Tempests, waterspouts, thunderstorms and hurricanes have throughout the centuries struck fear into the hearts of many a brave sailor. The image of a tall ship battling against the relentless elements will be familiar to fans of maritime historical fiction such as works by Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forester. It is all of course based on a simple truth, wind powered wooden vessels don’t always fare that well when caught in a violent storm. Sadly a scene such as this occurred this week when a tall ship found itself in the path of Hurricane Sandy.
The tall ship was a replica of the HMS Bounty, the ship made famous by the infamous mutiny in the late 18th century. The wrecked replica now lies off the coast of North Carolina, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The U.S. Coast Guard took these dramatic photographs of her last moments.
The U.S. Coast Guard rescued most of the ships crew but tragically the Captain is still missing and the body of a female crew member has been recovered. She was a direct descendent of Christian Fletcher, the leader of the mutineers on the original Bounty.
Any loss of life at sea is a personal tragedy, one that obviously eclipses the loss of any ship or property, but I think it is still acceptable to also mourn the sinking of a beautiful ship.
The replica Bounty was originally built for the 1962 film Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando.
Her original fate was to be burned at the end of the film but Brando personally protested and the ship was saved from the flames. She went on to become a tourist attraction, educational enterprise and starred in blockbuster films such as Treasure Island and Pirates of the Caribbean.
Sadly the Bounty is not the first tall ship in the modern age that has been lost in a hurricane. There are two other similar tragedies that come to mind, both which resulted in a much higher loss of life.
The S/V Fantome was constructed in 1929 and started her life as a private yacht by the Duke of Westminster. When WW2 broke out she was in Alaskan waters and rather than risk sailing her back to Europe she docked for the duration of the war at Portage Bay, Seattle. This arrangement would become a little more permanent at the end of the war when local officials refused to let her leave until back taxes had been paid. She would stay put for another 14 years.
It was in 1998 that she finally met an adversary even more unforgiving than the tax man – Hurricane Mitch. The Fantome was on a six-day cruise with 31 souls on-board when she was caught by the hurricane. Before contact was lost she reported 100-mph wind and 40-foot waves. Once the winds subsided a search and rescue operation was launched but all they ever found of the ship and her crew was empty life rafts and vests.
The other ship that I wanted to mention has a strong New Zealand connection. The Pamir was a four masted barque that was launched in 1905 and went into service with a German shipping company. She made headlines in 1941 when she sailed into Wellington Harbour under a Finnish flag and was seized as a prize of war. The Auckland Star reported that it was the first time that the New Zealand Government had exercised the jurisdiction in prize.
She would spend the next seven years crewed by New Zealanders. Hundreds of young Kiwi sailors learned their craft on her and for a while she brought the age of sail back to these waters. I’ve put together an album of photos of her over at Digital NZ, check it out here.
In 1948 the N.Z. Government decided to return her to Finland and in 1949 she became the last square rigger to make a commercial trip around the infamous Cape Horn.
She met her tragic end in 1957 while serving as a training vessel for the German Navy. She left Buenos Aires for Hamburg with a crew of 86, most of whom were cadets. It is thought that she did not receive any radio warning of Hurricane Carrie and was caught unaware. She managed to send out a distress signal before sinking 1 100 kilometers west south-west of the Azores. The resulting search and rescue operation only managed to save four of the crew and two of the cadets and the loss made international headlines.
I’m sure there will be an inquiry into the recent sinking of the Bounty and I hope that lessons can be learned and safety improved. But despite the continuing tradition of tall ships being lost to storms there will always be a new generation of adventurers willing to take on the elements under sail and there will always be a risk associated with that.
Personally, I hope that I too will have the opportunity to make an ocean crossing on a fully rigged tall ship. That is my sort of adventure.
© Lemuel Lyes
Check out these links for more information on the SV Fantome and the Pamir
A former crew member from the Fantome made this tribute video.