Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The drama of the Hoegh Osaka grounding

Southampton has for centuries been a safe haven for ships and today it is no different – both cruise liners and cargo vessels making an appearance for hours or weeks depending on their mission. A regular sight in the famous port are the car carriers, huge floating boxes with several decks to literally drive vehicles on board and park up like a monster ferry.

One that was berthed here in January 2015 was the Hoegh Osaka (pronounced Herg), a 590 foot long vessel of 51,770 gross tons which had been built in 2000 in Japan as the Maersk Wind. She was renamed Hoegh Osaka in 2011 and sported the grey and white colours of the Norwegian company Hoegh Autoliners, destined for the ports of the world with the newest cars ready to drive away by their new owners. 

At 2006 hours on 3rd January 2015 she slipped her lines and headed down Southampton water bound for Bremerhaven in Germany. On board were a crew of 25 and they were looking after 1450 cars and thousands of tons of construction equipment such as JCB’s.

But as the ship neared the exit into the Solent, problems started to arise. The huge vessel began to list sharply at around 2110 hours, the pilot giving the order to stop engines. The list increased to 40 degrees and the cargo began to shift. A JCB broke loose and plunged into the side of the ship causing a hole which allowed water to flood into the ship. She was now in grave danger and would have to be evacuated.

Incredibly, the ship was saved by the quick actions and she came to rest still at a 40 degree angle on the sand bank known as Bramble Bank. A rescue operation was now under way as one crew member had sustained injuries as the ship listed and the rest required to be taken off. This was done by lifeboat and helicopter which included pulling one crew member out of the sea.

Once the successful rescue of personnel had been completed, the next task was to figure out how to get the ship off the sandbank in one piece. Tugs had already attempted to pull the ship off her resting place but she was stuck fast. This now required a salvage team to get the ship back upright and take her back into port. This was easier said that done as over time she found herself to be listing to starboard now at 52 degrees. It was looking less likely that she would be recovered intact.

For 19 days she became a tourist attraction as a team from Svitzer Salvage managed to refloat her on 7th January and tow her to a nearby anchorage. From then on she was pumped out of all the water, her ballast tanks filled to counteract the list and slowly she was brought back to normal.

On the night of 22nd January she was towed into Southampton much to the relief of her owners, salvors and the port authorities. This was a triumph in every way as she was brought alongside the port that she had left almost three weeks previously.

What was so incredible in the ending to this story was the fate of her cargo. Many of the vehicles were simply driven off the ship and lined up ready to inspect for damage. Although there were some that had been too smashed up to use, almost 1200 were completely fine.

The cause of the almost-sinking of the Hoegh Osaka was investigated by the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch (MAIB) and it was discovered that weight distribution was a major factor. There was a significant difference between the estimated and actual weight of the cargo and this led to the ship sailing in an unstable condition. Combined with the distribution of ballast, the ship was lucky to get as far as she got.

It is only good seamanship that prevented a tragedy, but with most of the cargo intact, all the crew alive with only one injured as well as the ship being fully recovered (she was back at sea in February) this is a lesson that was learned without a headline hitting sea disaster to accompany the headlines. With so many similar ships sinking with huge loss of life, this time instead we have the miracle of the Hoegh Osaka to look back on and learn from.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Zeebrugge Raid 1918

As the final year of the First World War was just starting, the U-boat attacks on allied shipping seemed to have no let up with thousands of tons of cargo vessels being sent to the bottom on a daily basis. America had just joined the war the year before but Germany was still persistent with its subsurface raiding. A plan had to be brought into effect to not just sink the subs, but to prevent them sailing in the first place.

A bold and risky plan was devised behind closed doors to take a fleet of old redundant ships and purposefully sink them at the entrance to Zeebrugge harbour in occupied Belgium to block the submarines in and prevent them from putting to sea. As the plans were given approval, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines got to work in making it happen.

