My fascination with shipwrecks

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Shipwrecks make good stories about bad things. And they don’t just happen to others. They can happen to any of us. With most shipwrecks there’s a lesson to be learned. In some, the only lesson is that the sea is master or that stuff happens no matter how hard you try to keep it from happening. With others, it’s that there are too many people on the water that shouldn’t be there. And then there are plenty in between.

The New Orleans survived a perilous maiden voyage in 1811, only to sink in an accident later.

Let’s start with the steamship New Orleans. She was built to prove that a steamship could travel from Pittsburgh to New Orleans by river to carry commerce and make money. She was 26 feet wide and 148 feet long. She was powered by a 160-hp, 34-cylinder steam engine that turned paddlewheels located amidships, pushing her at a maximum speed of 10 mph.

She began her voyage Oct. 20, 1811. This was a very unusual period of time, with not only lots of “omens” afoot but also true calamity. There were warnings aplenty for the NewOrleans, at least in the minds of the superstitious. In the spring of that year, the Great Comet of 1811 appeared, showing the brightest in October. Much has been written about it, both speculative and factual, but the bottom line is that the world was very impressed, and deservedly so.

There also was a solar eclipse not long before the voyage began. It was a total eclipse in the region. And the summer and fall of 1811 brought a massive squirrel migration, with thousands and thousands of the rodents “fleeing” southward. Their flight was so urgent that they swam rivers — and squirrels really aren’t swimmers.

This landmark trip was difficult enough without the uneasiness many must have felt because of the strange happenings. The ship departed and persistently headed downriver, even though she had to make some prudent pauses. Early in the trip, she had to pass through a 2-mile set of dangerous rapids on the Ohio River below Louisville, Kentucky. Those aboard waited for the water to rise high enough, and then the skilled river pilot miraculously maneuvered this unwieldy vessel between the rocks, over the deep spots and through a maelstrom of powerful swirling currents without damage.

And let’s not leave out earthquakes. During a coal stop Dec. 11, the first of a series of catastrophic earthquakes occurred. Called the New Madrid earthquakes, there were three quakes (reported 8.0 magnitude) at 3, 8 and 11 a.m. Later ones struck Jan. 23 (8.4 magnitude) and Feb. 7 in 1812 (8.8 magnitude).

During this quake, the New Orleans fled downriver, at one point anchoring behind an island for protection from racing debris, only to find the next morning that the island had been swallowed up and was gone. People on the ship could see trees trembling and ground shifting and heaving on shore as they passed between the banks. Many have said that the river bottom heaved up in places, making the waters flow backward and causing major flooding.

Passengers reported that at one point a huge chasm opened in the river, and the ship had to find its way around to keep from going down in it, traveling over what had been dry land that was now flooded. The ship survived these massive earthquakes, but later in the trip it’s reported that local Chickasaw Indians, apparently believing this “fire canoe” was the cause of earthquakes (I’d think so, too), headed out into the river to attack with bows and arrows. The steamship barely pulled away from the war canoes.

Despite all this, she made it, and magnificent steamboats soon traveled the river, reaping the harvest that she had sewn.

After surviving all of these potential disasters, benefi ting from skilled piloting and, yes, perhaps from a fair measure of good luck, she was shipwrecked several years later.

She had tied alongside a landing one afternoon to take on a load of wood for fuel. A huge thunderstorm came, bringing a deluge as the ship remained over for the night, its captain wisely not wishing to put out into the flooding river in the dark.

With this amount of rain, it sometimes happened that the river would become so swollen that the water racing down the main channel would actually suck water out of the bank areas. This happened, and the New Orleans settled onto a stump that had remained hidden on the bottom. The stump holed her, and there she died.

Despite her incredible history of being guided by good seamanship and good luck, and surviving what many of the day considered to be omens of disaster, she sank in a freak accident. But shipwrecks happen more often at the hands of the people at the helm.

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A wreck of an entirely different nature occurred in the waters of New York City in 1904. The steamship General Slocum had been built in 1891 and served primarily as an excursion boat around New York. She was 235 feet long and 37.5 feet wide, drawing just over 12 feet. The General Slocum was plagued throughout her life by groundings, collisions and even a shipboard mutiny of sorts when reportedly intoxicated passengers, who were said to be members of an organization of anarchists, tried to take over the ship after a collision.

