No.52: The Fortschritt

Pouring oil on troubled waters

As the Fortschritt, of and from Szczecin for Dublin, with a general cargo, struck on the Goodwin Sands in 1848, her crew signalled for assistance, but none was forthcoming. As the tide ebbed, the ship, if not exactly “high and dry”, was not in immediate danger, and the crew remained on her overnight, suggesting that she was not being pounded to pieces on the sands.

By the morning’s flood tide, it was a different story, and too dangerous to abandon ship with breakers on the sands which would have overwhelmed the ship’s boat immediately. The crew, however, were resourceful – they had, after all, had all night to think about it. They used what was to hand, and broke into the barrel cargo, but not, as you might think, to use as floats.

Instead they staved them in.

It was not wanton destruction of a cargo not belonging to them. They were after the oil inside, for a purpose: they poured it overboard, which, it was noted, permitted them to cross the Goodwin Sands in safety. They had literally poured oil on troubled waters.

Stories of this kind are rare, but are certainly not unknown, with at least two other wrecks in English waters being recorded as saved by oil cargoes in this fashion, in 1637 and 1922. That this does not occur more frequently is intriguing, given 188 shipwrecks on the database recorded as carrying cargoes of oil, and as far back as Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) the effects of oil on troubled waters were known.

There could be many reasons for this. Some may have been ignorant or incredulous of the effects (although according to Benjamin Franklin, who investigated the matter, herring fishermen and whalers noted the same effect with oily water discharged from on-board processing) (1); it may be that in many cases time was not on their side; in others the risk of fire might have been too great; or seamen knew it only worked in certain circumstances.

Franklin noted the varied success of his experiments in pouring oil on water at a pond on Clapham Common and at sea off Portsmouth, suggesting that the calming effect was most likely on the windward side. So what happened next? The wind was reported easterly at London and ESE at Lowestoft on that day (2) suggesting that the vessel was blown onto the Goodwins from the east. Did the crew then pour the oil on the windward side, where deep water rather than breakers across the sands lay beneath? What did they know that so many other seamen either failed to know or feared to use?

(1) Benjamin Franklin, “Of the Stilling of Waves by Means of Oil, Extracted from sundry Letters between Benjamin Franklin, LLD, FRS, William Brownrigg, MD, FRS, and the Reverend Mr Farish”, Philosphical Transactions, 1774, 64

(2) Times, 23 December 1848; Standard, 23 December 1848

No.42 The Bumper Christmas Edition

The Annunciation: The Angel Gabriel from Heaven came . . .

The Engel Gabriel was a Dutch ship scuttled by the English at the Battle of Portland in 1653, during the First Anglo-Dutch War, and a name very much in tune with the times in the 17th century. Quite a few wrecks of the Anglo-Dutch wars bore names inspired by characters from the Bible, though such names were beginning to fall out of favour in the Protestant nations. We have an Angel Gabriel of unknown nationality which struck at Jury’s Gap in 1637 with a cargo of wine from Spain. You may also like to have a look at another Angel Gabriel, which was lost in a hurricane off the Maine coast in 1635.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds: The First Nowell that the Angel did say . . .

We have four wrecks in English waters called Noel, one of which was a French steamer which staggered from collision to collision off the Royal Sovereign Light Vessel in the English Channel, during a gale in 1897 which saw widespread casualties all over England. She ran first into a barque, which was at first feared to have gone down, but was later seen under tow with her bows ‘stove’. However, the Esparto steamer was not so lucky, and sank after being cut nearly in two. It took some time for the full story to emerge: the Noel‘s crew could not be rescued for a few days because they were ashore in a rather inaccessible location in the teeth of a howling gale, and could only communicate by signals from the master. In the meantime, the rest of the crew took shelter in the stern, the bows being ‘completely torn away, exposing the whole of the forepart of the ship, which is entirely submerged, having apparently settled over the bank’.

 . . . was to certain poor shepherds in the fields as they lay . . .

There is also a small flock (sorry!) of lost vessels named Shepherd, some probably for the surname. However, I particularly like the Shepherd and Shepherdess of 1766, which struck the Farne Islands: perhaps the name cashed in on the popularity of contemporary Arcadian subjects, for example, this Meissen couple from 1750.

O little town of Bethlehem . . .

The name Star of Bethlehem seems to have been current in fishing communities in the 1890s. Our first loss was a Grimsby trawler off Staithes in 1890, with three weeks’ worth of fish. I wonder if a local fisherman saw the name and was taken with it, since the next wreck, in 1892, was of the newly-built ship of the same name, operating out of Staithes, and also lost in that region. Finally, the last wreck to bear this name in English waters was a Scottish herring lugger from Banffshire in 1895, working the Great Yarmouth fishing grounds as so many Scottish fishermen did, up to the mid 20th century. Perhaps this last gives a clue as to why the name was popular: the crews followed the migratory herring as the shepherds and the wise men followed the star. Could anyone from a fishing community shed any light on this?

The Annunciation to the Magi: Star of the East, the horizon adorning . . . .

In the same way, a fishing vessel named Star of the East was run down by a steamer off the Eddystone in 1904, while returning from Newlyn to her home port of Lowestoft.

And finally . . . no Christmas would be complete without a nativity scene:

When the General Gascoyne struck the Burbo Bank off Liverpool, in 1837, inbound from Quebec and Montreal with deals, potash and passengers, she rapidly found herself in a perilous situation. Potash prices rose on the Liverpool markets with the loss of the ship and her cargo. This prosaic detail was rather overshadowed by what happened to the crew and human cargo who ‘were clinging to the poop and mizen rigging with a heavy sea breaking over them’ when the local tug Eleanor steamed to the rescue. Those on board either jumped off into the ship’s longboat or were taken off one by one by the Eleanor‘s crew, who boarded the ship at the risk of their own lives.

The accounts of what happened next are slightly conflicting: according to the Lancaster Gazette, a lady ‘far advanced in pregnancy’ promptly gave birth on board the Eleanor, suggesting the shock of shipwreck had brought on labour; according to the Times, she had been ‘only confined the previous day’, and was ‘rescued along with her infant’. Either way, this nativity was surely a miraculous rescue.