The marines went into intense training in total secrecy for a raid that was designed to take out the German guns as well as sink the block ships. By April 1918 everything was ready and the go ahead was given to attack Zeebrugge.

On 23rd April a fleet of ships arrived at the scene just after midnight and the cruiser HMS Vindictive was pushed into place on the mole by the old Mersey ferries Iris II and Daffodil. The marines stormed ashore under heavy fire, the cruiser taking hit after hit but the submarine C3 managed to blow up the viaduct and rendered the mole out of action, but not before they had all taken heavy casualties. 

But the Vindictive attack was more of a diversion for the blockships which were now being put in place, although one was sunk away from where it should have been prematurely and two others were scuttled at the entrance to the canal. The wrecks of HMS Intrepid, HMS Iphigenia and HMS Thetis were now lined up blocking any attempt at being able to transit the canal, although it has been said that it was not 100% effective upon analysis. 

Motor launches went around the block ships and C3 and picked up the survivors who had evacuated before they had blown their vessels up. The destroyer HMS North Star had also been sunk in the raid. With the British claiming victory and a mission success, the fleet withdrew.


The attack on Zeebrugge achieved its aim but at a cost of 227 dead and 356 wounded on the British side, eight dead and 16 wounded on the German side. With what amounted to extreme acts of bravery, eight Victoria Cross medals were awarded along with many other gallantry awards. 

The Zeebrugge raid was a massive operation involving 1700 people and 75 ships, it was brave and calculating operation that anybody attempting must have had nerves of steel. Many of them may have been unaware of what was going on until they got there, others will have gone over the plans a hundred times to make sure that casualties were kept low and mission objectives achieved. 

Today there is a plaque in Zeebrugge itself as well as a memorial in Dover town centre in the form of the Zeebrugge Bell at the Town Hall (above with plaque), given to the town by the Belgian King in 1918. Another memorial at St James’s Cemetery has annual memorial ceremonies to commemorate the raid. The grave of the unknown stoker lays in St Ann's Church in Portsmouth Dockyard and is a scene of annual commemoration along with the other lost warships that sailed from here and never returned. With everybody now passed on that remembers and took part in the First World War, all we have today are the plaques and the memories of these individuals to help us remember one of the most daring raids in history.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Wreck of the U-534

The menace of the unterseeboot (underwater boat) of the German navy in the First World War became one of the biggest concerns for the war at sea, even more so when the Second World War broke out in 1939. By this time Hitler’s military might had grown considerably and these formidable submarines were out in full force and already picking targets on their new enemy. 

The U-534 was one of these vessels, a Type IXC/40 submarine launched in September 1942 and in her first missions she was used as a data-gathering platform for weather conditions in the Atlantic Ocean. Hardly a life that would propel her into the history books, on 27th August 1944 she was using a schnorchel for the first time when poisonous fumes consumed the sub and several crew members collapsed. Upon surfacing she was attacked by aircraft in which U-534 succeeded in shooting one down.  

On 5th May 1945 Admiral Donitz agreed a partial surrender of all German forces in both their own country and Denmark, the U-534 sailed that day and headed north of the 56th parallel where the surrender hadn’t come into effect. Not far from the island of Anholt she was spotted by two RAF Liberators who went in to attack her on the surface.

#While the submarine was able to shoot one of them down, the second one dropped depth charges which exploded and seriously damaged the stern of the vessel, forcing her to abandon their sub as it was now flooding and would not have long left on the surface. All 52 crew members managed to escape the sinking, but three of these would not make it to be rescued.

The wreck was discovered in 1986 at a depth of 67 meters by a Danish wreck hunter named Aage Jensen and soon after a team of salvors had sponsor from a media millionaire named Karsten Ree who funded an expedition to raise the sub in the hope that the rumours of lost Nazi treasure would bare fruit. 