The fire aboard the General Slocum in 1904, killing more than 1,000, was New York's deadliest tragedy until 9/11.

But the real horror came July 15, 1904. With about 1,342 passengers aboard, she caught fire. Most of the passengers were from Little Germany, then on Manhattan’s lower east side, on a church outing, bound for a picnic site on Long Island. This was an annual event, long anticipated with a great deal of joy.

About 10 a.m. that day, not long after leaving with the happy throng aboard, the steamship caught fire. Apparently it began in an oil lamp room up forward. It’s reported that perhaps someone carelessly tossed a match. The fire, fueled by straw and oily waste (which shouldn’t have been aboard), quickly took hold in the timbers of the ship.

Instead of beaching or docking her immediately, the captain sped through Hell Gate, quickly fanning the flames back into the passengers. It’s reported that life jackets were rotten, lifeboats couldn’t be launched and the firefighting equipment either didn’t work or was inadequate. It’s also reported that there had been no fire drills for the crew.

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As the ship steamed on into the wind, decks full of terrified passengers began to collapse into the burning decks below. People tried to jump over the side, although few knew how to swim. Some were crushed under the thrashing paddle wheels. Some mothers tied their children into life jackets and threw them over, only to see them sink. The ship finally sank near North Brother Island off the Bronx, close to the hospital there for quarantined patients.

The death toll was 1,021. The captain was sentenced to 10 years in prison; he served only four after a presidential pardon. Makers of the life jackets were prosecuted, but the charges were dismissed. The jackets had been hanging out on deck in the sun and rain for years. However, it was also alleged that some of them were weighted with metal to meet regulatory weight requirements related to the amount of buoyancy material they contained.

One might say this shipwreck was an accident waiting to happen because of human carelessness or neglect. But wherever the fault lay, it wasn’t the fault of the passengers. This was the deadliest tragedy in New York history until 9/11.

Other shipwrecks have occurred in relatively benign circumstances, with no remarkable prelude. However, these are victims of the forces of the sea and maritime phenomena.

* * *

Whale Cay Passage in the Abacos is widely known to be very dangerous, although at times it can be flat calm, presenting an easy, relaxing ride. We’ve passed through when the only thing to bother us was nervous tension and too many flies from nearby Great Guana Cay just to the east. But in the ocean outside, waves roll for thousands of miles, virtually unimpeded, across the North Atlantic before they reach the rapidly shallowing waters of the Bahamas Banks. The ocean bottom rises up from the vast deep just off this cut, as it does off many others. And when the waves reach those shallows, they don’t stop.

If the swells are large, though they may be hardly noticeable out at sea, they can rise steeply in the cut and become too heavy to support themselves, so their tops come tumbling down. You wait for Whale Cay Passage to be safe. But sometimes it’s not safe even when you think it is because it’s possible to start through and then have a rogue set of swells that began far away from your pretty day reach the shallows at just the wrong time.

This Azimut megayacht found the north jetty at the well-marked Port Everglades Inlet in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

On April 20, 1986, a 51-foot yawl came through the cut. She made it through without significant problems. The people aboard were visitors to the Bahamas, and though careful and capable, they were not local experts. About an hour and a half later, the 160-foot freighter Violet Mitchell came through. She was a veteran island freighter, and her captain was an accomplished seaman and familiar with the waters from a lifetime of running boats and ships upon them.

She came in on a following sea, which raised her stern toward the sky and rolled under her bottom so that the rudder swung in the air. She lost adequate steerage, her bow dug into the wave in front of her, and she quickly plowed in and rolled over, sinking. The captain and his daughter were lost, although the rest of the crew survived. This killing sea in the cut was caused by a storm far away, off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. A particular wave impulse from the storm reached the Bahamas at just the wrong time for the Violet Mitchell.

With this wreck it was a case of “the sea will get you if it wants to and you just can’t be too careful.” But even if a skipper is being careful, if he doesn’t have adequate experience, the odds can drastically worsen. And shipwrecks are not the exclusive domain of commercial vessels or even ships.

