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The Menace of the Derelict

A tragic sight and a peril to other craft, abandoned sailing ships caused such havoc in the shipping lanes that special measures were taken to rid the sea of them

A photograph of the US coastguard cutter Seneca at the work of ridding her territory of abandoned vessels

TOWING A DISABLED SHIP INTO PORT. A photograph of the US coastguard cutter Seneca at the work of ridding her territory of abandoned vessels. The Seneca was built in 1908 specially for the purpose of hunting down derelicts. A single-screw vessel of 1,445 tons displacement, she is capable of making long cruises in the Atlantic, is armed with two 4-in and two light quick-firing guns, and she has also served in the US Ice Patrol.

FEW sailors of to-day realize the dread inspired in their predecessors by derelicts, especially derelict wooden-hulled sailing vessels with cargoes of timber that kept them afloat for an indefinite period. Towards the end of the nineteenth century there were large numbers of timber droghers on the Atlantic routes, carrying Canadian wood to Europe. As this was one of the last trades to which a sailing ship could descend, the ships were often in no state to withstand a real Atlantic blow. Between North and South America there was another big lumber trade employing schooners which all too often came to grief in passing through the hurricane belt of the West Indies.

The number of modern steamers lost at sea nowadays is negligible compared with the number of the old sailing ships that were lost. Further, steel hulls and heavy machinery almost invariably take steamers straight down to the bottom, and their crews seldom have difficulty in opening the sea cocks if it is necessary to hasten the end. But with the wooden sailing ships it was different. Although the crews who had to abandon them were always expected to take the precaution of setting them on fire, this precaution was not always successful, and the derelicts sometimes drifted for years.

An abandoned sailing ship, floating practically flush with the water and loaded with timber until she was a solid lump, difficult to pick up in the daytime and, of course, unlighted at night, was one of the greatest dangers of the sea. She was regarded with much more dread than the iceberg, for she was just as dangerous to hit and, unlike the iceberg, offered no warning of “blink”, smell or temperature.

The most celebrated of all derelicts is, of course, the Marie Celeste, which was discovered abandoned in the late ‘seventies, Her story has become one of the great mysteries of the sea. Resembling the story of the Marie Celeste in many details is that of the brig Resolven. In 1884 this little vessel, which had sailed to collect stockfish from the fishing schooners on the Grand Banks, was found deserted by a boarding party from HMS Mallard. The sidelights were still burning and there was a fire in the galley. In the cabin there was a bag of gold coin ready to pay the fishermen for their catch.

What had happened to the crew nobody ever knew. There was no question that she had been abandoned in a hurry, but what was the reason and what had become of her boat? The fire in the galley made it obvious that the crew had only just gone, yet the Mallard found no signs of them, although she cruised round for hours in search, nor did she see anything which could explain their hurried departure.

Even more strange was the experience of the American sailing vessel Ellen Austin. In 1881 she found a derelict-little schooner. Everything was in perfect order, and it seemed certain that the Ellen Austin had realized the sailor’s great dream - remunerative salvage to be drawn for the trouble of getting the derelict to port.

A well-manned vessel, the Ellen Austin put a party on board to navigate her to the nearest American port, and herself sailed in company. The two vessels encountered a blow - nothing serious but sufficient to separate them - and when they met again the prize was again deserted. What had happened to the Ellen Austin’s men was a mystery; everything was once more in order, but not a soul on board. Even hardy New England schooner men would not cheerfully face an unknown risk of that kind; there was considerable difficulty in finding a second navigating party. Finally, by promises of a big share in the salvage award, a small party came forward, but neither they nor the schooner were ever seen or heard of again. The explanation of the third incident is probably quite simple. It came on to blow hard and, undermanned as she was, the schooner was in no condition to withstand the wind. But nobody has explained away the two incidents which preceded it.

As the schooner almost certainly went straight to the bottom, she did not worry the other navigators on the Western Ocean, as the derelicts did - vessels which remained afloat for an extraordinary time. There are several well-authenticated instances of drifts whose length and intricacy are almost incredible. In 1888-89 the schooner W. L. White was abandoned in a blizzard off Delaware Bay, her crew hoisting her ensign upside down as a signal of distress in the hope of getting help before they finally trusted themselves to the boats. She drifted for eleven months, and during that period, according to the chart carefully plotted by the US Hydrographic Department, which took a particular interest in derelicts, she travelled over 5,000 miles, sometimes carried by the current and sometimes by the wind. She was reported no fewer than forty-five times. Many ships sighting her with her signal of distress still flying boarded her in the hope of saving life. She finally drove ashore on the island of Lewis, in the Hebrides.

