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Posted in Aviation, Disasters, Historical articles, History, Ships on Saturday, 8 March 2014
This edited article about the S S Chelyuskin disaster first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.
Slowly, painfully, its screws whirring frantically, the S.S. Chelyuskin fought its way through the ice floes of the Arctic Ocean. On her deck, her captain, Julius Schmidt, worriedly watched the ice pack inexorably closing in on his vessel. He had good cause for concern. In this area, more sturdy ships than his had disappeared without a trace, crushed to death by the terrible ice-floes. Of course, these were the chances that sailors took when they travelled in this area. But the S.S. Chelyuskin was no ordinary ship, inasmuch as she carried no less than 103 people aboard, including ten women and two children. It was a grave responsibility for a captain to carry on his shoulders.
The S.S. Chelyuskin was a Soviet ship which had set off from Russia in the August of 1933, with the express purpose of proving that an ordinary cargo vessel could voyage through the north-east passage and back within a single season. In the previous year, a Soviet ice-breaker under the command of Julius Schmidt had managed to make the journey. But unlike the Chelyuskin, she had been specially built to withstand the enormous pressure of the ice-floes.
Even so, the Chelyuskin had so far come through magnificently. After collecting a party of Russian scientists and their families from Wrangel Island, she had weathered blizzards and storms and had so far sailed through hundreds of miles of pack-ice without misadventure.
But now was the true testing time. Some way ahead of the vessel lay the open Pacific. But to reach it there were still some miles of water to be navigated, water that was filled with drifting gigantic ice-floes which could smash in the sides of the vessel like matchwood.
Desperately, the vessel twisted and turned, its bows throwing up a steady shower of ice splinters. Every now and then the vessel would halt abruptly, trapped between two walls of ice. Whenever this happened, the crew would jump overboard with cans of explosive which they planted on the ice. Numbed with the cold and breathless from their exertions, they scrambled back on the ship each time, only seconds before the explosives went up.
Then suddenly, miraculously, the Chelyuskin was only six miles from the open seas of the Pacific Ocean. Surely now, after going through so much, they would reach their goal without misadventure? The sunshine that came out at this point, softening the bleak outlines of the ice, certainly seemed to indicate that the worst was over.
Then, without warning, and as if from nowhere, a raging blizzard descended on the Chelyuskin, driving the ice floes forward until they formed a solid barrier in front of the vessel. Now it began to move forward, grinding remorselessly against the ship’s sides, until it had broken her ribs at the bows, torn a hole in her forward, and snapped off her rudder.
It was at this point that Julius Schmidt went to the radio to inform the world of their desperate plight. But even after that the ship still continued to survive for another three and a half weeks before the ice forced the occupants of the beleaguered ship to abandon her.
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Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History, Ships on Friday, 7 March 2014
This edited article about maritime disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 584 published on 24 March 1973.
Harry Macdonald counted himself lucky to be serving as second mate on the Caspatrick, a fine frigate of 1,119 tons which had been originally built for the purpose of carrying British troops to the Crimea. She was no record-breaker, but she was a sound, steady-going, comfortable ship, the sort of ship which most sailors speak of with affection when they find themselves berthed in a less happy ship. She had, moreover, a good Captain named Elmslie, who was a dependable seaman, liked and respected by the crew, even though he was something of a disciplinarian.
On the morning of September 11th, 1874, the Caspatrick set off from London, bound for New Zealand. On board was a crew of 44, which included Macdonald, and 429 emigrants. As far as Macdonald was concerned, the trip would be an uneventful one. But at least he could look forward to seeing something of New Zealand for the first time.
The Caspatrick reached Cape Town without incident, beyond the fact that she had been forced to skirt around the Bay of Biscay to avoid a bad patch of rough weather. Leaving Cape Town, she began the long run to New Zealand. The next day she ran into a blustery nor wester, and most of the passengers were badly sea-sick, an unpleasant experience for those concerned, but not one to cause any undue alarm. Macdonald and some of the crew went out of their way to make the passengers comfortable, and then carried on with their duties, knowing that it would be only a day or so before the seas became calm again.
Sure enough, the next day the wind dropped and the Caspatrick was once again cleaving a clean path through the waves. Macdonald paused in his work occasionally to look at the creamy wake of the ship as she sped on her way. It was comforting to know that one was on such a fine ship on which nothing could happen.
But something did happen.
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Posted in Disasters, Famous news stories, Sea, Ships on Thursday, 6 March 2014
This edited article about submarine disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 580 published on 24 February 1973.
