Monthly Archives: May 2021

Hell Ships and Floating Homes

The Dirigo, had a bad reputation among sailors: this ship was the original of Jack London's famous Hell Ship

Life at sea was formerly a strange mixture of hardship and comfort. Some ships, because of the barbarous conditions in which their crews worked, were known as “Hell Ships”. Other vessels, even in the days when a career at sea was inseparable from hardship, were comparatively comfortable

ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL OF THE LATER SAILING SHIPS to fly the American flag, the Dirigo, had a bad reputation among sailors. This ill-famed ship was the original of Jack London’s famous “Hell Ship”.

THE worst blot on the fair history of sail, which contains so many magnificent chapters, is the unnecessary brutality found in so many of the old ships, even in some of the best whose names come down to us as examples of all that was finest in the old school. Nowadays “bucko mates”, “hard-case skippers”, “blood boats” and “hell ships” are often treated as romantic; but in the days when they existed there was little romance about them. The toll of life and happiness which they took was terrible, and it is often difficult to understand the brutality of many officers who were otherwise possessed of fine qualities. But the fact remains that cruelty, after it had been checked on land by law and public opinion, remained a normal factor of sea life for many years.

A good deal of the hardship was formerly regarded as unavoidable and inseparable from the design of many ships; this design, however, could easily have been modified, and there were numbers of owners who were always well ahead of the law. The trouble was mostly in the position and design of the forecastle. It was right up in the eyes of the ship, with the hawse-pipes running through it to the windlass below deck, and these could not be properly plugged when the anchors were unshackled. The men lived in water, and the waste of life by sickness was terrible. There was seldom any opportunity of drying clothes except at the galley fire, and the men were often refused permission to make use of that for no better reason than that it was “coddling” them. Comparatively few forecastles were properly fitted with artificial light and heat. Moreover, the ventilation that is considered so important nowadays did not matter then; the sailor hated ventilation, and took the first opportunity of blocking up any ventilators provided. On the other hand, he naturally felt bitter when he saw his meal, when on its way from the galley to the forecastle, carried overboard by a big wave. He was ravenously hungry, and knew perfectly well that the meal would not be replaced.

The whole of the victualling system in nine sailing ships out of ten would be regarded nowadays as gross cruelty on the part of the owners. To save money many owners would buy stores that had been condemned by the Navy – Gibraltar was a favourite call for the purpose of shipping these – but the special stores supplied were often quite as bad, because the owners would not pay for anything better. The Board of Trade inspection was a farce – as it had to be when food condemned by the Navy was openly sold to merchant ships – and it is no wonder that the men became sullen.

Sullenness begets mutiny, mutiny was the offence which the afterguard always dreaded. At a time when punishments on land were harsh, those at sea were made even more brutal. This was done deliberately, for in a small community the least sign of mutiny had to be checked for the safety of all hands. Thus many of the punishments which were officially permitted and even laid down were cruel in the extreme.

The cat-o’-nine-tails was used in the Merchant Service nearly as much as in the Navy, and with far less control. For centuries keel-hauling had been a regular proceeding; this meant passing a line from yard-arm to yard-arm and dragging the unfortunate seaman under the bottom of the ship by means of it. He was half drowned in the process, and, if the ship’s bottom were foul with barnacles, as it usually was, he was terribly lacerated in addition. After keel-hauling had been prohibited as barbarous, it was usual for a defaulter to be towed astern on a line. When these punishments were officially prohibited, and in their place the law provided for the offender to be logged and fined so many days’ pay, the captains maintained, with a good deal of truth, that the seaman did not care a button for money that he never saw, and that the new punishments were thus quite useless. With a good deal of misplaced ingenuity, therefore, they evolved some punishments of their own.

In addition to maintaining discipline and checking any tendency to mutiny, the officers of the average old-time sailing ships were obliged to teach the greenhorns seamanship. Practically every sailing vessel carried a considerable proportion of first voyagers, admittedly or under a cloak, when she put to sea. It was the tradition that these landsmen should be made seamen before the end of the voyage, so that the method depended very largely on the route of the ship. On the long run to China or to Australia there was plenty of time, and, weather permitting, methods of some reason could be employed; but there was little time in one of the clipper packet’s dashes across the Atlantic, and intensive methods were the rule. These intensive methods consisted of every kind of brutality to an under-running accompaniment of the foulest language.

The brutal methods frequently won for their ships an appalling reputation, but it must be remembered that the officers had many difficulties to face. Moreover, they were always aware that a poor seaman could easily imperil the safety of the ship and the lives of those on board. The “packet rats” who largely manned these transatlantic clippers were invariably mutinous. At one end the clippers shipped the toughest crew of Liverpool Irishmen, and at the other end a sprinkling of New York gangsters. Long before newspapers and films made the world familiar with the American gangster, there existed the gangs of the New York water-front. These gangs, which were employed by the crimps and sailors’ boarding-houses, included a fair number of seamen who went for a voyage when it suited them, or when they were forced by circumstances.

A NOTORIOUS VESSEL, known as the Bloody Gatherer

This interesting article is courtesy of ” Shipping Wonders of the World” – See the site below.


The Edina was one of the longest serving steam vessels anywhere in the world. Built on the Clyde by Barclay, Curle & Co. she was an iron hull single screw steamer of 322 tons with three masts. In 1855 Edina was requisitioned by the Admiralty from her owners the Leith, Hull & Hamburg Steam Packet Co. to carry stores and horses to the Black Sea during the Crimean War. After return to her owners Edina traded around the UK and Mediterranean before being purchased and used as a blockade runner during the American Civil War carrying cotton from the Confederate states in 1861. Edina arrived in Melbourne under sail in March 1863 and was purchased by Stephen Henty for use from ports in western Victoria and later carried gold prospectors across the Tasman to New Zealand. After a refit in 1870 she was used in the coastal trade along the Queensland coast for Howard Smith until returning to Victoria and the Melbourne-Geelong trade as a cargo-passenger vessel. 

