Oh, Such A Gale

Found October 1881, South Ronaldshay, Orkney.

In a bottle:

Barque Minner Watson, N.S. [Nova Scotia], latitude 59 degrees 10 mins, north, longitude four degrees 45 mins, west, October 17th; three days off, fearful weather, leaking very much, never expect to see home or friends again. God bless all.
Our last day. Oh, such a gale and sea. The poor ship is nearly a complete wreck. Heaven have mercy on us.

[Edinburgh Evening News, 28 October 1881]

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From A Blood-Red Sea

Daniel Collins sailed out of Wiscasset, Maine, for Matanzas, Cuba, in November 1824. It was his first voyage as a merchant seaman, and it would also be his last. His ship, the Betsey, was wrecked in a terrible storm, and Collins and his crewmates were left adrift in a leaking lifeboat, in shark-infested waters, a hundred miles from land.

After a torturous few days with no water or provisions, they reached a remote island, where they were brutally attacked by a savage band of pirates. Collins was horribly injured, but he escaped, alone, through water “colored with blood”. Then, with astonishing courage and determination, Collins began an epic journey across land and sea in a desperate effort to escape from the pirates, to reach civilization, and to find a way home.

From A Blood-Red Sea: The Last Voyage of Daniel Collins is the new book by Paul Brown, author of Messages from the Sea. A non-fiction historical survival adventure, it’s recommended for fans of The Revenant and In the Heart of the Sea. It’s available as an Amazon Kindle eBook, a 99p / 99c “Single Shot” (longer than a magazine article, shorter than a full-length book, 12,000 words = approx. 70 mins reading time).

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Lifeboat No. 2

Found August 1886, off Howth, near Dublin

In a soda water bottle, written on scraps of an envelope:

July 21st, 1886, Britannia, Liverpool, Captain Dawson, sinking fast, heavy sea from Rio [de] Janeiro, passenger lost, pray for us, lifeboat No. 2.
Left June 28, frightful weather, sinking.

The background to this message is unclear. There was a Cunard ocean liner named Britannia, but this had been sunk in 1880 after being sold by Cunard to the German Navy. A White Star liner named Britannic [sic] was involved in a major collision during fog in 1887, and 12 passengers were lost, although the ship survived. And the Pacific Steam Navigation Company’s Britannia grounded in Rio de Janiero in 1895. None of these vessels would seem to be Dawson’s Britannia.

[Cardiff Times, 7 August 1886]

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Down to Plimsoll’s Mark

Found 12 January 1877, on the shore at Occumster, Caithness

In a bottle:

My Dear Wife and Son.
We are laid-to in the North Sea, about one hundred miles westward of the Holman, with our main hatch stove in and gangways gone. The sea is fearful; it is washing in and out of the main hatchway, and washing the linseed out of the hold. It happened at four a.m. this morning. My dear, we have the boat swung out all ready for lowering, but we dare not for the sea. There is no water in the after hold, and the engine is going ahead to pump the water out, but I am afraid it is to no purpose. I don’t think we shall live the night out. Pray to God to forgive us our sins, for we have many. My dear wife and son, it is a painful thing to write to you both and say that I expect every moment to be my last. The ship was too deep—down to Plimsoll’s mark. Ships ought not to be allowed to load so deep. Good day, and God bless you all; and I hope He will protect you. Tell John to be a good boy, and keep honest and sober.
Your affectionate husband JOHN COOK, Chief Mate S.S. Wells, of Hull, 130 Day Street, Hull.
P.S. Kind love to all.

The Wells left the Baltic Sea port of Memel (now Klaipeda) for its home port of Hull on 17 December 1876. When it did not arrive, “the gravest fears” were entertained for the ship and its crew of 22 men. This message confirmed those fears.

After it was published in newspapers, the ship’s owners sought to assure the public that the Wells had not been overloaded, and had in fact been carrying less cargo than usual since the addition of its Plimsoll Line. The message, they said, could not have drifted to its finding place, and must therefore be a hoax.

However, wrapped around the cork of the message’s bottle was found a small piece of newspaper torn from the Newcastle Journal in Newcastle upon Tyne, from the edition dated 29 November 1876 – the date the Wells had sailed out of the Tyne. This was regarded as “rather curious confirmation” that the message was genuine, and that the Wells was indeed lost.

[Shields Gazette 4 January 1877, Middlesbrough Gazette 24 February 1877]

You can read more about the Wells and the Plimsoll Line in the Messages from the Sea book.

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The Life-and-Death History of the Message in a Bottle

One Thursday morning in late June 1899, an 11-year-old boy named William Andrews was playing on the beach at Ilfracombe in Devon, England. There he spotted a small tin floating in the water. The quarter-pound tin was marked “coffee and chicory”, and was tied up with a piece of cork for buoyancy. Inside the tin was a note, written in pencil on a page torn from a pocket diary. The note was signed by able seaman R Neel and addressed to Mrs Abigail Neel in Cardiff, Wales. It read as follows:

“To my wife and children. The Stella is going down as I pen my last words. If I do not survive, go to my brother. Goodbye, my loved ones, goodbye.”

This was just one of hundreds of messages in bottles, boxes and tins washed up from the sea onto British and other shores in 1899, and one of thousands found during the busy Victorian and Edwardian steam and sail seafaring eras. These messages from the sea told tales of foundering ships, missing ocean liners and shipwrecked sailors, and contained moving farewells, romantic declarations and intriguing confessions. Some solved mysteries of lost vessels and crews, while others created new mysteries yet to be solved. Read More…

Read the full 2,000-word article at Medium

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