THE WANDERER AT KINGSTOWN
Cormac F. Lowth
The great manmade harbour of Dun Laoghaire, formerly Kingstown, was conceived and built as a harbour of refuge for sailing ships in distress in Dublin Bay and although it fulfilled this function reasonably well for many decades after completion, it quickly became a harbour of general commerce, particularly for small sailing colliers, many of which indeed did not reach safety but came to grief as they narrowly missed the mouth of the harbour and piled up on the jagged rocks upon which the two great encircling piers are built. The story of the disaster in which Captain Boyd of the Guard-ship H.M.S. AJAX and several seamen were lost as they attempted to effect a rescue of the crews of two ships, the brigantine INDUSTRY and the brig NEPTUNE, which were being wrecked in a storm on the outer side of the East Pier in 1861, is told in another story on this website. On that occasion even the interior of the harbour did not prove to be an effective haven of refuge and a great many vessels were wrecked within its confines during the same storm.
Another renowned Dublin Bay shipwreck which gave rise to a terrible tragedy came about as a result of the inability of a ship to gain the refuge, so tantalisingly close, of the inner sanctuary of the Harbour. This was the Finnish sailing ship PALME on Christmas Eve 1895, which anchored just off the mouth of the harbour in a storm and drifted up into the inner reaches of Dublin Bay where she went aground. The story of the subsequent loss of the entire crew of the Kingstown lifeboat, the CIVIL SERVICE NO. 7, as they attempted to reach the wreck and the heroic saving of the crew of the PALME by the Irish Lights vessel TEARAGHT is well known in Dun Laoghaire and is commemorated annually by the R.N.L.I..
A ship which struggled into Kingstown Harbour, as it was known, in October 1891, did so for the purpose for which the Harbour had been built as she sought refuge there having been partially dismasted in a gale and this event has been immortalised in a book by the British poet laureate John Masefield. This ship was called the WANDERER.
The WANDERER was a magnificent steel four-masted sailing barque, built and owned by W.H.Potter and Co. of Queen’s Dock, Liverpool, and launched on Thursday, August 20th. 1891. Her building was supervised personally by the owner, Mr. Potter, and he apparently intended to make her the strongest and most beautiful ship afloat. According to Masefield, many sailors were of the opinion that he had succeeded in this. She had many unusual features including having all of the crew’s accommodation and the steering wheel located centrally in the ship. Her notable sheer forward was complimented by a beautifully carved wooden figurehead of a draped female form with a hand uplifted over her brow. This had been modelled by Mrs. Potter, the wife of the owner, a lady with “A face of singular sweetness”.
The finished weight of the WANDERER was 1780 tons and she could carry about 4,500 tons of cargo. Her dimensions were, length, 309 feet, beam, 46 feet, depth, 25.8 feet. Her glistening yellow pine decks contrasted nicely with her black and white top-sides which had painted black imitation gun-ports in the fashion of many large British sailing ships of the time.
The ship was launched by Mrs. Potter and on the September 14th. she was towed to the west float in Birkenhead to load steam coal for San Francisco. Her crew of thirty six men and boys were signed on by Captain George Currie, a Nova Scotian who had commanded another of Potter’s ships, the WAYFARER, for the past five years.
Throughout the previous week howling gales had lashed the British Isles relentlessly and it was said that Mr. Potter had advised Captain Currie to delay setting out on the ship’s maiden voyage, however, Captain Currie felt, despite the severe westerly winds, which had closed down the Mersey ferries and caused many shipping casualties around the coast, that October 17th would be a good day to start as it was the anniversary of his taking command of the WAYFARER. The decision to sail, which he had hoped to be auspicious, would however, prove to be a fatal one for Captain Currie.
The Poet Laureate John Masefield was essentially a sea poet; the sea was what he knew and wrote about best. Few will not be familiar with what is perhaps his best known work, SEA FEVER, with the immortal lines,
I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.
Coming perhaps a close second might be his poem CARGOES which mentions,
Dirty British coaster with a salt caked smokestack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days.
Masefield had sailed on square-riggers and he wrote about shipboard life and captured the atmosphere of the big cargo-carrying Cape-Horners in epic Poems such as DAUBER and THE YARN OF THE LOCH ACHRAY in an evocative way that has never been surpassed. He made a special case for the barque WANDERER by devoting an entire book to the subject in which roughly half of the story is recounted in prose, the rest in poetry.
Masefield began his poem of the WANDERER as she left the Mersey towed by the tug WRESTLER. Off Holyhead the towrope parted and with great difficulty the vessel was got under sail but as they sailed down the Irish Sea the full fury of the tempest struck the ship and blew out most of the sails. As she wallowed out of control much of the upper rigging and spars collapsed and crashed to the deck. Some of the wreckage struck Captain Currie on the head and he was brought below, still alive, and laid on the cabin table where he died soon after. The ship was now just off the Codling Bank and after blue lights were lit and rockets were fired denoting distress, the ship was taken in tow by the small coasting steamer MERANNIO and towed to Kingstown. Masefield writes,
When morning from wind-harried heaven showed wind-shattered sea,
The steamer drew nearer attempting to take her in tow,
She hove up to windward and fired her rockets with lines,
But time after time ere the hawsers were fast to the tow,
The WANDERERS sheerline bowed into the run of the sea,
And lipped up the living green water, and rising, deep filled,
Streamed with bright water and plunged, snapping hawsers like pack thread.