The Edina had two narrow escapes from destruction in 1898 and 1899 when she collided with other steamers, both being sunk. A further refit in 1917 altered her appearance with a new mast, funnel, bridge and promenade deck. By 1924 Edina had made over 12,000 Melbourne-Geelong passages and carried over one million people on the service. A further collision in July 1931 which sank the tug Hovell forced Edina onto a mudbank on Port Phillip Bay. She was taken out of service in 1938 but was later renamed Dinah and used as a lighter until 1958 when she was broken up and her remains used as land-fill.

The famous OLIVEBANK destined for a long career with new owners before striking a mine in WW1


The 3 masted Thornliebank, built in 1896, came to grief after a long voyage from Chile when she hit the notorious Crime rocks in the isles of Scilly.  The enquiry criticised  the Master.    He had not had a firm position  for several days due to inclement weather, and what finally did for him and the ship was  a Bishop Rock light which had  been changed and crucially not registered on board, although the amendment had been available to them. 

The table below gives some idea of the chances of surviving a seagoing career in the days of sail….

SHIP                              FATE

Willowbank                   Collision/sunk

Ann Main                      Wrecked

Thornliebank                 Burnt/scuttled

Francis Thorpe.             Wrecked

Abeona                          Wrecked

Pomona                         Abandoned at sea

Hawthornbank               Torpedoed

Hazelbank                      Wrecked

Elmbank                         Wrecked

Comliebank                    Abandoned (after sale)

Sardhana                        Abandoned at sea

Dunbritton                      Foundered

River Falloch                   –

Trongate                          –

Thistlebank                     Torpedoed

Gowenbank                     Abandoned at sea

Ashbank                          Disappeared

Beechbank                      –

Fernbank                         Wrecked

Oakbank                          Wrecked

Cedarbank                       Disappeared (with new owners)

Olivebank                         Mined (new owners)

Trafalgar                           Wrecked

Mennock                          Wrecked

Levernbank                       Abandoned at sea

Laurelbank                        Disappeared                 

Springbank                        Damaged and broken up

Forthbank                          Wrecked

Castlebank                         Disappeared

Heathbank                          Disappeared

Falklandbank                      Disappeared

Loch Eck                             –

Isle of Arran                         –

Colessie                              Wrecked

Clydebank                           Damaged

David Morgan                      Disappeared

Perseverance                       Disappeared

Thornliebank                        Wrecked

Allegiance                             Abandoned at sea

Loch Ranza                           –

Gifford                                  Wrecked

Ganton Rock                         –

Glenbreck                             Disappeared

Ellisisland                              Disappeared

Poseidon                               –

Marion Frazer                        –

Philadelphia                          Torpedoed

13 wrecked, 16 disappeared or abandoned, 3 torpedoed.

Only a handful of the 47 vessels therefore had a full and uneventful fate.   The fleet grew rapidly and there were 30 sailing vessels and 11 steamers  listed in the first 15 years of business.  It is hard to visualise the set back and the mood when smart new ships were lost very early in their careers.  In 1891, Russell and Company, Port Glasgow,  delivered 3 new 4 masted vessels built specially for the Pacific grain trade.  They were named Thistlebank, Gowenbank, and Ashbank, and the latter ship only sailed for 6 months before disappearing at sea with all hands on a voyage from Algoa Bay to Australia (NSW).     The Gowenbank was in the fleet for 5 years before she also had to be abandoned off Cape Horn.  The Thistlebank alone survived for 23 years before being sold to Norwegians when she was then torpedoed off Ireland a year later.   

The rapid growth of the fleet was breathtaking, and in 1892, no less than 5 vessels were delivered  from three different yards.   The Fernbank and the Oakbank came from the Dumbarton yard of A. McMillan and Son, and the 4 masted Beechbank from Russell and Company, Port Glasgow.   Cedarbank and Olivebank were delivered from the now famous yard of Mackie and Thompson in Glasgow.  This group of new buildings were to have mixed fortunes, the Fernbank and Oakbank lasting ten and eight years respectively.  Only the Beechbank made it to the breakers yard.

Over the early years, the proportion of steamers started to grow, and the last sailing ship, the Philadelphia joined the fleet in 1912. She was sold on to Norwegian interests 3 years later, only to be torpedoed in 1917.

Although it was the tramping trade that gave Weir a way into the ship owning business, he soon looked at something more permanent,  and started to create some regular trades and which later became established liner routes.    Over the years, this became a highly successful pattern, and was reinforced at every opportunity.  The big fleet of vessels  were also available on the open market for tramping, giving a high degree of flexibility.     In 1905 he settled on a new name for his fleet, the ‘Bank Line’, and this became world renowned and synonymous for a ‘no frills’ global service in tramping and Liner services.  For mariners, it was never a so called ‘ prestige’ company, but many liked the comprehensive and regular work that the growing fleet offered.  To achieve his aims, he built up a comprehensive network of Agents and subsidiaries, many of whom he partnered with in business, and many of whom became long standing personal friends.       It was another success story, and it ran for many years from the beginning in 1885 to the 1990’s  before rampant containerisation arrived.   Regular trades  formed the backbone of the modern service.   Within the company itself, tragedy struck as the owning family suffered early deaths, and the interest and drive for shipping waned, and then morphed into other activities.    So ended one of the remarkable success stories of the 20th Century.

 This company went about its business quietly, content to trade and provide the best service possible to shippers worldwide.  Virtually unknown  to the general public,  the nearest to global recognition occurred on the rare occasions that an incident hit the headlines.        Of the ships that made up the sailing fleet, the Olivebank was the most famous, as she was occasionally in the news, and she was to end her days under another well known  owner, Gustav Eriksson.   The end of her days came when she was ignominiously mined in the North Sea in 1942.     A few survivors clung to a spar protruding from the water, but the Master and many others on board drowned. It was a sad end for a ship that had stretched the imagination of maritime folk, especially, the young.  Renowned for always turning up, even when long overdue, she also did some smart passages as listed here. 