* * *

We were anchored on a nice afternoon in Big Majors Spot behind Big Majors Cay. This was a beautiful place to hang for the easterly breeze, which was freshly blowing. We’d been diving and were passing inside Big Rock Cut in our tender. This cut is like many others in the islands. There’s enough water if you’re in the right place. If you’re not, the rock is very hard. I’m sure the captain of the megayacht knew this as he carefully picked his way in.

Big Rock Cut is so named because just inside the rocky islands that border the cut is, yes, a big rock. It rises frighteningly from the swirling current. To both sides of this big rock, a shallow reef reaches up and down the passage. Around this rock and reef the current is fierce as the tide races in and out, pushing millions of gallons of water through the small passage, either out to sea or in from the sea and up onto the Bahamas Banks.

The megayacht came through the cut and turned southerly to head toward Staniel Cay Yacht Club. I’m told that the helmsman was intently following the plotter, acutely aware of the dangers on all sides. As he looked at the screen, he apparently wasn’t looking fore and aft as much as he should have and didn’t notice that the incoming flood was pushing him sideways toward the reef.

He was pointing in the right direction and moving forward in what appeared to be the right direction, but the plotter didn’t tell him in time that his sideways drift wasn’t going to work in this narrow passage. The best chart plotters can be not good enough as the sole source of navigational information when the cut is narrow enough and the current is swift enough.

At least 14 people were hurt when the Bald Head Island ferry Adventure ran aground last December.

What alerted him to his sideways drift was a grinding crunch and a sudden lurching halt. The noise as he was shoved up onto the coral was sickening. Large waves coming into the cut, kicked up by the easterly, slammed into his broadside. You could hear the bottom grinding on the coral and rock as each sea rocked the vessel.

The crew tried to motor off but could only power forward or aft, and each movement was met by another wave pushing them sideways into shallower water. The sounds told the story. This multimillion-dollar yacht was going to be toast soon. Fortunately there were enough powerful island boats around to quickly come to the rescue (for a “slight” fee) and pull him off before he was holed. This was a case of having all the right stuff but perhaps not having enough practical experience. And no souls were lost or great damage done, in part because of the help available.

* * *

Everyday boaters can have shipwrecks, too. One that immediately comes to my mind is the boat full of people that ran into a barge that was tied up alongside the ICW in April 2009. It wasn’t dark; there was plenty of daylight left. The people in the boat were returning to the Jacksonville, Florida, area from an event at a marina in the St. Augustine area. They were in a straight and narrow dredged section of the ICW. Perhaps the skipper thought that all you had to do was stay between the banks. Maybe that’s why he gave the control to a person without a great deal of experience running boats. We’ll probably never know why.

There were 14 people aboard the 22-foot, 6-inch boat. Five people were killed; nine were injured. Three of the five who were killed in the crash were in their early 20s; two others were in their 40s. According to published reports and the medical examiner’s office in St. Augustine, all five were under the influence of alcohol and three were also under the influence of illegal drugs.

When they wrecked, they were running at a very high speed in these constricted waters. Some have actually argued that it was the fault of the boat because the boat allowed “bow riders” to be in front of the helmsperson. But, of course, the boat was a bowrider when it was purchased and when the people got aboard. This was not a hidden secret. Nor was the barge, tied to the shore on the side of the ICW. There were aids to navigation in that channel, but not as many as you sometimes see in the ICW because the channel is fairly straight and narrow. But even aids to navigation don’t seem to help some of us.

A few years ago, near Charleston, South Carolina, a boat running fast in the dark hit an aid to navigation just south of Charleston Harbor. This was in a relatively constricted and busy section of the ICW and in the vicinity of the Wappoo Creek bridge. You don’t run fast here in broad daylight, let alone in the dark. “Foul,” cried some of the media airheads. (These people scare me more every day.) “The marker wasn’t lit.”

A stuffing box failure was suspected when the 42-foot Tartan Leila B sank during a regatta off Florida's Gulf Coast last year.

Actually, as you and I know, our waters have a huge number of markers that aren’t lighted. If all of them were, we’d never be able to effectively use them to guide us. Some are lighted, and for a reason: to help us figure out where we are and where we want to head — to highlight particular navigational issues. This has been the case for many generations.