On 23rd August 1993 the Dutch salvage company Smit Tak finally brought the wreck of U-534 to the surface with cheers and headlines to capture the moment. But it may have been a complete waste of their time, for no treasure was found – instead they unlocked the secrets of a U-boat that was like a time capsule of World War II. An Enigma machine, sailor’s possessions, boots and even an ensign were among the things found, along with dozens of condoms. These were used to fill with air and let go attached to metal strips to confuse enemy detection equipment.

With no use for a rusty relic of the war, she was sold to a company in Liverpool which brought her to the UK on a barge in 1996 where she went on display in Birkenhead along with the Oberon class submarine HMS Onyx and the Rothesay Class frigate HMS Plymouth. In 2000 during a visit to the city I went aboard U-534 and was amazed at the condition she was in after almost 50 years submerged on the seabed. Entering through the hatch at the stern we moved forward as a group through the darkened compartments where no photographs were allowed until we had got right to the other end and exited back into the bright summer day. It was only a short visit but it was very much worth it.

So how sad it was that this company, Warship Preservation Trust, ceased trading in 2006 and all the hard work had to be disbanded. Plymouth was sent for scrap as was Onyx, but thankfully U-534 was saved and taken over to a specialist museum built just for this vessel. Cut up into five sections with two put back together, she was then placed in her four sections around a courtyard while a building told the story of her life and crew, displaying her artefacts. Each section of the wreck of U-534 was preserved with glass panels allowing the visitor to see inside the vessel, information boards pointing to areas of interest. 

My second visit to her was in 2012 and despite my misgivings about cutting up a piece of history they have done an excellent job of doing it in order to save her from the scrap yard. It is pleasing to see that such effort has gone into making sure this unique museum tells the story of the war at sea, especially since the very docks where you now stand were the destination of many a ship that they would never reach, the convoys becoming victim to the U-boats like the one right here. This is a story that continues to fascinate anybody interested in maritime history and it is a museum that I would highly recommend to all ages.

With 75% of Germany’s fleet of U-boats lost in the Second World War, bringing one back from the depths and telling her story is the best tribute that can be done for such a unique piece of history.


Monday, September 14, 2020

Loss of the Cargo Ship Rema

In the early hours of Saturday 25th April 1998 a broken distress signal was picked up by Humber Coastguard on the VHF channel 16 from the Belize registered single-deck cargo ship Rema which was en route from Berwick in Northumberland to Holland with a cargo of stone chippings. The ship reported at 0321 hours that she was around 22 miles off the coast of Whitby and taking on water.

The ship was built in the Netherlands in 1976 and was owned by a company in the Bahamas, 195 feet long and was 748 Gross tons. She had been christened Pergo until 1987, then Fival, until 1995 she was finally renamed Rema.

With four crew on board, the ship seemed to be in distress in clear weather and calm seas, the RNLI lifeboats from Teesside, Whitby and Scarborough raced to the scene along with any ships in the area and two helicopters. Within the hour the first helicopter arrived on scene but the ship was nowhere visible. The two lifeboats arrived within a few hours more but by now dawn was breaking and there was no sign of the Rema.

Humber Coastguard continued to relay the message to all ships to look out for a vessel in distress but it soon became clear that the Rema had gone down when the helicopter found an oil slick and a liferaft, there was no sign of her four crew.

Over the next few hours a number of items were located including a zodiac rubber boat, several pieces of lifesaving equipment, rafts and other random wooden wreckage.
The Trinity House Vessel Patricia was on scene later that day and began a search for the wreck on the seabed, giving her last known position and the location of the wreckage it was just hours later that a large object was located and confirmed to be the missing ship.

An investigation was launched and it was found that the ship had been involved in several minor collisions with both a bridge and a jetty in the 13 months prior to her loss, but these had been repaired. She had also been detained twice during eight separate port inspections, five of these found deficiencies but only two warranted action to prevent the ship sailing until rectifications were carried out.

Two months after the Rema sank the wreck was surveyed by the Goosander which lowered remote cameras to the remains and began to explore the wreck. A fair amount of her cargo had emptied via a forward hatch and now lay around the ship, they saw various damage to the bow and accommodation area but they found nothing that could positively explain why this ship suddenly sank.