Occasionally, ships got into the world news, as when the Firbank ( on charter to EAC as the Sibonga) picked up over 1000 Vietnamese refugees in desperate need in open boats in the China Sea in 1979.   There was difficulty in Hong Kong for the Master to land survivors, and for a while the incident received the full glare of publicity.        When the ‘Southbank’ stranded in the central Pacific on Washington Island, the pictures and reports of survivors leading life in a ‘tropical paradise’ made lurid headlines in the national papers for a few days, and  before all were taken off by an American Navy ship from Honolulu.

What allowed a sailing ship to reach old age, was down to a combination of factors, not unlike life  itself.    Careful management, good Masters, and a liberal helping of ‘Lady Luck’ were essential ingredients.     Contrast this with the stories that follow, of beautiful ships that disappeared with all hands, never to be seen 

Falklandbank.      Heathbank.            Castlebank.

 again.   This was an all too common fate, and looking back it is clear that certain routes and particular cargoes flagged up real danger.       Coal from Newcastle, N.S.W. Australia was always a high risk cargo due to fire from spontaneous combustion.    Careful stowage was needed to avoid the danger of shifting cargo in adverse weather.  Precautions were taken, but the history books still carry numerous accounts of vessels routed from NSW to the West Coast of S America disappearing on passage.   The Bank Line had it’s share, and the Gowenbank and the Castlebank  suffered this fate. ( see the table).

A word should be said about the perils of big 3 or 4 masted sailing vessels traversing the world with all of the dangers inherent in the oceans and from ever changing weather.      The saying, ‘ prudent mariner’ sums up the special needs of this occupation and it was a both a skill and a talent, enhanced with a sixth sense, that enabled a few masters to live to old age.  And to bring their crews home safely!   They needed all of these attributes.   Appointing a trustworthy Master was one of the trickiest decisions an owner had to make.  Nothing was guaranteed however, and the loss of the big beautiful German five masted sailing vessel, the ‘Preussen’ captained by one of the most seasoned and skilled Captains in the famous Laeisz fleet is a prime example where luck ran out. She was lost in the channel in a collision with a railway steamer, and grounded at Beachy Head.  With hindsight, a wrong judgement over position at a crucial time by the Master meant the loss of this beautiful ship.    It is fascinating reading and heartrending in cold print but the company did keep faith in him and he went on to successfully command other vessels.

A huge weight rested on the shoulders of the Master and a lesser one on the watchkeeping officers at all times.    Sailing the big unwieldy ships, bereft of engines, and subject to current, tide, and fickle winds, meant that vigilance was constantly needed.   The ships were happiest out on the oceans, but were helpless without tug assistance close to port.  The Master alone regularly had to make crucial decisions that often meant life or death, and this could be a daily occurrence unless some relief was obtained in long periods of steady winds, as in the trades.   It was a guessing game to some extent betting on wind and weather in the immediate future, but years of experience and local knowledge determined whether sail should be set or shortened.   When beating up the English Channel or in confined waters the rapid changes necessary became acute.    Only too often the sea room available narrowed down the options dramatically, and drove vessels on to rocks despite all efforts.      Many of these heart rending stories have been well documented and they make grim reading, none less than when wives and children were on board.  The key decision and the absolutely essential skill that a successful Master needed was the ability to shorten sail in time to avert damage to the sails or much worse.   This was harder than it sounds because Owners kept pressure on to make fast passages which could not be achieved by regularly shortening sail unnecessarily, and an over cautious Master was unpopular.    In anything but steady winds, there was a constant need to be weighing up the amount of canvas aloft, and no Master got it right 100% of the time.  No office job even remotely  compares!

What of the crews?    They were often a mixture of hard bitten sailing men who were wild ashore, but good at sea, and crucially good aloft in times of need.  Young, idealistic men made up the balance ,  but they often became disillusioned, and it was very common, even normal, for men to run away in foreign ports.  Apprentices were a useful addition to the sailing vessels and were more reliable than the hardbitten seamen.   There are some interesting accounts that have been left behind by long gone sailors.  Over the lifetime of Andrew Weir and the Bank Line, thousands of apprentices served their time afloat in sail, and later in steam and motor vessels.

The very first vessel at the start of this great adventure, was the purchase of the ‘ Willowbank’ in 1888.  She had been called the ‘ Ambrose’ at launch, but purchased by a company called J.F.Gibb and company in 1884 who gave her the ‘ Willowbank’ name which stuck.  She was small by the standard of ships that followed at only 882 tons gross, but played an important role by giving 10 years service before being sunk off Portland in a collision in 1895.   By this time around 35 other vessels both new and second hand had been added to the fleet or traded.   It was a fortuitous start aided by that first successful purchase.

Willowbank Pic

 It seems that the suffix ‘bank’ was then continued for over 100 years through sail, steam, and motor, ending finally with another ‘ Willowbank,’ launched in 1983. It was the most used name with 5 vessels in all at some time or another.

Willowbank pic 2

Several new orders were placed in a remarkable 3 years between 1889 and 1894.   Four new vessels named Hawthornbank, Hazelbank, Elmbank, and Comliebank in 1889/90.     Eight new vessels in 1892 named Thistlebank, Gowenbank, Ashbank, Beechbank, Fernbank, Oakbank, Cedarbank, and Olivebank.    A further six new buildings came a year later named Levernbank, Laurelbank, Castlebank, Heathbank, Falklandbank, and Springbank.   

Of the above, the Hawthornbank served for a remarkable 21 years and was eventually torpedoed and lost in 1917 when under the Norwegian flag.

The Hazelbank was far more unlucky, being wrecked on the Goodwin Sands less the 1 year from launch

The Elmbank survived for 4 years but was then wrecked on the Isle of Arran.

The Comliebank was another of the sailers that lasted 23 years in the fleet, only to be lost in the Atlantic six years later under the Norwegian flag. 