In 1895 there was the instance of the lumber-laden schooner Alma Cummings. She also is reckoned to have drifted rather more than 5,000 miles in the Atlantic, but she took 587 days in the process. Her crew was taken off by a steamer when she was dismasted, and the water was flowing so freely into her hull that it seemed certain that she must disintegrate almost at once, giving her cargo the opportunity to float out. Nobody dreamed that she would still be afloat eighteen months later, dreaded by every navigator on the Atlantic.

The Alma Cummings was reported frequently and was boarded by a boat’s crew from steamers on five occasions, with the idea of destroying her by fire. All they did, however, was to burn her down to the water’s edge, so that she gave even less warning to lookout men. Warships of more than one navy were ordered to seek her out and destroy her. But those were before the days of wireless telegraphy, and the naval men had to wait until the ship which sighted her reached port before they could obtain any information of her latest position. So they were never able to carry out their task; in fact, the warships instructed to destroy her appear to have been the only ships in the Atlantic which never caught sight of her. Then one day she quietly grounded on the coast of Panama, and within a short time her hull, fittings and wooden cargo had been looted by the Panaman Indians of the neighbour-hood, to whom they were a godsend.

Even longer was the drift of the American schooner Fannie E. Wolsten, lost in 1891, which took four years to make a voyage estimated at nearly 10,000 miles. She was abandoned at the edge of the Gulf Stream, which immediately carried her along. When she became the nightmare of the Atlantic there were many sailors who raised the question as to whether the abandonment had not been premature. She was reported scores of times, and .there was a great sigh of relief when she was seen close to the edge of the Sargasso Sea, drifting steadily towards that wilderness, where she would presumably be safe for everybody.

The sailing ship Manicia (ex-Benicia) drifting and helpless

ABANDONED IN THE NORTH SEA. The sailing ship Manicia (ex-Benicia) drifting and helpless, yet not sinking, makes a desolate picture. In 1896 the Derelict Vessels (Report) Act was passed by the British Parliament, providing a fine of £5 for failure to report a derelict, and to-day, the moment a derelict is sighted, the news is flashed out by wireless to warn other ships in the neighbourhood.

According to the popular but erroneous belief, the Sargasso Sea, which extends across the Atlantic from the latitude of Florida, half-way towards the continent of Africa, is a kind of maritime desert. Here, it is believed, the seaweed is so thick and unbroken on the surface of the water that no wind can raise any sort of sea, the only break being made by scores of derelicts, tattered and utterly desolate. There is no doubt, however, that it has been the graveyard of a number of abandoned sailing ships which would normally have worried the navigator. The Sargasso Sea is formed entirely by the action of circular currents, which throw their debris into the centre, so that tide-borne ships would naturally find their way there in the same way as seaweed. They are not, however, kept chained there by an impenetrable thickness of strangling weed, but they have remained merely because there is no current to take them out again.

For two years the Fannie E. Wolsten was forgotten, or, at least, had become nothing more than a legend, when suddenly she reappeared right in the track of coastal shipping off the New Jersey coast. All the old panic was revived, but it did not last for long; she disappeared for ever within a day’s sail of where she had been abandoned.

One more instance worth recording was that of the barque Florence E. Edgett, bound from Nova Scotia to Buenos Aires with lumber and having a crew of ten, in addition to the captain’s young wife, who proved herself a heroine. The barque was dismasted in a hurricane. Her deckload and the greater part of her bulwarks were swept away, a serious leak developed in the hull, and practically all the provisions were spoiled.

Crystal Ships

Although the accident occurred quite close to a busy trade lane, where plenty of ships were to be expected, no possible help was even sighted for twenty-eight days. Then the crew contrived to repair their one remaining boat, sadly shattered in the hurricane, and sailed 1,400 miles in eleven days, reaching Grenada (Windward Islands, B.W.I.) at their last gasp and frankly indebted to the captain’s wife for preventing them from giving up the struggle.

During the month in which they were on board their wrecked ship and during the further eleven days in the boat, they did not sight a single ship or vessel of any description. As soon, however, as the Florence E. Edgett had been abandoned to her own resources, she was sighted almost daily by some vessel or another and bade fair to become a terror until the currents gradually worked her into the Sargasso Sea.

