gale. The rowers pulled with all their might and even then could barely make progress against the adversity of the storm and sea. They were determined, however. Their will was fixed to match that of the sea. So thick was the fog soup that they couldn't see the stricken ship until the rescue boat bumped into her wave-swept hull. 

As the waves swept by the ship, which was run aground on a reef, the rescue boats were lifted high up toward her rails where 524 terrified passengers prayed for their lives. The complement included 85 children. When the rescue boats rose on the crests, men and women dropped their children overboard into the lifeboats. Two of the ship’s own lifeboats had already been launched and were headed for certain doom because they did not know how to pass through the reef. The timely arrival of the local fisherman played a crucial role in their salvation. Another minute and they’d have been lost in the fog, lost to the hungry sea whose appetite is never satisfied.

All night long the men of the local fishing villages risked their lives, running out to the ship and rescuing loads of passengers. Sixty local fishermen took turns at the oars. Every passenger was ferried safely to shore where the wives of the fishermen had lit bonfires to guide their men home and keep the survivors warm. 

These selfless local heroes worked all through the night, fighting a Herculean battle against the weather, making run after run out to the ship. These brave men, guided by the red glow on the waters and the orange glow of fires ashore, these men who knew the ways of survival at sea—they saved everyone on board, brought them all to safety. These men of the Lizard Peninsula were true heroes, and it is only fitting that their heroic deed should be remembered. 

The ship was the Suevic, a 550-foot leviathan, her bow run aground on a reef. She survived the night as it turned out, but after the storm settled, neither her crew nor salvagers could get her to budge.  There was no way to refloat her.

Almost no way. 

There is always a way, and salvagers put forth a highly-risky plan to her owners, the famous White Star Line. What the salvagers proposed was to carefully place numerous explosive charges of dynamite up and down the sides of her bows. They would detonate all the explosives and sever the grounded bow from the rest of the ship. The rear 400 feet where not damaged, so the majority of the ship would be floated back to harbor, her compartments sealed off so that sea water would not flood her holds. 

The explosives were detonated as planned, weakening the steal that connected the bow with the rest of the ship. That weakness gave way as the ship lifted and lowered on the watery swells.  The ship—minus her bow, was sailed back to Southampton under her own power. She was towed by salvage ships, but their role was mostly to guide the ship, since her engines and propellers were in good shape and provided the power for the voyage. 

Back in port, her owners had a new bow built and attached to the ship, which was then in great shape to continue her career on the high seas. In fact, she went on to sail for more than three decades, but was finally sunk by her crew to avoid her falling into the hands of the Nazis. 

One final fact regarding this amazing tale should be mentioned.  Two years after the wreck of the Suevic, her owners, the White Star Line, began work on another ship which was destined for a much more tragic shipwreck.  That ship was the SS Titanic

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Roger Weston writes action-packed thrillers with a maritime twistYou can find all of his books at: Roger Weston's Amazon Author Page