Wreck and Salvage of SS Suevic
ranwhenparked last edited by ranwhenparked
Hat tip to @KITT222 for suggesting this one - I had had Suevic on my list for awhile, but never got around to it. And, since it is still March for another day or so, the whole thing is still sort of timely.
Although best known as a transatlantic shipping line, White Star Line did dabble in other routes at different points in their history. In 1897, the company placed orders with their preferred shipbuilder, Harland & Woff Ltd. in Belfast, Northern Ireland for a series of 5 large passenger-cargo combi liners for UK-Australia service, which were designated the Jubilee Class, 1897 being Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and all.
The 5 ships were delivered between 1899 and 1901 as Afric, Medic, and Persic, all delivered during 1899, with the somewhat enlarged and improved Runic and Suevic concluding the class in 1901.
The Jubilee Class liners ranged between 11,948 and 12,543 gross tons, with 4 of the class measuring 550 ft. 2 inches long, with the largest and final member of the class, the 12,543 ton Suevic, being extended to 565 ft. All featured a pair of 4-cylinder quadruple expansion steam engines, generating 5,000hp driving twin screws, with a top speed of 14 knots, and a sustained service speed of 13.
As combination passenger-cargo liners, all had generous cargo space for 15,000 tons of freight in 7 cargo holds – 4 forward, 3 aft, with the majority of the space refrigerated, primarily for importation of Australian meat to Britain. Passenger capacity was rather modest, consisting entirely of Third Class, and ranged from 320 on the first 4 ships, to 400 on the larger Runic and Suevic, plus 140 crew.
Although marketed as Third Class, the quality of the accommodations was more similar to Second Class on multiclass liners of the era, consisting of private cabins with 2-4 berths, a library, lounge, smoking room, and dining saloon, all elegantly paneled and furnished.
The largest and final member of the class, Suevic, launched on December 8th, 1900, and, following fitting out, joined her 4 older sisters on the Liverpool-Sydney via Cape Town route on March 23rd, 1901. However, in April, Suevic was requisitioned by the Royal Navy for use as a troop transport vessel during the Boer War (all of her sisters were similarly utilized at different points early in their careers, as well). The military service was brief, with Suevic being returned to White Star in August, and, after making one round trip transatlantic crossing to New York to handle excess demand during peak travel season, she returned to her original Liverpool-Sydney route, but in 1902, her Australian terminus was shifted to Melbourne. On February 2nd, 1907, Suevic departed Melbourne on what would prove to be her most infamous voyage. Following port calls at Cape Town and Tenerife, she arrived in British waters on March 17th, inbound to Plymouth, with a further stop planned in London, before concluding the voyage in Liverpool. At that point, she was carrying 382 passengers, 141 crew, and her holds were nearly full, with a cargo of sheep carcasses worth some £400,000 (£51.2 million today).
What followed was a series of disastrous navigation errors. In heavy fog on the afternoon of the 17th, Suevic's officers had trouble working out the ship's precise location as she entered the treacherous, rocky waters off The Lizard peninsula of Cornwall. The crew were forced to rely solely on the powerful light from the Lizard Lighthouse, sighted at 10:15pm, but misjudged the distance from it, assuming it was over 10 miles away, when, in fact, they were nearly to the coastline. For inexplicable reasons, the captain also decided to keep the ship sailing at full ahead, 13.5 knots, in dense fog, in rocky waters, with no reliable position, and also neglected to use a sounding line to verify the depth.
At 10:25 pm, the lookout at the bow spotted waves breaking over a rock and alerted the bridge, Captain Thomas Johnson-Jones ordered hard to port, but, it was too late, Suevic ran aground at full speed onto Stag Rock, part of the Maenheere Reef, just one mile off the coast of The Lizard. Captain Johnson-Jones attempted to free the ship by running the engines full astern, but the ship's bow was too firmly stuck to budge, and he was eventually forced to send up distress rockets and give the abandon ship order. Over a period of 15 hours between March 17th and 18th, all 523 passengers and crew were safely transferred to shore, using a combination of Suevic's own lifeboats, and boats from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, who responded to coordinate the rescue operations for both Suevic, and the Elder Dempster Line's 3900 ton liner Jebba, which grounded on nearby rocks in the early morning hours of the 18th, due to issues with the same fog conditions.
In the aftermath, Suevic's bow was assessed to have taken only light damage from the grounding, and, it was hoped, the ship could simply float free on the high tide, if lightened enough. On March 20th, her cargo was unloaded and transferred to a number of smaller coastal freighters, however, Suevic remained stuck. Over the next week, several attempts were made to pull her off the rocks, but she remained stuck firm, and pounding waves actually drove her further into the rocks. With even more severe storms forecast in the near future, likely severe enough to break the ship up on site, experts began to assume Suevic would be a total loss, however, the White Star Line hired the Liverpool & Glasgow Salvage Association as their contractors to coordinate the recovery effort, and they proposed a somewhat radical solution. As the aft 400 ft of the ship were undamaged and still free-floating, and contained the engines, mechanical systems, and passenger spaces, Liverpool & Glasgow proposed using dynamite charges to blow the ship in two, along the watertight bulkhead just aft of the bridge. The bulkhead itself would remain intact, allowing the severed stern to stay watertight and float free.
On April 2nd, 1907, the carefully placed explosive charges were detonated, and the 353 ft stern section floated free, leaving the 212 ft. bow stuck in place.
Suevic was able to sail, under her own power, in reverse, to Southampton, where she was tied up at Test Quay in the harbor for two days, becoming a local tourist attraction, before being moved into the Trafalgar Dry Dock for repairs. The grounded bow section eventually collapsed over the night of May 9th-10th, due to pounding wave action.