  The first ‘ Willowbank’ had given 10 years valuable service, and eventually the fleet grew to 47 vessels, 26 of which were purpose built, and the rest purchased.  Some were in and out of the fleet only a short time.  It is clear that the owner proved very astute in the sale and purchase of ships in addition to his other considerable skills.  Sizes ranged considerably, but it seems that the dedicated order for x vessels of the Levenbank class was ordered at the top end of the scale.   A tonnage of….. and dimensions of ……. Was specified.

In 1896 the first steamer, the ‘ Duneric’ was built.  Thereafter the fleet had a growing proportion of steam vessels, but it was not until 1912 that the last sailing vessel joined the fleet. She was the Philadelphia built back in 1892 for German owners.

So ended a remarkable story.    

The Torrey Canyon

The Torrey CANYON shortly after grounding

More than 50 years ago the maritime world and the international press were taken up with the spectacular grounding of a loaded tanker, the Torrey Canyon. What happened made things worse and the pollution was made far worse by the bizarre decision to bomb the ship. The background is that on her final voyage, Torrey Canyon left the Kuwait Company refinery at Mina Al Ahmadi (later Al-Ahmadi), with a full cargo of crude oil, on 19 February 1967. The ship had an intended destination of Milford Haven in Wales. On 14 March, she reached the Canary Islands. Approaching the land ,Torrey Canyon struck Pollard’s Rock on the extreme Western end of the Seven Stones between the Cornish mainland and the Isles of Scilly. It was the 18th of March 1967. The later enquiry confirmed that there was some confusion on the bridge over the auto steering. There were fishing vessels around which the big ship was trying to avoid, and finally it was claimed that large scale charts of the Isles of Scilly were not onboard.

The prime minister at the time made a poor decision to bomb the ship in an effort to burn off the oil.

In total some 161 x 1000lb bombs, 11,000 gallons of kerosene, 3,000 gallons of Napalm and 16 missiles had been aimed at the ship. Foam booms did not work due to the sea conditions prevailing. About 50 miles of French Coast, and 120 miles of Cornish Coast were contaminated. 15,000 sea birds died along with many other marine species before the oil finally sank and dispersed. Damage by the detergents was massive. 42 vessels were deployed spraying 10,000 tons of the dispersants. Some of the oil was dumped in a quarry on Guernsey where it still remains today.

In evidence later, it was claimed that the charts onboard were inadequate for the Scilly Isles. Just before grounding, she was in traffic and avoiding a fishing vessel. On the bridge, there was some confusion about the auto steering being engaged and while this was being seen to, the vessel struck the rocks. In the hours and days to follow, extensive attempts to float the vessel off the reef proved unsuccessful and even resulted in the death of a member of the Dutch salvage team, Captain Hans Barend Stal. The vessel began to break up, releasing tons of crude oil which threatened to get much worse. At this point the British government led by prime minister, Harold Wilson made a fatal decision to bomb the vessel and set fire to the oil. Blackburn Buccaneer planes dropped 42 x 1000 lb bombs. Aviation fuel was added in an effort to light the crude.


Derbyshire was launched in late 1975 and entered service in June 1976, as the last ship of the Bridge-class combination carrier, originally named Liverpool BridgeLiverpool Bridge and English Bridge (later Worcestershire, and Kowloon Bridge respectively) were built by Seabridge for Bibby Line. The ship was laid up for two of its four years of service life.

In 1978, Liverpool Bridge was renamed Derbyshire, the fourth ship to carry the name in the company’s fleet. On 11 July 1980, on what turned out to be the ship’s final voyage, Derbyshire left  Quebec Canada, her destination being  Kawasaki, though she foundered near  Okinawa (Southern Japan). Derbyshire was carrying a cargo of 157,446 tonnes of iron ore.

On 9 September 1980, Derbyshire hove-to in a typhoon named ‘Orchid’ some 230 miles (370 km) from Okinawa, and was overwhelmed by the tropical storm killing all aboard. Derbyshire never issued a  distress message. The ship had been following  advice from “Ocean Routes”, a commercial weather routing company.

The search for Derbyshire began on 15 September 1980 and was called off six days later when no trace of the vessel was found, and it was declared lost. Six weeks after Derbyshire sank, one of the vessel’s lifeboats was sighted by a Japanese ship.

The Derbyshire‘s sister ship Kowloon Bridge was lost off the coast of the Ireland in 1986, following incidences of deck cracking that were first discovered after an Atlantic crossing. In the wake of this second disaster,  a new investigation was sought by relatives of the Derbyshire victims.

In 1994 a deep water search began. In June 1994, the wreck of Derbyshire was found at a depth of 4 kilometres (2.5 mi), spread over 1.3 kilometres (0.81 mi). An additional expedition spent over 40 days photographing and examining the debris field looking for evidence of what sank the ship. Ultimately it was determined that waves crashing over the front of the ship had sheared off the covers of small ventilation pipes near the bow. Over the next two days, seawater had entered through the exposed pipes into the forward section of the ship, causing the bow to slowly ride lower and lower in the water. Eventually, the bow was completely exposed to the full force of the rough waves, which caused the massive hatch on the first cargo hold to buckle inward, allowing hundreds of tons of water to enter in moments. As the ship started to sink, the second, then third hatches also failed, dragging the ship underwater. As the ship sank, the water pressure caused the ship to be twisted and torn apart by implosion/explosion, a feature of double-hulled ships where the compression of air between the hulls causes a secondary explosive decompression.

The Liverpool memorial to those lost on board the M.V. Derbyshire


N.B: The loss of bulk carriers was a tragedy throughout the 70’s and 80’s in particular with an average of one vessel disappearing every 10 days. Most went almost unremarked with the loss of thousands of seamen, mostly from so called third world nations.