In their final report, the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch concluded that the Rema had sunk due to the slow flooding into the cargo hold but they could not conclude what had caused this to happen or how long it took.

The four crew of the Rema were never recovered and are now forever on board the wreck which still lies upright on the seabed, one of many thousands of wrecks of the Yorkshire Coast and one more mystery to be added to the history books.

Monday, September 7, 2020

An Interview with a Shipwreck Hunter (Part 1) - James Delgado

There are so many people around the world who have discovered, explored, tracked down and shown to the world some of the most amazing shipwrecks known to history. These wrecks have now been examined by enthusiasts from the four corners of the globe in books and television documentaries that continue to fascinate and inspire. 

In the first of several interviews, I am speaking to those who bring us that history and work hard to get the forgotten stories brought to light. We will start first by welcoming James Delgado. 

James has been featured on many TV specials and published several books. 

Could you explain what drove you to pursue a career that involved shipwrecks?

I had a fascination with the sea and boats from an early age; both grandfathers had boats.  My interest in the archaeology of ships came in May 1978 with the uncovering of the buried ship Niantic at Clay and Sansome Streets in San Francisco’s Financial District.  Several blocks from the sea, it had been beached and converted into a storeship – a “tenement moored in the mud,” according to a contemporary account of 1850 – and then burned to the waterline and filled over in 1851.  The remains of the ship and goods stored inside it saw me shift my professional interests to maritime archaeology.

What has been your most “wow moment” in your career?

It has come more than once; the “wow” comes from connecting with people who were connected to   Among those have been the wrecks of the slave ship Clotilda, Titanic, USS Arizona, USS Nevada (right), USS Conestoga, U-215, USS Saratoga, USS Arkansas, HIJMS Nagato, the Japanese midget submarines involved in the Pearl Harbor attack, veterans from both sides at Pearl Harbor, at the atomic tests at Bikini, from the Battle of the Atlantic, and many more.  As an archaeologist, what compels me to continue what I do are people and their stories.
that ship, either personally, as members of a crew, as survivors, or as family members of those who were lost.

How many shipwrecks have you investigated and/or dealt with?

Over a hundred.

What, in your opinion, would you say was your most important discovery either at sea or in the archives and why?

That depends – some ships and their stories have different meaning to various groups, and for different reasons.  The most important have been those that connect to people past and present; as a scholar, I feel the work I’ve done on the California Gold Rush’s maritime aspects, the archaeological analysis of early submarines, the maritime archaeology of World War II and the Cold War, and the maritime cultural landscape and wrecks of the Arctic and Panama are the ones that stand out to me as achievements I’m proud of.

Do you still get speechless when making new discoveries today?


What was your last project and what did you achieve?

It was the forensic identification of the slave ship Clotilda (right) in the Mobile River in Alabama.  Identifying the ship and connecting with the descendants of those brought to America in it was profound.  The identification of the actual remains continues to have positive results in the community.

What are your hopes for your future discoveries?

My greatest hope is that we can continue to share the discoveries and what they represent to as wide an audience as possible; that the work inspires young people to go into the fields of ocean science, exploration, archaeology, or interpretation, and that we add to the pages of history while also revising history to more accurately reflect that which was, especially in finding the voice of people whose stories and contributions were supressed or forgotten.

Is there anything else you would like to share that would interest the reader?

The great age of discovery in the oceans has just begun.  There is much more to find and to learn from.  I often think, especially for younger people, that here, at home, on this planet, our final frontier is the ocean and all that it holds as secrets.  The oceans are the key to life’s origins and our ongoing survival as a living planet.  Exploration and the opportunity to learn that comes from it are a paramount goal, not simply to find that which we can exploit, from minerals, fish or “treasure” but in terms of that which needs to be carefully studied and protected. 

James Delgado continues to investigate shipwrecks and has published a number of books. He lives in Florida and is currently the Vice President of SEARCH Inc.