The appearance of a ghost ship on the Cork coastline during the recent Storm Dennis raised many eyebrows and prompted a flood of questions. The vessel was the cargo ship MV Alta abandoned in the mid-Atlantic in 2018 when ten crew members were rescued from the ship by the American coastguard. Floating freely since she appears to have washed up unnoticed. But ghostships have a long tradition in seafaring communities including Waterford.
On the 8th February 1886 the iron built sailing ship County of Kinross (1878) was sailing off the south coast of Ireland having only just commenced her long sea journey from Cardiff to Bombay with a cargo of coal.
In the early hours the watch spotted an unlit vessel wallowing in the Atlantics heavy seas, her masts and rigging in disarray. No response was received from signals, and fearing some tragedy or mysterious event, they “lay to” until dawn and then lowered a boat and the first mate and four seamen headed towards the sailing ship which proved to be a Norweigan barque the Maury.
Boarding the wooden sailing ship, the damage was obvious to the seamen and there was evidence of a collision as her port side bulwarks was smashed in and much of her spars and rigging was lying on the deck, she was also taking water. A quick search proved there was no life aboard which left the sailors with a dilemma.
Despite the damage, the vessel was at the time seaworthy, had a full cargo in her holds and was within a days sailing of Waterford (if the weather was favourable). She was, therefore, a valuable salvage prize which the seamen could hardly spurn. After consultation with their captain, the ships carpenter came across to make temporary repairs, before he returned to the County of Kinross, which continued on her journey,. The scratch crew of the first mate and four sailors then began the trip to Waterford.
By some good fortune they later managed to engaged the services of a Liverpool steam tug Great Britain which was passing, and with the assistance of the pilot cutter managed to reach and anchor at Passage East on Tuesday, February 9th at 3pm.
Their prize was the Maury(1866), a Barque rigged three masted sailing vessel, built at Arendal, Norway in the shipyard of Ananias Christopher Hansen Dekke. She had departed from New York on January 13th under Captain Hansen with a crew of 12, destined for Waterford with 3,475 barrels of paraffin oil for the company of George White & Sons on the junction of O’Connell St/Thomas St Waterford.
In a subsequent newspaper interview the Chief Officer described the trip across the Atlantic as uneventful. However as they approached the Irish coast on Sunday 7th the weather became thick with reduced visibility and heavy seas. They decided to reduce sail, set a starboard tack and maintain a watch. At a later stage a fog horn was heard, and sometime later they spotted a ship heading directly towards them, but so close there was no time to avoid a collision. The Maury was struck on her port side and the Chief Officer believed that they were almost cut in two. As the other ship was embedded in their side, and fearing imminent sinking, the crew abandoned ship, but later returned to the Maury to try locate a missing crewman. This man (named Paul Kostal or Rostal) was eventually located and removed from under the fallen spars, rigging and sails.
The other ship was the Sir Henry Lawrence, an iron built, barque rigged sailing ship on a trip from Liverpool to Calcutta with a cargo of salt. Although the two ships eventually disentangled and separated, the Sir Henry Lawrence stayed at the scene. At daylight there was no sign of the Maury, and they presumed she had sunk in the darkness. It was decided to make for Cork where the crew of the Maury were landed. Despite medical attention, the injured crewman who had sustained damage to both legs, later died.
As a small aside, the Cork Examiner reported the incident in full, and I’m sure there was heightend expectation along the cork coastline, as the paper speculated that given the damage to the side of the Maury, that on sinking, the thousands of barrals of oil must surely float onto the cork coast! Alas
Meanwhile at Waterford the legal niceties of salvage were progressed and the cargo of paraffin was unloaded, most probably via lighter and hence to the city and the intended destination of George White and Sons.
Paraffin: Although lamps have been used since the earliest times it was not until the industrial revolution that the technology of lamp light developed substantially. James Young discovered the potential of a liquid in a seam in a Derbyshire coalfield which he named Paraffin. Although in short supply it had clear uses in lighting lamps. Petroleum oil began commercial production in Pennsylvania in 1859 and this would become the worldwide source of paraffin for many years to come. The increased availability led to an explosion, if you’’ pardon the pun, in lamp design and dare I say refinement! Many of these lamps were still in evidence in kitchens when I was growing up in Cheekpoint, and indeed storm lamps were often to be seen hanging in sheds.
At a subsequent court case where the matter of salvage was decided the following is an account that I located via a newspaper report of the time: The Maury and her cargo were valued at £1,743 and the judge in the case, Judge Townsend fixed salvage £1.700. The salvage money was allocated as follows: The owners of the County of Kinross Messrs Robert and John Craig (Glasgow), £300; The ships master, Captain Barry £220; James Broadfoot. first mate, who took charge of the Maury, £300; and to George Thompson. John McGillivery, James Pulett, and Henry Hett, the four seamen who went with him. £120 each; Peter Cameron. carpenter £30; and to three seamen who bad assisted him £10 each ; to Thomas, second mate of iron ship, and to the second mate and other officers and of the County of Kinross, £300.
The Maury was owned by E. Dedekam from 1866-93 and having been sold, she was renovated under the ownership of Hans H. Pettersen in 1894 and went on to sail for many years later, until finally sold to a Swedish owner in 1915. I’m not sure what happened to the ship after that.
The appearance of the MV Alta then is no great surprise in the historical context of shipping. There have been many amazing happenings on the sea. But I think the grounding, apparently out of the blue is a matter of some concern. This certainly might have been understandable in the 19th century, but hard to credit, and actually a little embarrasing, in this modern era.
I’m indebted to Eoin Robson who generously helped me with queries and translations from Norway. I also want to thank Anna Helgø, Collection manager at the Maritime Museum of Stavanger, Norway.