Tribute on a stamp

Tribute on a stamp

On 5 November 1910, on her 14th outbound voyage, carrying a mixed cargo including a number of pianos for Chile, the Preussen was in collision with the small British cross-channel steamer Brighton , south of Newhaven.  Contrary to regulations, the Brighton had tried to cross before her bows, underestimating her high speed of 16 knots (30 km/h). The Preussen was seriously damaged and lost much of her forward rigging, including the all important bowsprit. The  Brighton returned to Newhaven to summon aid and the tug Alert was sent out.  . A November gale then thwarted attempts to sail or tug her to safety in Dover Harbour. It was intended to anchor her off Dover but both anchor chains parted and Presseun was driven onto rocks at Crab Bay where she sank.  Everything was done by those on board to save the ship, but it wasn’t to be.  While crew, cargo and some equipment was saved, the ship was lost and declared as beyond salvage.    It was a major loss and a huge blow to the sailing fraternity, already in decline, although the safety of the crew was celebrated. 

The Sea Court of Hamburg held the official enquiry on October 31st 1910.   The complete summary stated:

On Oct 31st, 1910, the Preussen left Hamburg for Valparaiso loaded with general cargo. The tug President Leuw towed her from the river Elbe to the channel, and on November 5th, the Royal Sovereign lightvessel was passed at 21.50hrs.  There was a fresh breeze blowing from the NNW, the tug was discharged and and all sails were set, this task being finished at 23.45hrs. 

The PREUSSEN shortly after the collision

Under the Dover cliffs

In the meantime, the wind fell away, so the Preussen was only making 4 knots.   The weather was hazy and Captain Nissan had ordered fog signals to be given from 23.00 although the visibility was still sufficient to see Beachy Head light at a distance of 5 to 6 miles.  A little before midnight, Captain Nissan sighted  two masthead lights and soon after the red sidelight of a steamer six points on his starboard bow at a distance of about two miles. The steamer later proved to be the cross channel vessel Brighton.  En route from Newhaven to Dieppe.   Aboard the Preussen the fog signals were now given at shorter intervals. 

Captain Hemings of the Brighton, saw the green light of the Preussen rather late and two points on his port bow.   Going at 17 knots he thought the distance was too small to allow him to pass under the stern of the sailer. So he put his ship’s head hard a starboard, rang the starboard engine full astern, and gave one short blast.   When Captain Nissan became aware that the steamer was trying to cross his bows, he ordered his helm hard a port and his after yards braced back.    A collision could however not be avoided.  The bowsprit of the Preussen carried away the foremast and the forward funnel of the Brighton, and was itself broken off.    In her bows, the Preussen sustained a hole 15ft long which reached below the waterline, so that she was taking in water. 

After the collision, the Brighton turned around, and came up to the Preussen to exchange names. The Masters conferred , but as neither ship needed assistance, except that Capt Nissan asked the other Master to send out a tug from Newhaven.    The Brighton returned to port and sent out the tug Alert.   

As with all marine casualties, the spotlight was turned onto the Master, and he received wide criticism for the decisions taken re shelter in the last hours after the collision, although the railway steamer was officially blamed for the actual collision.    Like most marine accidents, the loss was not down to one incident, even the collision, but a combination of things, chiefly the fickle wind and weather that spelled doom for many Windjammers.  The Company strongly defended the Master, dismissing the accusation of poor decision taking by saying that all sailing ship masters took calculated risks on a daily basis.   It was a thought provoking reaction which triggered a long lasting debate in maritime circles, and in the letter columns of “Sea Breezes” magazine  for years after the  Preussen was lost. 

After the tangle of gear on the Preussen had been cleared away, the ship was put on a westerly course in order to make Portsmouth, but the wind forced the abandonment of this idea.   Captain Nissan then decided to run for Dover harbour, and informed the owners by flag signals to Beachy Head. 

Wind and sea then began to increase, as the Preussen steered eastwards up the channel, but Captain Nissan did not consider his situation in any way desperate. He still hoped he would be able to help himself, and when he passed Dungeness, he decided to anchor behind the Ness in order to see whether the crew could effect temporary repairs.  The idea was to sail back to Hamburg. At anchor behind the Ness he still had the option of going into Dover harbour, as three tugs were standing by.  They were the Alert, the Belgian John Bull, and Albatross from Germany. 

At about 14.30 hours, on Nov 6th, Dungerness was rounded, and the sails were clewed up.   The ship was then brought head to wind.      When the headway was off, the starboard anchor was dropped in 12 fathoms, but the wind and current caused her to drag and the windlass could not hold the cable. The port anchor was then let go, but both cables went to the bitter end and broke the shackles in the locker. 

After this, the Preussen was in a very bad situation.   The wind went to gale force and she was now without anchors or cables.   Captain Nissen then requested the three tugs that were standing by to take him into Dover harbour, and a Trinity house pilot boarded.  All the sails were furled, tugs were connected on both the port and starboard bow, with the third one lashed alongside.  They proceeded to the Eastern entrance to Dover harbour, but as they approached a very heavy squall descended.  The tugs were unable to hold the big ship and the whole of the ship plus tugs were driven towards the shore. The tug John Bull which was attached to the starboard bow, was suddenly adrift when the tow line parted.    The Captain then realised he had to use the sails to save the situation.    The other tugs were released and topsails set, with the after yards braced back, and the other sails forward were kept shivering to avoid the head being pushed to leeward. The crew fought hard, and the ship slowly went astern increasing the distance from the shore slowly. 

When everyone thought they had won and that safety was in reach, the forepart of the  Preussen touched bottom, probably a rock. This swung the ship broadside onto the shore. At about 16.30 she dramatically stranded completely,  and the high seas prevented the tugs getting fast again. She started bumping heavily on the rocks and water built up in the holds. 

Crews from the lifeguard stations at Dover and St Margaret’s arrived on the scene, and got a line on board by means of the rocket apparatus.   Neither the crew nor the two passengers wanted to leave the ship, so the well meaning effort was in vain. They still had hopes of floating off.

At high water on Nov 6th/7th two tugs managed to get fast, but as there was 6ft of water in her, their efforts did not succeed.   Efforts to refloated the ship continued for 2 days but finally on November 8th, the crew took to the boats in fine weather as the ship began to break in two. 

Salvage operations continued and the superintendent from the owners, Laeisz, was in attendance. Part of the cargo, and some of the gear was salvaged. 