White Star ordered a replacement bow section from Harland & Wolff in Belfast to be built from the original plans, which was built to 222 ft. long, so the excess could be trimmed down to the exact length required as part of fitting it on to the jagged stern section. The new bow was launched on October 5th, sliding forward into the water, and, at the time, it was joked that Suevic had briefly become the longest ship in the world, with her bow in Belfast and her stern in Southampton, a distance of over 317 miles as the crow flies.
The bow arrived in Southampton under tow on October 26th, and the local shipbuilders John I. Thornycroft & Company, working under contract to Harland & Wolff, began the process of fitting it in place. So precise was Harland & Wolff's engineering practices that the internal decks, bulkheads, and overheads all mated up perfectly, not an easy feat in the era before computers.
After the most complicated maritime reconstruction project in history, Suevic returned to service on the Southampton-Melbourne route on January 14th, 1908. During World War I, Suevic was allowed to remain in commercial service, as the British government judged her ability to import large quantities of Australian meat as essential to the war effort, however, her sisters Afric and Persic were requisitioned as troop transports, with Afric being sunk by a German U-boat in the English Channel during 1917.
Postwar, the 4 surviving Jubilee Class liners continued in normal service, but were refitted between 1919-1920, converting from coal to oil fuel and upgrading their accommodations to 250-266 passengers, in what was now marketed as Second Class. However, in 1926, a survey determined Persic's engines to be suffering from unexpectedly accelerated wear, and she was withdrawn from service immediately, laid up for a time, then sold for scrap in the Netherlands in 1927.
The oldest remaining member of the class, Medic, was withdrawn in December 1927, and sold to the Norwegian company A/S Hektor, to be rebuilt as the whaling factory ship Hektoria. Suevic herself was withdrawn in 1928 and sold to another Norwegian whaling company, Finnhval A/S, and likewise rebuilt as the factory ship Skytteren. The last member of the class in White Star service, Runic, was withdrawn in December 1929 and sold to a British whaling company, London-based Sevilla Whaling Co., and rebuilt as their factory ship New Sevilla. All three survived into World War II, barely.
New Sevilla, the ex Runic, resold to Norwegian owners in 1930, was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland on September 20th, 1940, while sailing in a convoy from Liverpool to Antarctic waters.
Skytteren, the former Suevic, was in port at Gothenburg in neutral Sweden when Norway was invaded by Germany in April of 1940, and was initially left there for safekeeping. In late April, Skytteren, along with the rest of the Norwegian merchant fleet that had escaped capture, came under the control of the Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission (Nortraship), an agency of the Norwegian government-in-exile in London, jointly owned by Norway's private shipping companies (operating from their prewar UK branches). On April 1st, 1942, as part of Operation Performance initiated by Nortraship in cooperation with the British Royal Navy, Skytteren and 9 other Norwegian merchant ships stranded in Sweden made an attempt to break through German controlled waters and rendezvous with Royal Navy vessels to be escorted into port in the UK. Of the 10 ships, two suffered mechanical problems from poor maintenance over 2 years of inactivity, and were forced to turn back to Gothenburg. Out of the remaining 8, only 2 made it safely to Britain. Two were sunk by German U-boats en route, while the remaining four were scuttled by their own crew after being confronted and boxed in by German warships demanding their surrender. The ex-Suevic was one of those, being sunk by her crew in 230 ft of water off the coast of Måseskär, Sweden on April 1st, 1942. One member of her crew of 112 was killed during the flooding process, the other 111 were taken prisoner by the Germans and held for the duration.
The remaining member of the Jubilee Class, Hektoria, the ex-Medic, survived a few more months. During 1932, her Norwegian owners transferred her back to British registry, under their UK subsidiary, which allowed her to be requisitioned by the Royal Navy in 1939, being converted into an oil tanker. Sailing as part of a convoy, carrying a load of oil from the United States, Hektoria was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sunk in the Atlantic on September 11th, 1942, with the loss of 1 member of her 86 crew. The 85 survivors were picked up by the Royal Canadian Navy Flower-class corvette Arvida and brought to St. John's, Newfoundland.
The former Suevic was largely forgotten about until 2005, when oil slicks began appearing on the surface of the water over the wreck, endangering popular recreational beaches and sensitive maritime habitats. Subsequent surveys identified Skytteren as the single most environmentally hazardous wreck in all of Swedish territorial waters. Surveys indicated that the hull's plating had corroded down to 1/3 of its original thickness, cracked in at least one place, and the keel was starting to deflect, indicating a potential for collapse. An operation to pump out the remaining oil in the hull was supposed to begin in September of 2021, but it is unclear if it was successfully accomplished.
bison78 last edited by
with 4 of the class measuring 550 ft. 2 inches
That's remarkably precise for something that must expand and contract more than a couple of inches due to temperature changes.
CB last edited by
@ranwhenparked So what happened to the original bow?
SilentbutnotreallyDeadly last edited by
Rusted in place?
Shop-Teacher last edited by
@ranwhenparked That is one helluva story!
bbg2d last edited by
Do you think that the Suevic called out for its sister ship while ran aground?
ranwhenparked last edited by
@CB collapsed and broke apart about a month after the salvage
OPPOsaurus WRX last edited by
I was just reading about the USS Missouri and how it got stuck in the Chesapeake Bay. That is an 'oops' you might find interesting.
KITT222 last edited by
@ranwhenparked A fascinating, and unusual, life of what was supposedly another plain ship. Thanks for taking the suggestion! Way more to the story than just her unusual salvage.
StuckMTB last edited by
Wow, this might be my favorite of the series. So many twists and turns here, thanks for the excellent write-up!