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Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Shipwrecks

< Once a Week (magazine)‎ | Series 1‎ | Volume 2




There is a grim map annually published by the Government, called the "Wreck Chart," which pictures the coasts of Great Britain and Ireland, peppered all round with small shot, hollow shot, red-hot shot, and crosses. In some spots, such as the whole of the east coast, near projecting headlands, and the sites of lighthouses, the cannonade seems to have been the most furious, just as though they were salient angles of some bastion made special marks of by marine artillery,—and on investigation such turns out to be the fact. But the artillery in this case is the wild force of storms, and the expended shot do but represent noble ships hurled against the solid bastion of our cliffs, or the more treacherous earthworks of sandbanks and quicksands. To survey the map, it would seem as though all the ships of the world had been attracted by our shores as by some magnetic mountain, and then shattered helplessly upon them. When we remember, however, that England is the centre of the commercial world, and that hither are attracted the mercantile navies of all nations, as well as of our own; and when we again remember that our island is surrounded with narrow seas, skirted by dangerous rocks, headlands, and sands, the wonder ceases, and we are no longer surprised, as we were when children, that in great storms sailors should seek the open sea. In scrutinising this map, it does at first sight seem astounding, that wherever we see a lighthouse marked, there we see the fatal marks showing the largest number of wrecks. It would appear as though, like unhappy moths, they are attracted by the light, towards the danger which they see, too late to avoid. It must be remembered, however, that these lighted headlands and sands are the true danger-points of the coast, and if they remained without the far-searching ray of the lighthouse, our wrecks would of a certainty be greatly increased.

Does it not seem strange, however, that we, the greatest maritime power in the world, should be behind our neighbours in our scientific arrangements for lighting our coasts? We have illuminated our smallest country towns with gas, and the electric light is a common thing in our places of amusement to show dissolving views; yet in the sailor's last agony, when his noble ship is amid the breakers, he finds no better light than the oil-lamp and reflector to warn him of his danger! How different they manage matters in France. A ship sailing up Channel sees on the English shore the feeble flicker of the oil-lamp at Dungeness, whilst on the opposite side the dioptric light at Cape Grisnez flashes a piercing ray far over the ocean. Possibly those who visited the Great Exhibition of 1851 remember a great cage of glass, the whole surface of which was cut in steps, as it were; this was the dioptric light, now universally adopted by the French, which, consists, in fact, of a combination of powerful lenses, which concentrate the light in a series of brilliant flashes. It is a singular fact, however, that the very perfection of this light is now and then a cause of disaster. Its aim is to throw all its rays in parallel lines so as to give forth a thin yet concentrated disk of light, which penetrates to a great distance. Unhappily, however, it is just possible for a ship in a fog to get underneath this ray, and thus fall upon the danger. This was the case with the unfortunate Dunbar emigrant ship, which went on shore on the Sidney Headland, the dioptric light on whose summit did not suffice to show the danger immediately at its foot; illustrating the old proverb, that "the darkest place is underneath the candlestick."

There can be no doubt that lighthouses, notwithstanding what we have said, are in many cases the direct cause of wrecks, inasmuch as although they indicate points of the coast to be avoided, it is nevertheless necessary first to find them, in order to show the seaman his whereabouts. It is the first aim of a captain to make certain lights; to seek the danger, in order that he may avoid it; hence the disasters that sometimes occur. A knowledge of this fact has led Mr. Herbert, of the Trinity House, to propose a scheme of lighting, what he calls the "Fair way," instead of the danger points on shore. Thus, he would moor a series of light-ships, shaped somewhat like a common kitchen candlestick, so as to oppose the least resistance to wind and waves, up the middle of the English Channel. The powerful lights of these ships would be seen perhaps thirty miles off; by moving them, say at forty miles distance from each other, they would afford a continuous light all up Channel; and the ship making the westernmost, off the Lizard, would be enabled to feel her way up the mid channel, almost with as much safety as a cab would go up Regent Street.

If such a plan could be carried out, and the necessity of sighting land for the sake of the lighthouses could be avoided, an immense saving of life and property would be the result. During the year ending 1859, in which one of the most disastrous storms ever remembered occurred, that of the 25th and 26th of October, no less than 1416 casualties happened upon our coasts, and 1645 persons were lost, and property to the amount of nearly 2,000,000l. of money. The different sides of the island have by no means contributed equally to this tremendous loss. The east coast, iron-bound and bestrewn with sandbanks, has long held the fatal pre-emience in this particular, and the collier brigs and schooners trading between the coal districts and London are the main sufferers, no less than 621 casualties having occurred among them last year; whilst on the south coast there were only 136, and on the west coast 466, an unusual number. But it must be remembered that the most destructive gales have been from the west and south-west, the great cyclone of October 26th moving towards the north-east. The minute manner in which this remarkable storm was watched has resulted in the elucidation of some very remarkable facts, which have been given to the world by Admiral Fitzroy, the chief of the Meteorological Department of the Admiralty. He tells us that this circular storm swept northward within a very limited area, not more than 300 miles in diameter, or about the breadth of our own island; whilst the wind swept round in a circle the contrary way to watch-hands, having a central lull, at the rate of eighty miles an hour, the whole storm did not progress at a greater speed than twenty miles an hour—an express train, in fact, would have run away from it—and places in the north-east of Scotland did not come within its influence until a day after it had ravaged the south coast. Admiral Fitzroy deduces from this fact, that we shall possibly be enabled in future to telegraph the approach of storms. Thus, if the unfortunate Royal Charter had been telegraphed from the southern point of England of the approach of the cyclone in which she was lost, and for which there would have been ample time, she might have steamed out of her perilous position, and received the hurricane in the comparative safety of an open sea.