They laboured all morning while slowly the tempest blew by,
At last when the hawser was passed, the MERANNIO moved
Westwards, to tow her to Kingstown, and heavens face altered
And sunlight came squally with showers of violent rain
And blue sky grew brighter and seagulls adventured to sea.
At moonrise the tug FLYING SPEAR helped the towing up
By moonlight next morning they moored her and made her secure.
The WANDERER was moored close to the East Pier in Kingstown for three and a half days and during her time there she excited a great deal of interest among the local population, many of whom walked down the East pier to view the ship. The coroner did not deem it necessary to hold an inquest on the death of Captain Currie and the body was taken ashore and buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Harold’s Cross. The funeral was attended by the ships officers and apprentices. All who had served under Captain Currie agreed that he was a ‘fine and noble gentleman’ and a good seaman. The Captain’s grave was marked with a headstone and the number of the plot has been discovered by the author. Unfortunately this corner of Mount Jerome graveyard was greatly overgrown with vegetation when visited and it was not possible to determine exactly where the Captain lies.
There is a fine model of the WANDERER in the Merseyside Maritime Museum and displayed alongside it are copies of some pages of the personal diary of 14 years old H. Watson who was an apprentice deck officer on the ship. He describes the events leading to the Captain’s death.
… We had then some sail spread out, this got torn to pieces on account of the spars shifting. Nothing could be done but for hands to go aloft and cut away the rigging so as to free the ship which at this time was rolling very heavily indeed. It was near midnight and the captain was on the poop firing rockits (sic) as signals of distress. While thus engaged he was struck by the skysail yard and knocked down on the deck insensible. The second mate was the first to see him and he, along with the third mate and steward got him into his room. He lay insensible till four o’clock on Monday morning and then expired. By this time the wind had abated a little but the sea was still very high. At eight o’clock a.m. a steamer was sighted and we signalled to her. She made towards us and by twelve o’clock noon we got her fastened to, then began towing for Kingstown, Ireland. We got there by eight o’clock the same evening and cast anchor in the harbour.
On Friday the 23rd of October the tug WRESTLER came from Liverpool and once more took the WANDERER in tow. The Irish Sea was not yet finished with the WANDERER as she went aground by the stern on the Burford Bank while under tow. The tide was rising and she soon floated free. She presented a bedraggled sight as she entered her home port in contrast to the magnificent ship which had sailed from there only a short time before.
Masefield had written another poem about the WANDERER before he wrote the book on the subject, which contains the following lines,
“So she is putting back again,” I said.
“How white with frost her yards are on the fore!”
One of the men about me answer made,
“That is not frost, but all her sails are tore,
“Torn into tatters, youngster, in the gale;
Her best foul-weather suit gone.” It was true,
Her masts were white with rags of tattered sail
Many as gannets when the fish are due.
Beauty in desolation was her pride,
Her crowned array a glory that had been;
She faltered tow’rds us like a swan that died,
But although ruined she was still a queen.
The subsequent story of the WANDERER is a long and eventful one. She had acquired a bad name after killing her Captain on her maiden voyage and she seemed determined to live up to it. There were fires, collisions, groundings, more partial dismastings and men fell from the rigging on many occasions but she was probably no more unlucky than any of the big steel sailing ships of the time which relied on the vagaries of the wind and sheer manpower to get them about the globe.
The end came for the WANDERER at about 2a.m. on April 14th. 1907 as she was anchored in the Altenbruch road in the River Elbe awaiting a pilot and tug to take her up to Hamburg to load coal. The riding lights of the WANDERER were obscured by the bright lights of a liner in the background and the German Twin Screw steamer GERTRUD WOERMAN, which was making about fourteen knots upriver with the flood tide, ploughed into the port bow of the anchored sailing ship. All hands took to the boats and were picked up safely by a tug. Shortly after, the WANDERER rolled over to port and sank in the River Elbe, where, after some dispersal with dynamite, she remains to this day. The following are some of Masefield’s final lines on the WANDERER,
Since nothing could save her, men blasted the wreck from the stream,
And left her dead bones in the quicksand full fathom five down,
She lies there sunken, unminded, sea creatures encrust her,
White shells, such as cover the SIREN, red frond waving weeds.
Perhaps a more fitting epitaph for the WANDERER might be the final lines of Masefield’s wonderful poem “Ships” in which he mourns the passing of the tall ships,
They mark our passage as a race of men,
Earth will not see such ships as those again.