When the court of enquiry sat, Captain Nissen was cleared of the collision and of the loss of the vessel. 

Looking back, Captain Nissen’s decision to anchor behind the Ness, was considered an error of judgement. However, the Masters of the flying ‘P’ liners were accustomed to take some risks in handling their ships, and Captain Nissen could not foresee the chain of events on that day.   His owners did not blame him for the loss of the magnificent Preussen, and soon entrusted him with the newly built Peking .  He sailed her successfully for many years until after the First World War. 

Captain Nissen with his daughter

FORT type vessels

Here is an interesting article from Captain Geoffrey Walker regarding the ‘FORT’ type vessels of WW2.

An extract…….

Click the ‘download’ button to read the whole illustrated article.

Readers browsing the site should also visit Geoff’s own specialist site which can be found at



(which then became the EMPRESS OF SCOTLAND and finally the HANSEATIC)

37 years afloat with 3 names and 2 owners

In 1930 on the windy shores of the Clyde at Govan, the Fairfield yard launced a hull that would become a beautiful ship admired by all, becoming world famous,  hold several records, and work for both English and German owners.  She was to be the EMPRESS OF JAPAN.   Under each of her three names, EMPRESS OF JAPAN, EMPRESS OF SCOTLAND, and lastly, the HANSEATIC, she would excel, and have a 37 year career.

In 1930 the Canadian Pacific’s existing trans-pacific service reached its zenith with the introduction of this magnificent ship. Little did they know how spectacular and just how poular she would become.  Sporting a classic steamship-look, she had three funnels painted in familiar Canadian Pacific yellow. Her promenade deck had not been enclosed, revealing that she was intended for the warmer Pacific run. Down in the engine room, the ship’s engineers were getting ready for the engine trials. Empress of Japan had been designed with geared turbines, capable of 34,000 shaft horsepower.

The engines performed very well, and the ship managed to reach a top speed of 23 knots with the engines running at maximum power. Thus, the ship’s sea trials had been carried out successfully, and she was officially delivered to Canadian Pacific on June 8th, 1930. It was only a short matter of time before she would enter service for her owners.

This  handsome ship with magnificent interiors was the result of their planning and foresight, confirming the standard associated with the Empress liners of Canadian Pacific. She was delivered to Canadian Pacific in Liverpool and sailed on her maiden voyage from Liverpool to Quebec on the 14th July 1930. From Quebec she sailed to Southampton. On the 12th July 1930 she sailed from Southampton bound for Hong Kong via the Suez Canal to begin her trans-pacific services. On the 7th August 1930 she set off on her first trans-pacific crossing from Hong Kong to Vancouver via Yokohama and Honolulu. Some of the notable guests on board included HM The King of Siam. During this maiden trans-pacific voyage, a new speed record was set for the route from Yokohama to Vancouver, and over the following years she made 58 round trips from Vancouver to Yokohama and Shanghai (via Honolulu), claiming to be  the number 1 ship for speed and comfort, and becoming the flagship of the trans-pacific service, like the famous RMS Empress of Britain was for their transatlantic service.  This established and highly successful service was suddenly shattered when the Second World War started in September 1939. At the time the EMPRESS OF JAPAN was in Shanghai. Due to suspicions about Japanese intentions, Canadian Pacific ordered her to sail straight back to Victoria in British Colombia via Honolulu. Her career then morphed into troop carrying like so many of the great liners.   One of the features that made the ocean liners so attractive for trooping apart from the obvious size and capacity was the speed they could maintain.  This made interception by U-boats extremely difficult, but sadly not impossible as events were to prove.  A lucky strike was always a fear and another company vessel, the EMPRESS OF BRITAIN suffered this fate. She was torpedoed on 28 October 1940 by U-32 and sank. At 42,340 GRT she was the largest liner lost in the WW2 and the largest ship sunk by a U-boat.

 In October 1942 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Winston Churchill (the British Prime Minister) personally ordered that the EMPRESS OF JAPAN should be renamed as EMPRESS OF SCOTLAND. It took a little more than ten months, but on October 16th 1942, the ship was renamed Empress of Scotland. She carried this name for the rest of her Canadian Pacific career.

WW2 impacted her career dramatically, not least with a name that offended Winston Churchill after Pearl Harbour was attacked by the Japanese forces.   He insisted the name be changed to the Empress of Scotland, allegedly saying, “ This is a nonsense” before issuing the order.  The new name  was more in keeping with the allies war effort and image.    She then spent a glorious 16 years endlessly circling the globe and playing a significant role in the evacuation of 1700 refugees from Singapore when the Japanese captured the island.  The escape was carried out under enemy attack but the ship successfully landed her passengers at Colombo.   Later, she worked ferrying a total of 30,000 troops from the USA to Europe.  She sailed from Halifax, New York, and Newport News, and went to Liverpool and to Casablanca.

Sporting her new name, the Empress of Scotland continued her war duties. When peace was finally achieved in 1945, she was kept on for repatriation work, and it wasn’t until May 3rd 1948 that she was released from transport service. During the conflict, the Empress had steamed some 600,000 miles, and she was in desperate need of a refit before she could re-enter passenger service again.

Naturally, this was the case with nearly every passenger vessel that had survived the war. This, plus the shortage of funds and material, forced the Empress of Scotland to simply wait for her turn to go through a refit. Finally, in October of 1948, she was sent back to her builders for a much-earned refurbishment. The first intention was to put her back in her regular service in the Pacific, but it was soon decided to place her on the North Atlantic run instead. For this, her promenade deck was glass-enclosed to better suit the Atlantic weather. Also, her original passenger accommodation of First, Second, Third and Steerage classes were altered to just First and Tourist.

It took a while before the work was finished, but on May 5th 1950, the Empress of Scotland set out on her first post-war voyage, from Liverpool to Quebec. Outwardly, she was very much alike her pre-war self. The white hull was there, but the three funnels now sported the new CPR livery, adopted in 1946 – yellow, with the company flag superimposed.