Are our sailors more reckless than those of other nations, or are our ships worse built, found, and navigated? We ask the question because of the remarkable fact, that very nearly double the number of casualties occur to British ships than to those of other nations employed in precisely the same service—the coasting trade of the United Kingdom; and this remarkable discrepancy seems an increasing one, for while the casualties of British coasters rose from 927 in 1858 to 1187 in 1859, the casualties to foreign ships similarly employed have decreased from 209 to 188! As it is certain that we are not less skilful than other maritime nations, this remarkable discrepancy can only be accounted for by the drunkenness of our captains, and the want of ordinary care on board our ships. Mr. Lindsay boldly asserted before a committee of the House of Commons, that in consequence of these known faults on board British ships, shippers generally gave the preference to foreign vessels, feeling certain that their goods would arrive at their destination in better order and more securely than if sent in native craft. If this be true, it affords a remarkable instance of the material loss entailed upon the country by our national habit of intemperance.

There can be no doubt, however, that one fertile source of disaster among British shipping springs out of the go-a-head character of the times. Collisions have for years been on the increase—the numbers having run up from 57 in 1852 to 349 in 1859. The introduction of steam has been the main cause of this blundering conduct, for the pace has been greatly increased without a corresponding vigilance with respect to the look-out. It would seem almost impossible for two ships to come together in the open channel by daylight, but such wilful mishaps are constantly occurring owing to the disregard of the rule of the road, and the blundering manner in which steamers go a-head without looking before them. The proverbial carelessness of the sailor is fully borne out by the list of causes to which shipwrecks are attributable. The simple duty of casting the lead—a practice which enables the bewildered seaman to ascertain for certainty, and with little trouble, whether he is near land or not—is, in the great majority of cases, neglected altogether. Another most reckless piece of carelessness on the part of seamen is to neglect to shackle spare anchors on to their chains. We can only feebly parallel such recklessness as this, by supposing coachmen who had long down-hill journeys to perform, to stow away the skid in the front boot.

There are other causes at work in modern ships which lead to shipwrecks, which are little suspected. Among these are the effects of masses of iron upon the compass, especially in iron ships. It seems extraordinary that the precaution of "swinging" the ship, for the purpose of ascertaining if there is any deviation of the compass, should be confined to Queen's ships. Emigrant vessels go to sea with as many lives, and often of a more valuable character than a second-rate, yet this precaution is utterly neglected. It is believed that an iron tank on board the Reliance Indiaman, which was lost with all hands near Ambleteuse, on the French coast, within sight of our shores, after a voyage from the East, was the cause of the disaster. When the Agamemnon adjusted compasses preparatory to sailing with the Atlantic telegraphic cable, it was found that there was a deviation in her compass of no less than seventeen degrees! Nevertheless, a ship will sail for India with a cargo of railway iron in perfect ignorance that her compass, under such circumstances, is only a delusion and a snare. But it does not require a mass of iron to vitiate the trembling needle, and turn it into an instrument of destruction instead of safety. A very small particle of this metal will suffice, provided it be only placed near the binnacle. A singular instance of this occurred during the Crimean war. A transport sailing with troops and stores was observed to shape her course safely enough by day; but at night her steering was perfectly wild. The whole thing was a complete puzzle, until some one suggested that possibly the binnacle lamps had something to do with it, and, on examining them, it was found that concealed iron hoops had been introduced to strengthen their framework. Underneath brass-work, in the form of hand-rails, stoves, &c., iron is generally found lurking in the immediate vicinity of the compass—thus, unknown to the navigator, a second hand may be said to be at the wheel, counteracting the calculations of the helmsman, and often sending the ship on to the sunken rock. It is the custom now, in some iron-built ships, to have what is termed a standard compass placed at the head of the lower mizen-mast—an elevation sufficient to take it out of the influence of the iron in the hull. The Great Eastern is, we believe, fitted with one of these compasses by which to correct the errors of the compass on deck.

Another source of shipwreck is also to be attributed to the want of scientific accuracy—we allude to the defect in the generality of charts used by the merchant marine. It is very often the case that a ship will sail with some antiquated map of an utterless worthless character. The Admiralty are obliged to post up their own charts within twenty-four hours of any intelligence of the change of buoys or the erection of new lighthouses having reached head-quarters. Private chart sellers should most certainly be compelled to correct their plates at the earliest possible date, otherwise they prove but blind leaders of the blind.