Apart from the Sargasso Sea - which is well known - there was another area in which derelicts were imprisoned, but in a different fashion. This was the frozen North, where the abandoned ships were mostly the whalers and sealers that used to work the Arctic waters in considerable numbers. More than one deserted whaler has been sighted lifted high on an iceberg, the frozen water on her masts and rigging converting her into a crystal ship - a sight as beautiful as it was terrifying. These were ships that had grounded on low-lying ice, and had been abandoned by their crews as beyond hope. They had been lifted high into the air by the bergs up-ending or having the opposite edges pressed down by still heavier masses of ice. Probably the most curious example occurred in 1893, when the fishing schooner Albion was carried right through the fleet on the Grand Banks on the breast of a huge iceberg propelled by the Southward Drift.

A DERELICT BARQUE, the Edward L. Maybury photographed in the North Atlantic

A DERELICT BARQUE, the Edward L. Maybury photographed in the North Atlantic in 1905. Many such abandoned vessels drifted for months without foundering, and it is estimated that one derelict travelled nearly 10,000 miles in four years.

The examples that have been quoted are only the most interesting or conspicuous from a long list. In the early ‘nineties the position became really alarming. In 1893 it was announced that in the preceding three years there had been no fewer than 103 casualties to British ships through striking derelicts or floating wreckage, sixteen collisions at least being definitely and unmistakably due to abandoned vessels. In the previous ten years twenty-one British vessels had been sunk on derelicts or on flotsam. These figures, of course, took no account of the numerous ships which then disappeared every year without trace, leaving no evidence as to what had happened to them.

The year 1893 was a terribly severe winter on the Atlantic, and the following year saw a petition signed by no fewer than 830 sea captains asking that definite measures should be taken against the derelict danger, and that a proper naval search should be made of the whole Atlantic. The Admiralty and Board of Trade appointed a joint committee, but its report was not encouraging to the petitioners.

Even when the most suitable and best-equipped man-of-war came upon a derelict, it was often difficult for her to take effective action. Gunfire was generally ineffective; the shells exploded inside the hull and raised a cloud of splinters from the cargo, but they did not sink the ship. Torpedoes were expensive, and gun-cotton or dynamite charges were difficult to fix to the keel, the only place where they were really effective in a heavy Atlantic swell. It often required seven or eight 35-lb gun-cotton charges, all correctly placed, to demolish a timber-laden derelict. As most of the strays were on the American side, at the beginnings of their wanderings at least, the US Navy was the most active. The old cruiser Kearsage, the ship that had sunk the corsair Alabama in 1864, and the dynamite cruiser Vesuvius were both employed on this work.

Finally orders were given that the ram was to be used as a last resource; but the USS Atalanta in 1895 and HMS Melampus in 1899 nearly destroyed themselves when ramming, and had to limp home for dockyard attention. The USS Katahdin, especially designed as a ram on lines that were decidedly unconventional, was far more useful for this purpose, but unfortunately she was so slow that by the time a report had been received and she had waddled out to the place indicated, the derelict had generally drifted another 100 miles or so.

In 1896, in consequence of the previous agitation, the Derelict Vessels (Report) Act was passed by the British Parliament, providing a fine of £5 for the failure to report a derelict at the first opportunity.

The Americans also continued to show great activity in clearing the trade lanes. In 1908 the US Coast Guard Force built one of the finest cruisers on its list, the Seneca, especially for this purpose.

A barque, the Lysglint ex Pesca ex Blytheswood, drifting in mid-ocean

BURNT OUT. A barque, the Lysglint ex Pesca ex Blytheswood, drifting in mid-ocean after fire had caused her to be abandoned on May 4 1921. The photograph was taken on May 25, 1921, but the derelict did not sink until July of that year. These pictures show how the flames had left nothing but a charred hulk, dangerous to shipping.

A well-found single-screw vessel of 1,445 tons displacement on dimensions 204 feet by 34, she is sufficiently seaworthy and habitable for long cruises in the Atlantic. She is armed with two four-inch and two light quick-firing guns which can be used either against derelicts and icebergs or against the enemies of the United States in the event of war.

In 1914 the Safety Convention Act was passed after the Titanic disaster. Although the Act was mostly concerned with icebergs, establishing the International Ice Patrol under the US Coast Guard, it covered derelicts as well and bound masters to report their presence by wireless if their ships were so fitted; if not, to pass the message through the first ship they encountered.

The timber trade under sail being now dead, the derelict danger has been greatly decreased if not abolished.

You can read more on “The Glory is Departed”, “The Last Days of Sail” and

“The Shipbreaking Industry” on this website.