The Empress of Scotland soon settled into her new service. She ran on the Liverpool-Greenock-Quebec service during the summers, and in the winters she was sent off cruising the West Indies out of New York. In April of 1952, the ship’s masts were shortened in order to allow her to pass under the Quebec Bridge and continue to Montreal, which had now been dredged to her draught. On May 13th she made her first sailing from Liverpool to Montreal.

The ship continued to serve Canadian Pacific through the 1950s, but circumstances would soon see her leave the company. In 1956, the brand new Empress of Britain entered service, followed by her sister Empress of England the next year. Suddenly, the Empress of Scotland was an old ship compared to her fleet-mates, and she was subsequently laid up at Liverpool on November 25th, 1957. She was later dry-docked at Belfast and put up for sale by the company.

However, an inspection showed that the ship’s hull and machinery were in very good condition, and it did not take long before a buyer materialised. On January 13th 1958, the ship was sold for $2,500,000 to the newly formed Hamburg-Atlantic Line. Six days later the ship left Belfast, flying the German ensign and renamed Scotland for the voyage to Hamburg. Upon arrival, she was sent to the yards of Howaldtswerke, where she was scheduled for an extensive refit.

In July of 1958, the ship emerged from the yard. Renamed Hanseatic, her name was certainly not the only new thing about her. The original three funnels had been replaced by two larger ones, and her hull had been rebuilt to a more streamlined design. This, and the black, white and red colours of her new owners made it quite difficult to recognise her. The old vessel had been spectacularly transformed and given a new life.

On July 21st that year, the Hanseatic set out on her first voyage from Cuxhaven to New York, with calls at Le Havre, Southampton and Cobh along the way. Although owned by the Hamburg-Atlantic Line, she was managed by the more experienced Hamburg-America Line. Hanseatic had soon earned a loyal following as one of the finest West German liners, and she continued her North Atlantic service in the summers, while doing cruises during the off-season. This service was maintained well into the 1960s, but unfortunately the end was now drawing near.

On September 7th 1966, the ship caught fire in the engine room, while in New York. The fire caused serious damage, but efforts to extinguish it soon succeeded in doing so. Hanseatic’s machinery was severely damaged though, and the ship was forced to leave New York under tow of the Bugsier tugs Atlantic and Pacific on September 23rd. She was sent to the Howaldtswerke in Hamburg for repairs, but an inspection found her to be beyond economic repair. Instead, the Hanseatic was laid up at Hamburg, awaiting her fate. On December 2nd 1966, the inevitable decision was made. She was sold for breaking up to the firm of Eisen & Metall AG of Hamburg.


  • 666 feet (203.5 m) long
  • 83.7 feet (25.6 m) wide
  • Originally 26,032 gross tons, 30,030 gross tons when rebuilt as the Hanseatic
  • Geared turbines turning two propellers
  • 21 knot service speed
  • Passenger capacity of 1,173 people as originally built, reduced to 708 during 1948 refit


Built in 1930 at Harlands, Belfast, with twin screws and requisitioned by the Admiralty at the outbreak of war in 1939. Bombed and sunk in Portland Harbour in 1940.

Victoria Cross

Mantle was 23 years old, and an acting leading seaman in the Royal Navy during the Second World War when the following deed took place for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

On 4 July 1940, during an air raid on Portland, England, Leading Seaman Mantle of HMS Foylebank, who was manning the starboard 20mm pom-pom gun, had his left leg shattered by the blast from a bomb early in the action. Although wounded again many times, he remained at his gun, training and firing by hand when Foylebank’s electric power failed, until he collapsed and died. His citation in the London Gazette reads:

Leading Seaman Jack Mantle was in charge of the Starboard pom-pom when FOYLEBANK was attacked by enemy aircraft on the 4th of July, 1940. Early in the action his left leg was shattered by a bomb, but he stood fast at his gun and went on firing with hand-gear only; for the ship’s electric power had failed. Almost at once he was wounded again in many places. Between his bursts of fire he had time to reflect on the grievous injuries of which he was soon to die; but his great courage bore him up till the end of the fight, when he fell by the gun he had so valiantly served.[2]

This was only the second occasion that the Victoria Cross has been awarded for action in the United Kingdom.

The Story of the


During Christmas Week, 1951, there began an incredible sea story involving a WWII era cargo vessel named the Flying Enterprise and her captain, Kurt Carlsen.  Captain Carlsen was a Danish-born seaman that began his sea career at the age of 14. He became master of his first ship at the age of 22 with the Danish-American company American Export-Isbrandtsen Lines which was a New York based US-flag shipping company from 1919 to 1977, offering both cargo and passenger ship services. In 1977 it declared bankruptcy and was acquired by Farrell Lines.

The SS Flying Enterprise was a 6,711 ton Type C1-B ship. She was built in 1944 as SS Cape Kumukaki for the United States Maritime Commission for use in World War II. The ship was sold in 1947 and then operated in scheduled service under the name Flying Enterprise.

The Storm

On December 21, 1951, The Flying Enterprise departed Hamburg, Germany bound for New York with a cargo that included 1,300 tons of pig iron, 900 tons of coffee and 10 passengers. From the departure out of Hamburg through the English channel the vessel encountered heavy fog.

Late on the 23rd of December, as the Flying Enterprise was steaming southward in fog towards the English Channel, a weak surface low of 1016 mb was noted over Michigan.

As the vessel steamed though the English Channel on Christmas Eve, the Flying Enterprise first encountered heavy weather due to a strong low pressure area that was moving well northward of Ireland and Scotland.  The heavy weather continued through Christmas Day and the day after Christmas as the vessel passed out of the Channel and into the North Atlantic as gale force winds increased to storm force 10.  During the night of Dec. 26, Capt. Carlsen decided to heave the vessel to as winds continued to increase and approach force 12 (hurricane).  At the same time the weak disturbance far to the west moved out over the western North Atlantic and began to deepen reaching 1006 mb by 12Z Christmas Day as it passed southward of Cape Race, Newfoundland.  Twenty-four hours later, at 12Z on December 26th, the western low was rapidly deepening into a 974mb storm low and was racing east-northeastward near 50N 24W.