It will scarcely be believed, however, that very many seas and shores in Europe have not been yet surveyed. Our readers who remember that the African and Asiatic shores of the Mediterranean were the earliest seats of civilisation, will be surprised to hear that we know nothing of them with any accuracy. The topography of the eastern seas, according to the dictum of the hydrographer of the Admiralty, is as little known as that of the mountains of the moon; is there any wonder, therefore, that we so often hear of fearful shipwrecks of large vessels in those regions. If, however, our want of scientific knowledge imperils commerce in the east, we fear that in the west, positive fraud is far more destructive.

The Florida Reef is now the head-quarters of wreckers, but it is a notorious fact that in a vast number of cases the captains of the American marine are in collusion with these villains. Thus it is a common thing for a Yankee skipper to put his ship wilfully in such situations of danger in these latitudes as to demand the services of these harpies, who then demand salvage, which they divide with the captain! Sometimes, however, this worthy does this villainous work all himself, that is if he is owner as well as commander, in which case he deliberately sails his ship to destruction for the sake of netting the insurance, but too often effected upon a cargo that has previously been surreptitiously removed. In other cases, when there has been no absolute fraud on the part of the captain, there can be little doubt that the system of marine insurance comes in to complete the destruction accident may have commenced. For instance, if a ship receives any damage, but is rescued from it by the exertions of the captain, he is certain to entail a direct loss upon his employer, inasmuch as the assured in such cases is obliged to bear one-third of the loss; but if the loss is "total" the assurance is paid in full.

The working of this absurd regulation, in the majority of cases, is to cause the captain to leave his ship to her fate whenever she gets damaged, in order not to risk the displeasure of his owner. There can be no doubt that if the insurers were to agree to pay the whole amount of the assurance, whether the ship were saved or lost, that a large number of vessels would be brought into port, that are now abandoned for the sake of saving the full assurance.

In order to counteract the villainies that are perpetrated with respect to assured property at sea, Lloyds and the other marine assurance offices maintain agents in nearly every existing port. Thus the insurers in London and other great ports are Argus-eyed, as it were, and handed like Briareus. For no sooner does a wreck occur, in any European water, at least, than the fact is instantly reported to Lloyds. Here the nature of the calamity is posted into a large volume, termed the Loss Book, which remains open in the long room of this establishment.

To this portentous folio the merchant makes his way in the morning, possibly to find that his argosy was lost during the night on some far-off reef in the Mediterranean; to this book, with still greater concern, the underwriter, makes his way, perchance to find half the earnings of the year sunk on some hidden rock! But if the telegraph is thus swift to tell of disaster, it is also swift to bring succour. Thus the underwriters no sooner learn that a ship in which they have an interest has just touched the shore, than the steam-tug is sent to her rescue, and what otherwise would have been a "total" is mitigated into a partial loss. Thus interest counteracts interest, and, in a rough way, fair dealing is maintained. The ramification of telegraphic wires over the seas and along the coasts of the habitable globe will, year by year, tend to the preservation of voyaging ships and their hardy crews, for no spot will be hereafter beyond the call of powerful corporations and associations banded together to save life and property.

In the wreck chart which we opened before our readers at the beginning of this article, besides the black dots strewn around the coast, indicative of the sites of marine disasters during the past year, certain red characters, are seen which mark the stations of our life-boats and mortar and rocket apparatus. Where the black dots are thickest, there also the red dots crowd. On the east coast, especially near the fatal Yarmouth sands, these red spots form quite a thick rash upon the seabord. Where the chief danger is, there these means of rescue jostle each other to rush to it. No less than 158 life-boats watch by night and day around our coasts, and are ready to put off in storms, through which no other light craft could for a moment live, to the assistance of the drowning mariner. Besides these gallant boats, rocket and mortar apparatus are posted in 216 stations along the coasts of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and these instruments of salvation are in the trained hands of the coast-guard service, and, together with the life-boats, were instrumental, during the last year, in saving the lives of 551 fellow-creatures. If we compare the state of our coasts at the present time with their condition a hundred years ago, we shall find two pictures which most forcibly illustrate the humanising tendency of the age. In the former period, the object of the people on the coast was to make wrecks, rather than to prevent them; large numbers of our seafaring folks used to eke out their means of subsistence by plundering vessels that, in many cases, they had lured on shore by hanging out decoy lights. At the present moment there is not a dangerous headland, a treacherous sand-bank, or a sunken rock, but there also is to be found the gallant boat's crew listening for the minute-gun through the storm, or the patient coast-guard with ready match, prepared on the instant to speed the fiery rocket or the round shot laden with the life-line to the stranded ship. Whilst Nature fights against the mariner, and hurls him on the coast with relentless fury, Art, from the land, hurls forth her cunning engines, and wrestles with her for the stake of human life. Who that has seen a lifeboat put forth in the very fury of a storm but has watched this fight with the elements with intense excitement! Who that has seen the same boat return, laden with rescued human life, but has felt a sublime emotion such as we experience only by witnessing the most heroic acts! May this good fight go on year by year, and may the date 1870 so give us the mastery over Nature that we shall not have to record in that year, as during the last, that 1645 sailors have been drowned upon our coasts. A. W.