In the China Seas in 1930, the 2,000 ton steamer Yuta slammed into the side of the submarine Poseidon by Graham Coton
Six men lay at the bottom of the China Seas, trapped in the bowels of their submarine, the “Poseidon,” with seemingly no hope of rescue. They were Petty Officer Patrick Willis, Able Seamen Lovock, Holt and Nagle, Leading Seaman Clark, and a Chinese steward, Ah Hai.
Numbed with shock, they lay in the inky darkness, knowing nothing of an accident that had sent them to the bottom, beyond the fact that it had happened with such devastating suddeness that there had not been the slightest warning of any danger.
One moment they had been cruising peacefully along the surface of the water. Then there had been the deadly shock of some sort of collision, and an echoed shout of “Close watertight doors.” They had sprung to obey this order, only to be flung off their balance immediately after they had closed the door of the bulkhead of their own compartment. Then there had been a swift descent to the bottom of the ocean.
The “Poseidon” had been built in 1929, and commissioned for service in the following year. In the December, 1930, she sailed with three sister ships to the China Seas, and it was there that the accident had happened.
While the sub was on the surface some distance away from the rest of the squadron, those who had been standing on her deck suddenly became aware that a steamer named the “Yuta” was bearing blindly down on them at full speed. Unable to stop in time, she had rammed into the side of the submarine, crashing through the steel plates.
The “Yuta,” which was manned by a Chinese crew, immediately reversed her propellers. But it was already far too late for that to stop the ship. Slamming into the submarine with all the full weight of her 2,000 tons, the “Yuta” rolled the submarine on to her side. At the same time, water began to gush through the great gash that had been made in the side of “Poseidon.”
Twenty-nine men managed to get through the open conning tower before the submarine sank. With the exception of the six men trapped forward, all the others on the submarine were drowned.
For the six who had survived, the situation was grim. It was true that men on surface ships nearby would have seen what had happened, and would, even now, be steaming to the rescue. But how long would it be before they were able to get divers down to examine the ship? And when they did get down, would they find a practical way of releasing the six men?
Willis, who was in charge of the party, very much doubted it. Moreover, time was already running out. Water was seeping steadily through the bulkhead door, and there was no air beyond that which they were already breathing. At most, Willis reckoned, that air would last them for about six hours.
As far as Willis could assess the situation they had only one means of escape – the Davis rescue gear.
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Posted in America, Disasters, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships, World War 1 on Tuesday, 25 February 2014
This edited article about World War One first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 566 published on 18 November 1972.
The German submarine U20 at the sinking of the Lusitania
When the lookout saw the torpedo’s tell-tale tracks and shouted, it was too late. The giant liner shuddered as an explosion tore a gaping hole in her side. Within seconds stokers and engineers were enveloped in scalding steam as the in-rushing sea reached furnaces and boilers exploded.
The passengers, shocked and numbed by the suddenness of the events, gathered at their boat stations. Then, as the ship began to list to starboard, two boats were lowered, quickly but unevenly over the sides, so that they tipped throwing their occupants into the water. A few minutes more and the liner’s list to starboard was so acute that it was no longer possible to lower boats from the port side.
Then, as the angle grew even steeper, passengers began to jump from the ship’s decks, while many who had rushed below to collect belongings were trapped as cabin doors jammed and furniture scythed across lower decks blocking the companionways. Now the ship’s bows began to dip and men, women and children could do nothing but cling to the tilting deck.
As they struggled to pull away those in lifeboats saw the giant liner’s four propellers rise clear of the water. She seemed to pause there for a moment, before sliding faster and faster, stem first, beneath the wreckage strewn water – sucking swimmers down in a swirling vortex that marked her passing.
In the German submarine, U20, the commander, scuttling from the scene of action, entered in his log “. . . I hoisted the periscope. Far behind a number of boats were rowing on the open sea. There was no longer any trace of the Lusitania.”
In eighteen minutes in the afternoon of May 7, 1915, the 31,500 ton, unarmed, Cunard Liner Lusitania had been sunk without warning within sight of the Irish coast. She went with 1,198 people – 291 of them were women, 94 were children and 124 were American neutrals.
The German High Command’s instructions to disregard the maritime rules of war, which did not permit the sinking of merchant ships without prior warning and care for the lives of passengers and crews, had resulted in the mass murder of over 1,000 noncombatants by a German U boat.
