“Being in the wrong place at the wrong time” could have been Capt. Robert F. Wooley’s mantra on October 29, 1867, when he lost his ship—the RMS Rhone—his life and the lives of 122 passengers and crew. Twenty-two survivors lived to tell the tale of one of the worst hurricanes to strike the British Virgin Islands.
Chances are most people know something about the RMS Titanic tragedy. They may not remember details, but they recall that a vast number of lives were lost. On the other hand, if you run the RMS Empress of Ireland by them, you might get a blank stare.
Like the old Chinese proverb, “A bee stinging a weeping face,” the troopship SS President Coolidge experienced one mishap after another before it became a victim of friendly fire in WWII. When it struck the first mine, Capt. Henry Nelson figured he might save his 654-foot vessel, but the second hit convinced him it was pointless and he had to save the 5,340 U.S. Army and naval personnel aboard.
When the paddle wheel steamer SS Winfield Scott sank in 1853, its namesake wooden figurehead was on the prow, a symbol of one man’s spirit and courage. The ship’s captain and crew were inspired, but they were no match in a battle against thick fog, heavy surf and jagged rocks off Anacapa Island, near Ventura, California.
It’s the kingdom of power and awe where the winds wail, the gulls cry and the sea surges. Only the bold will brave it. Gales may blast it, rains may flood it and tides may churn it, but it is and always will be…the South China Sea.
The demise of the German submarine U-352 on May 9, 1942, played out like a scene from Hollywood’s hilarious Keystone Kops with Kapitanleutnant Helmut Rathke playing the leading role. Thinking he had spotted a helpless enemy merchant vessel off the shores of North Carolina, the eager commander fired two torpedoes that missed their mark. His surprise attack was totally exposed when both of them exploded on the ocean floor.
The “Star” fell in Santa Monica Bay on January 23, 1942. Actually, she didn’t really fall…she sank, a victim of wear and tear on the high seas. Unfortunately, a seaman died when the 262-foot-long vessel rolled over in stormy waters that swept through the bay. The Star of Scotland was gone, but by no means forgotten.
The lookout aboard the Orpheus barely saw the starboard lights on the PSS Pacific 300 yards ahead. He yelled to the helmsman to turn the clipper ship five degrees to port in order to avoid a collision. Meanwhile, aboard the Pacific, the lookout awoke from a nap and the helmsman was straining to see out of his dirty pilothouse window. Assuming he could reduce the stress on the hull if he side-swiped the other vessel, instead of striking it head-on, he turned his ship to starboard and sealed the fate of hundreds of passengers and crew.
“The Greatest Show on Earth” may no longer be the circus, but could be something connected to it during the Roaring Twenties. In 1922, people weren’t surprised when John Ringling of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus launched his lush $200,000 yacht, Zalophus, (Greek for Sea Lion). Known as the “Father of Modern Circuses,” he was not only raking in dough from performances by acrobats and clowns, he was making big bucks selling real estate off Florida’s Gulf Coast.
I don’t know who named the Mairi Bhan a “ghost ship.” Perhaps it was the local fishermen, but the moniker has stuck throughout the years. Divers refer to the 239-foot- square-rigged bark as the “Windjammer.” A deep encounter for experienced divers, the three-masted merchant vessel, victim of a storm in 1912, rests on her starboard side close to shore off the port city of Kralendijk, Bonaire, in the Lesser Antilles. A boat or shore dive, the wreck lies in 140 to 180 feet of water directly in front of the Bonaire Petroleum Corporation (BOPEK) fuel oil storage and transportation terminal.