Sunday 10 November 2013

SS Wexford

As the sun rose on this 10th November morning one hundred years ago, there were a lot of US and Canadian sailors on their knees giving thanks to the BVM and Poseidon for being spared. They didn't include the crew of the SS Wexford.
SS Wexford 76m
SS Wexford had a working life of almost exactly 30 years.  Being built in 1883 in Sunderland, UK.  She sank, with a 2600 ton cargo of wheat, in the Freshwater Fury storm on Lake Huron on the night of 9th-10th of November 1913.  Also known as the Big Blow, this storm swept up from the Great Plains with hurricane force winds and a white-out of horizontal snow.  At least 20 other ships on the Great Lakes went down that same night and 20 more were driven ashore and wrecked. Several of the ships left port during a lull in the storm in order to make their schedule and were destroyed as the wind redoubled its force.
Henry B Smith 160m
Finding the wrecks has been engaging North American divers for the last 100 years.  The SS Henry B Smith which also sank that stormy night with a load of iron ore was only discovered this year.  Apart from the narrower compass of the Great Lakes compared to the Atlantic Ocean, it's as hard to find the Wexford and the Henry B Smith as it is to find the wrecks of Spanish treasure galleons lost 400 years before.  in 1913.  The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea was signed that same year, after the rescue of passengers from the Titanic was greatly enhanced by the sending of a wireless distress signal including Lat & Long co-ordinates.  The Convention required 24 hour manning of the wireless-room on large ocean-going ships.  There were no distress calls from the ships that went down on the Great lakes, although a number of messages-in-bottles turned up over the next days and weeks. The disaster led to more heavily engineered buildings and structures in the area and better weather forecasting.  The Henry B Smith wouldn't have left port if the Master had known that the lull was only temporary.

Typhoon Haiyan tracking West
Sailors in the Western Pacific this last week have been far better informed about Typhoon Haiyan (aka petrel Fulmarus glacialis).  Forecasters can see storms a-brewing far out in the ocean from satellite pictures and fishermen from Vietnam and South China have been called back to port, hopefully in sufficient time.   The International Charter on Space and Major Disasters was activated to give "charitable satellite coverage". After the last two tropical storms that made landfall, lots for poor people out there are living in bender-tents and other makeshift accommodation, which will be whipped away in a trice, exposing everyone to drenching rain and chilling winds again.  Wide areas of the Philippines are still recovering from a 7.3 magnitude earthquake less than a month ago.  I'm glad I live in Ireland!

Here's another mystery, the SS Wexford as built in England in 1883 and was operating on Lake Huron in 1913.  How did she get there?  The Great Great Lakes are 180m above sea-level and ships don't fly, so the Wexford must have come up by some canal.  The St Lawrence Seaway, la Voie Maritime du Saint-Laurent, didn't open until 1959 and the locks on previous canals were limited to ships shorter than 57m. Clearly, someone (me, I guess) is going to have to do some more research.

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