The news of this barbarity horrified the world. In Britain, a wave of anti-German feeling culminated in protest riots.
It brought the Americans to the verge of war. In fact so strong was the American protest that the Germans, fearing America would enter the war on the side of the British, modified their orders to submarine commanders.
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Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History, Ships, Superstition on Monday, 17 February 2014
This edited article about maritime disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 554 published on 26 August 1972.
The Disaster at the launch of the H M S "Albion" at Blackwall
It is a well established tradition that a new ship should be christened with a bottle of champagne. If this is dispensed with on that auspicious occasion, bad luck inevitably follows. This sailors’ superstition is one that must surely bring a polite smile of disbelief to the lips of most people. But perhaps they might be less sceptical if they were aware of the disasters that have followed the careers of some ships that have been launched without the customary bottle of champagne being smashed against their bows.
Take for an instance, the story of the American ship, the Great Republic, which was launched with water.
It is a story which begins on the day she was launched from the Boston shipyards on the 4th of October 1853. It was a day of which the people of that fair city felt they could be proud. The Great Republic was a mammoth ship, a veritable masterpiece of wood and iron which had been designed by Donald McKay, whose family had been established at the pinnacle of the ship building profession for three generations. Her overall length was 825 feet, she had four decks, three square rigged masts, and her mainyard, which was 120 feet long, was nearly twice the length of any other mainyard on any ship anywhere. She was supposed to have cost more than half a million dollars, and by the look of her she was worth every cent that had been spent on her.
She was due to be launched by a sea captain named Alden Gifford, who now stood on the launching platform, holding a bottle in his hand. Surprisingly, there was a distinctly unhappy expression on his face as he smashed the bottle against her bows. The reason for his unhappy expression was one which any sea-faring man could comprehend. Thanks to a violent outcry by the local temperance league, the ship had been launched with a bottle of water.
In due course the Great Republic arrived in New York, where thousands came to stare and wonder at this giant of the seas. She was, after all, one of the last of the great clippers, potentially the greatest of them all, and designed to sail around the Horn and faraway Australia. The new steamships would eventually put an end to her and all ships like her. But until that time came, she would remain a thing of beauty to be admired by all.
That beauty was not to last for long. One morning the New Yorkers awoke to the news that the Great Republic had been set alight by a nearby warehouse going up in flames. A strong wind had carried the glowing debris on to her decks and almost within minutes she had become an inferno of crackling wood and falling timbers.
The fire raged through her for three days, consuming everything in its path, until the morning of the fourth day when the decision was taken to scuttle the ship. When she was raised again, months later, the inspectors went over her and decided that she was not quite beyond repair. It was an unfortunate decision which was to cost lives.
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Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History, Legend, Mystery, Ships on Friday, 14 February 2014
This edited article about maritime mysteries first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 552 published on 12 August 1972.
The Marlborough disappeared in 1890 and was not discovered for nearly a quarter of a century, a floating hulk with the skeletons of her crew strewn across the decks by Graham Coton
Captain Hird was in a good mood as he stood on the quay of the little port of Lyttelton, in New Zealand, watching his cargo of sheep being taken aboard. He had a number of reasons to be in high spirits. It was a pleasant day in that January of 1890, and he would soon be on his way home. His cargo of sheep would give him no problems, and there would be a few passengers aboard to help him while away the hours with pleasant conversation when he was not on duty. He had, moreover, a highly competent crew, all of them hard working and happy men, with not a single trouble-maker among them. It was going to be a good trip.
When he had seen the last sheep and passenger aboard, Captain Hird boarded his ship, the Marlborough, a merchant vessel from Glasgow. The anchor was raised, the ropes released from their moorings, and the ship began to move away from the quayside. The few people who had gathered there to see her depart, waved a casual goodbye. It was, after all, not a special occasion. In time the Marlborough would be back to pick up another cargo of some sort. With a fair wind behind her she moved steadily towards the horizon.
Twenty-three years were to pass before she was ever seen again.
There was no reason why the Marlborough, should not have reached her destination on time. The ship was sound and seaworthy in every respect, and there had not even been any freak storms or massive gales over any part of the vast area she had been due to cover on her journey to England. But as the months passed with no sign of her, the relatives and friends of those aboard, were forced to face the sad, inescapable fact that the Marlborough had disappeared without a trace.
Fifteen months after she had left Lyttelton, she was officially posted as “lost with all hands.”
