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.