Rapid deepening continued through the 26th and by 06Z on Dec. 27th the now violent storm low had reached 944 mb near 55N 12W,  just as it passed to the north of the Flying Enterprise position.   Note:  Between Dec 25/12z to Dec 27/06z the storm had deepened 62mb in just 42 hours!.

The Flying Enterprise Encounters the Storm

As the storm center passed north of the Flying Enterprise that morning, the vessel encountered what was described as “a very high sea” at position 50-41N 15-26W (about 400 miles west of Lands End). Several load bangs where heard (like the firing of a gun) throughout the ship and an examination determined that the vessel had suffered two main fractures.  The first began at the after port corner of #3 hatch and ran across the deck and back to the accommodation ladder opening at the side and ran down the side to the longitudinal riveting at the base of the sheer strake.

On the starboard side the crack ran from the forward corner of the deck house straight across to the accommodation opening and from there down to the riveting on the opposite side. The cracks were estimated to be between 1/8 and 3/8 inches in width.  A smaller crack ran from the after starboard corner of the #3 hatch toward the side of the ship and was estimated to be 18 inches long.  At the time, Capt. Carlsen reported force 12 winds and 40ft seas.  A measurement of the pressure gradient near the vessel suggests winds were at least 60kts which would be consistent with a violent storm BF 11 (56-63 kt wind and 30-45 ft waves) and could have easily reached force 12 at times.

Given the ship’s position it is apparent that the captain had set out on a minimum distance great circle route from Bishop Rock towards Nantucket.  Had Carlsen chosen a more southerly wintertime track, perhaps the vessel would not have encountered conditions that severe.

In an effort to reduce the strain on the now damaged vessel, Capt. Carlsen turned the ship southwestward so that the wind and sea were broad on the bow and later more southerly bringing the wind almost abeam.  During this time period, Carlsen had the crew fill the cracks with cement then run cable from the bitts at #3 hold to bitts aft in order to bind the deck together.

As the Flying Enterprise proceeded south keeping the seas on the starboard beam, Capt. Carlsen concluded that he must put in at either an English or French port or head to the Azores for repairs. During the night of the 27th into the morning of the 28th as yet another storm passed to the north, the vessel experienced rolling of up to 20 degrees. At about 1130 on the morning of the 28th the vessel was hit broadside by another high wave which rolled the vessel between 50-70 degrees to port shifting the cargo and causing the vessel to return to a permanent list of about 25 degrees.  The list increased gradually and eventually the engine lost lubrication oil due to the list which resulted in the loss of both boilers forcing Capt. Carlsen to have his radio operator send out an SOS.

The Rescue Attempt

The SOS was answered by several ships and the passengers and crew were rescued in heavy seas by lifeboats from the US Navy troop ship USS General A W Greely and the steamerSouthland on Dec. 29th.  Because of the heavy list, the lifeboats on board the Flying Enterprisecould not be launched and both passengers and crew were forced to jump into the cold North Atlantic before being recovered by the lifeboats. One middle-age passenger drowned during this operation, otherwise, all of the remaining passengers and crew were successfully rescued.

Captain Carlsen chose to remain with his ship in order to wait for the arrival of a salvage tug.  The salvage tug Turmoil finally arrived on January 3rd some 5 days after the passengers and crew were rescued but it quickly became evident that it would be impossible for Capt. Carlsen, alone aboard a heavily listing vessel (now listing at 60 degrees), to secure a tow line himself.

After several unsuccessful attempts to secure the tow line, the 27-year-old chief mate on the Tug Turmoil, Kenneth Dancy, leaped from the deck of the tug onto the railing of the Flying Enterprise on one of the very close approaches made by Capt. Dan Parker of the Turmoilduring one of the failed attempts to secure the tow line.  With Dancy’s help, however, a tow line was secured and the long tow back towards Falmouth England began.

While the tug and tow approached the English coast on January 8th the weather started to deteriorate.  On January 9th, just 45 miles from Falmouth, heavy seas parted the towline.  The Flying Enterprise drifted eastward while several attempts were made to re-secure another towline but all attempts were unsuccessful.   At 1536 on the afternoon of January 10, 1952 as the Flying Enterprise, now listing at 90 degrees and taking water down the stack.  Both Dancy and Carlsen jumped into the sea from off the stack and were taken aboard the Turmoil where they watched the Flying Enterprise sink under the waves, stern first at 1609.

By now this ongoing sea drama was being reported around the world and Capt. Carlsen had become world-famous for staying on his crippled freighter. Captain Carlsen received a hero’s welcome when he came ashore at Falmouth and later was awarded the Lloyd’s Silver Medal for meritorious service in recognition for his attempts to save his ship.

Carlsen received a ticker-tape parade in New York City on January 17th.   A few months later he took command of the Flying Enterprise II, passing up several lucrative offers from Hollywood for his story.  Carlsen, and his ordeal aboard the Flying Enterprise, is the subject of  an excellent the book “Simple Courage: a True Story of Peril on the Sea” by Frank Delaney.

Coast Guard Report

The US Coast Guard inquiry found that the damage, abandonment and loss of the vessel were caused by circumstances beyond the control of the master and crew.  The fracture sustained while hove to in head seas was not a direct cause of the vessel’s loss but merely an indirect contribution to the loss.

The Coast Guard did remark about the stowage of the pig iron cargo in #2 hold and noted that it was not leveled out as was the pig iron in #4 hold but was stacked in a pyrimid shape.   The report stated that this did constitute a certain hazard as to shifting, however, this type of stowage  was a common practice at the time and had been sanctioned by the shipper, underwriter, owner and the master.   It was also believed that the empty condition of the double bottoms aft and the deep tanks in #4 hold had an appreciable effect on the great degree of list which the vessel took. ~ Fred Pickhardt  Source

NYC ticker tape parade

courtesy of the Autumn edition of


Journal of The Warsash Association

which featured the Bank Line