What no one knew was that the Marlborough was still afloat, and that all those who had sailed on her were still aboard.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, she was discovered by the British sailing ship, the Johnston, Sailing around the southernmost tip of South America, she saw a three-masted sailing ship which seemed to be drifting aimlessly. As a matter of routine, almost, the British ship signalled her, asking if she needed assistance. When she did not answer, the captain became uneasy. Only eighteen years had passed since the Marie Celeste had been discovered, without a single member of the crew aboard her, and the memory of that famous mystery of the sea still lingered in his mind. Was it possible that history was about to repeat itself? The captain gave orders that she should be approached.
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Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History, Mystery, Ships on Monday, 10 February 2014
This edited article about maritime disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 548 published on 15 July 1972.
Mr Claude Sawyer left the Waratah at Durban, pictured above
The owners of the Blue Anchor Line were proud of their latest ship, the Waratah, a pride not shared by the ship’s Captain. He doubted the seaworthiness of his command and said so, but his fears went unheeded – unheeded that is until, on only her second voyage, the Waratah disappeared with great loss of life, leaving not one clue to her fate
She was the latest ship of the Blue Anchor Line to be launched, and her owners were proud of her, rightly so, for she was an impressive big twin screw ship with three decks fore and aft. Moreover, she had been fitted with all the latest equipment. Her name was the Waratah.
One man, however, did not share in the owners’ enthusiasm for the ship. This man, perhaps, rather surprisingly was Captain Ibery, her commander, a highly experienced sailor who had been employed by the company for over 40 years. After his maiden voyage in her, Captain Ibery had told his friends that he was well satisfied with the ship’s performance. What he did not tell them was that he had complained to the owners of the inability of the Waratah to move in dock without ballast.
No one seems to have taken a great deal of notice of the Captain’s complaint, for the Waratah set sail on her second voyage in April, 1909, after only a few minor repairs had been carried out. The ship’s company in all numbered 119.
After calling in at the Australian ports, the Waratah reached Durban, where she took on 92 passengers and some more cargo which gave her a total load of 10,000 tons. Her next port of call was Cape Town. On her way there she passed another ship, the Clan MacIntyre. There was an exchange of friendly greetings by signal between the two ships, and then the Waratah sailed on her way – never to be seen again.
There was no undue concern at Cape Town when the Waratah did not arrive on the day she was due. After all, there was many reasons why she might have been late. She could have been held up at Durban, or developed some minor engine trouble in mid-ocean, for an instance. It was not as if she was some leaky old tub. She was the latest and best cargo ship the Blue Anchor Line had built. She would, no doubt, put into port the next day, or at the very latest, the day after.
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Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History on Monday, 3 February 2014
This edited article about Lisbon first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 537 published on 29 April 1972.
Earthquake at Lisbon in 1755
The Lisboans call the wide estuary of the River Tagus which is their “front door” The Sea of Straw. They love it, not only because it is a wonderful highway to the rest of the world, but because it gave them their favourite saint, and patron.
When St. Vincent was martyred in 1173 in Valencia, his body was miraculously carried through terrible storms round the coast of Spain and southern Portugal in a boat guarded and guided by two ravens, until it arrived at Lisbon. The boat which carried the saint, and the ravens, became symbols of the city. Today it is firmly believed that the ravens which live around the cathedral are their descendants. There are ravens, and boats too, on the city seals, carved on buildings and set in mosaic into the squares and pavements. These remind the Lisboans always of the saint who watches over the town the Phoenicians called alis ubbo: “delightful little port.”
Long before St. Vincent came, there were Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths and Moors living happily along this sunny western coast, facing the brisk Atlantic breezes.
Under Arab rule, especially, Lisbon prospered and became rich, with many palaces and walled gardens; peopled by proud noblemen, prosperous merchants and dusky slaves.
It was a prince of Burgundy, the son of a Crusader, who decided to rout the infidel and retake Lisbon for Christ. He had inherited vast estates between the Douro and Mondego rivers to the north, but he wanted more. Nothing less than the crown of Portugal would satisfy him.
Backed by an army of Crusaders (English, German and Flemish), he laid siege to the city. It was a prolonged and desperate battle. The Moors were entrenched in the Castelo, atop one of Lisbon’s seven hills, the very oldest part of Lisbon. There were times when the besiegers almost gave up.
In the end, it was the courage of one man which won the day, and the city. As the Moors retired through the gateway after a vigorous sortie, Martim Moniz, an ordinary soldier, flung himself into the narrow gap between the gates to keep them open. His crushed body preserved just enough space to enable the Crusaders to burst their way through into the stronghold.