The point is, we’re supposed to have some clue about where we are. We’re supposed to know that there are unlighted aids in the area where we’re traveling — a glance at a chart or plotter will tell us where they are. We’re supposed to travel slowly in the dark in constricted busy areas, particularly with a bridge ahead. And we’re supposed to do certain “prudent mariner” things, such as using a good spotlight. The media didn’t seem to get these finer points.

But never mind about unlighted aids. A few years ago, a boat slammed into a lighted aid to navigation in the broad Rappahannock River in Virginia. It was about 10:38 p.m., well after dark. The 23-foot boat was reportedly traveling about 35 mph, heading back to a launch ramp after a visit to a tiki bar.

There were 10 people aboard; not long before the crash, there had been 12. Two young boys had disembarked to be picked up by their parents. Nine of the people in the boat were seriously injured, requiring airlifts to different facilities. One young woman, a 25-year-old schoolteacher, was killed. It was reported that alcohol was involved. And the aid was lighted in the broad Rappahannock River.

If that’s not enough, how about two collisions in one night? According to newspaper and police reports, in June 2011 a 25-foot boat left a marina near the mouth of the same river after 9 p.m. Aboard were a man and a woman. They traveled about 3 miles across the river and hit the No. 1 lighted nav aid at the mouth of Broad Creek leading into Deltaville. The man made a 911 call shortly before 10 p.m., saying they’d hit something and that the woman was injured.

Before the Coast Guard could arrive, they headed back for the marina they had just left on the opposite side of the river and hit the entrance jetty seawall about 10:15. This entrance is narrow, and only very slow speed is appropriate. The boat was running at 40 mph when it hit, according to police reports. Police found the throttle in the wide-open position. Both people were killed. Police reported they had a $50 receipt from the tiki bar on the marina premises. They said it did not reflect food purchases. It was stamped at 9 p.m.

* * *

I could go on forever talking about shipwrecks. There are many good books on the subject. Clive Cussler’s two non-fiction books, The Sea Hunters (Volumes I and II), give some very interesting stories of shipwrecks and his admirable and remarkable efforts to discover (not salvage) ruins of historical shipwrecks.

You can read more about the New Orleans and the General Slocum in Volume II. If you love boating and the sea, whether your seas are creeks, lakes, rivers or oceans, you’re probably fascinated by shipwrecks, too. But I also like to stop and think about takeaways. Here are some of mine.

Shipwrecks are “all over the place” — not just geographically and not just as to size and type of the vessels involved but also as to cause. Sometimes the cause is the wrath and whim of nature, but quite often the cause is the human factor, from honest mistakes to simple carelessness to egregious culpability. Sometimes the factors of nature and human input combine; sometimes we humans get clobbered even though we are totally innocent.

After all, when we go out on the water we’re out of our element, regardless of what the beautiful advertisements say and regardless of the pious proclamations of the politicians and bureaucrats talking about “public access.” We’re in an alien world, no matter how much we love it or how carefully we prepare. For a reminder of how much we’re out of our element, just try to take a breath with your face under water. One gets the message fast.

To worsen matters, the open spaces of the water often give us a sense of extra freedom. Even in creeks, there’s a subconscious sense that we’ve got a lot more room and flexibility than on the highways and roads we travel every day. But this can be a tragically false sense of security.

I don’t keep statistics — and I wouldn’t trust their relevance if I did — but it seems to me that the incidents of needless death and injury are increasing as more and more members of the “public” get “access.” Also, there’s a plethora of government activities promoting artificial extensions of our concept of “equality.” Encouraging hordes to get out on the water is somehow justified by more laws requiring “training” that you can get online, of all places.

Although classes can help the new boater in many important respects, you don’t need to take a class to know that you don’t boat while under the influence or that you need good life jackets or that you prepare for emergencies or that you need to look where you’re going or that you don’t speed at night.

And when we talk about equal access and growing boating, we’d better talk about growing common sense as it applies to an alien world and the indispensability of old-fashioned skills of seamanship, which come only from experience and are a prerequisite to safety in that world. Shipwrecks come easily enough, without our help.

August 2014 issue