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Saturday, May 12, 2018

Two old shipwrecks, no plane

From the Smithsonian

Two nineteenth century shipwrecks have been discovered off the western coast of Australia, during the search for MH370.  Which means that the searchers do not scoop the bounty that would have come their way if they had discovered the missing plane, but the shipwrecks are interesting, nonetheless.

According to the Western Australia Maritime Museum, they were both nineteenth century coal carriers.  At a guess, one, which is wooden, may have been the W. Gordonwhich was lost at sea after the brig departed Cape Town, South Africa in June 1876, during a voyage from Clyde, Glasgow to Adelaide, Australia. Another possible candidate is the barque Magdala, which disappeared in 1882 while traveling from Penarth, Wales to Ternate, Indonesia. 

Whatever the identity of the vessel, it appears to have come to a violent end. The ship’s cargo was found scattered across the seabed, suggesting that it went down “as a result of a catastrophic event such as explosion, which was common in the transport of coal cargoes."

It certainly was common, coal being so combustible. As I recorded in Hen Frigates, my story of wives at sea under sail, Lady Brassey, an Englishwoman who sailed about the world on her husband's luxury yacht in 1876, wrote after an encounter with a bark on fire that of every three ships that carried coal or coke, one caught fire on the way around Cape Horn.  Still today, coal is classified as a dangerous cargo.

The second wreck, which is made of iron, is in better condition than the first. It lies upright on the bottom of the Indian Ocean, and experts were able to determine that it once had at least two decks. Analysis of a coal sample retrieved from the site suggests that the ship was British in origin. Ross Anderson, the museum curator, believes the vessel is most likely the West Ridge, which disappeared on a voyage from Liverpool, England to Bombay, India in 1883.

Both sunken ships would have held crews of between 15 and 30 men, according to Anderson, and it is possible that additional passengers were on board. Sea captains, for instance, sometimes took their wives and children with them on international voyages.

It certainly was common for captains' wives and children to sail, back in the days of rope and canvas -- and many wives and children suffered shipwreck after the cargo caught fire, too.  A famous example is Mary Ellen Clarke, who sailed on the square-rigger Frank N. Thayer in 1885. There, the cargo was hemp and tar.  

The disaster started when some Malays who had been taken on as crew seized the ship.  The two mates were killed and the captain, Robert K. Clarke, was gravely wounded.  Mary Ellen, who was made of particularly stern stuff, held off the insurgents by firing at them through the cabin windows, allowing the regular seamen to retake the ship.  But, unfortunately, the Thayer was doomed.  Before diving overboard,  choosing death rather than capture, the maddened mutineers had set fire to the cargo.

All efforts to put out the fire were doomed, and so the largest ship's boat was launched.  Mary Ellen, her husband, and her little girl piled into it, along with the surviving regular crew, and they pulled off a safe distance, where they sat and watched the ship flare up, groan, and disappear beneath the waves.  And then they made a mast by lashing three oars together, turned a blanket into a sail, and set off for St. Helena.

Clarke survived the ordeal, but only because of the care of his wife.  The gash in his chest was so deep that his left lung was sticking out.  Mary Ellen pushed it back inside, and sewed a tight bandage around his ribs to keep it in place.  There were several seamen whose injuries had to be tended, too.  And then there was the little girl, Carrie.  She had remained silent and still throughout the struggle to save the ship, and didn't make any fuss at all on the hundred-mile trip to the island.  But then, as Mary Ellen remarked to the newspapermen, she always had been a well-behaved child.

Are stories like this connected to the two wrecks off Australia?  It is very likely indeed, but unfortunately they are lost to history.  Like the still unsolved fate of flight MH370.

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