The castle still dominates Lisbon and her history, and Martim Moniz’s face, in stone, still looks down over the archway of the old gate. In the 14th century, it became the Castelo “do S. Jorge,” as a compliment to the English, when Dom Joao I married John of Gaunt’s daughter, Phillipa.
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Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History, Medicine on Saturday, 25 January 2014
This edited article about the Black Death first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 527 published on 19 February 1972.
There was something horribly sinister about the twelve stoutly-built Genoese galleys which meandered into the harbour of Messina in Sicily one fine day in 1347.
The population of the town who turned out to meet them saw that the crews were delirious. Many had already died.
But disease in the Middle Ages was part of the insanitary make-up of everyday life and the arrival of the sick seamen did not cause much of a stir.
Soon, however, the population of this rough and raw Sicilian port began to succumb like flies from the same symptoms as the visiting crews.
The disease, which lasted three violent days, usually ended on the fourth with death. Soon the whole town was a pathetic sight, a gloomy morgue of locked doors and hungry dogs yapping at street corners.
As soon as the population realized that the Genoese galley crews were responsible for bringing in the disease they hurriedly rushed them out of port. But too late. The disease, or rather plague, had already shot like wildfire into the rest of Sicily, slaying vast numbers in villages and towns.
The name the people gave to this extraordinary plague was the Black Death – probably the worst single disaster to strike Europe in the Middle Ages. A bubonic plague, it swept over the Continent and was responsible for not only wiping out the bulk of medieval society but also for changing the social structure of the times.
After the Black Death had passed, the old conception in Britain of lord and serf disappeared. The shortage of manpower at last gave the humble serf his chance to establish his right to better pay and better conditions. But what a sacrifice was made before this eventually happened.
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Posted in Disasters, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships on Friday, 24 January 2014
This edited article about maritime disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 526 published on 12 February 1972.
"'No, no!' she cried; 'there is no room for me.'"- the selfless heroism of Stewardess Mary Ann Rogers on SS Stella
If you go by boat to Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, you will see a lighthouse standing on a group of rocks, some of them rising sheer out of the water, while others remain partially submerged, visible only when the dashing spray recedes from them. Your ship will, of course, keep a respectful distance from them, for these are the dreaded Casquets, which lie about eight miles west of the island of Alderney, and twenty three miles north east of Guernsey. It was on this group of rocks that there occurred one of the most disastrous shipwrecks ever known in the English channel.
The ill-fated ship doomed to founder on the rocks was the South Western passenger steamer, Stella which set sail from Southampton at 11.45 a.m. on the 30th March, 1899. On board her were 110 passengers and a crew of forty men under Captain Reeks, a skilful and trusted seaman who had done the trip enough times to know that in rough weather the journey to Guernsey could be something of a torture to passengers unaccustomed to high seas. But on this particular day, Captain Reeks was in a relaxed mood. The morning was fair, and there seemed to be no reason at all why they should not have a smooth passage.
The journey was certainly a pleasant one to begin with. Many of those who had not been to Guernsey before, chatted to the islanders who were returning home from the mainland, or they listened with some curiosity to them speaking the patois of the islands among themselves. Others stood by the rail looking quietly across the smooth seas. Down in the bar, the atmosphere had now become distinctly convivial.
Just before four in the afternoon, the fog came down upon them suddenly, a dense bank of it which rolled across the ship, chilling the passengers on deck who mostly quickly retired to the lounges. One of the few who did remain on deck was a Colonel G. W. Dixon, who was travelling with his wife and son. He noted that the ship still seemed to be travelling at full speed, a fact that caused him some little alarm. He was reassured, however, when he met Captain Reeks, who had just come down from the bridge, seemingly quite unperturbed that they were now surrounded by an almost impenetrable fog.
“It’s a pity about the fog,” Captain Reeks said idly. “It’s spoiled a good run.” After exchanging a few pleasantries with the Colonel, he went on his way, a cigarette glowing dimly in his hand.
It was only a few seconds after the Colonel’s encounter with the captain that the disaster occurred. Almost on the stroke of four the Casquets suddenly loomed up in front of the helmsman and the navigating officer who had been under the impression that they were at least eight miles away from the rocks. Swinging the wheel frantically, the helmsman managed to steer the ship between two rocks, only to find himself moving rapidly towards a jagged row of rocks. A few second later, the Stella struck them amidships.
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