burning sailing ship
Maritime Topics On Stamps :

Fire aboard!
The burning 'Spangereid'

On many a ship a raging fire caused the loss of human lives and even the total ship. This was hardly surprising during the age of wooden ships and abundant sail cloth. Nevertheless even modern ships built of steel have enough combustible stuff aboard to set the ship afire. Freighters transport dangerous cargoes which may ignite by spontaneous combustion. For example high explosive chemicals can start a disaster. For example dangerous explosive gas mixtures may build in empty tanks of tank ships. An electric short circuit can start a cable fire. Last but not least we have smoking the occasional cigarette in places, where it is strictly forbidden ...
Often the condition of the ships played a major role in ship fires. Especially on older ships alarm systems and/or fire extinguishers were in bad shape or didn't work at all. Sometime the crew was not properly trained to handle the fire equipment and did not know what to do. Even the ship's captain and officers failed in critical moments. > burning tanker
On the first stamp we can see the full rigger 'Spangereid', built in 1896 as 'Fairport' at Glasgow. In October 1920 she was bound for Sweden, loaded with african coal. The cargo caught fire near the island of St. Helena and the ship sank.

To the right stamp we can see the tankship 'Horatio', built in 1892 at Newcastle. In 1916 the ship stayed at the port of Leith/South Georgia. The whole cargo consisting of 2,000 tons of whale oil ignited causing the ship sink.

castle liner On the left stamp we can see the 'Yarmouth Castle', built in 1927 as 'Evangeline'. In November of 1965 she was on a cruising trip carrying 372 passengers and 174 crew members into the Caribean Sea. After midnight a fire started in one cabin, which spread out stunningly fast through the long corridors. The master inspected the fire but did not send an emergency signal. Twenty minutes later he had to issue the command to leave the ship. The bridge, the wireless room and some of the lifeboats were already burning. Sending an SOS signal was impossible by now. Fortunately the ship was sighted in time by the 'Bahama Star' and the 'Finnpulp'. Both ships saved 450 people. In one of the last lifeboats which cleared the ship were the captain and his officers. The 'Yarmouth Castle' sank shortly thereafter.

On the 22nd of December, 1963 the 'Lakonia' passed the island of Madeira 180 nautical miles to the north. The ship was built in 1931. Now 651 passengers and 385 crew members enjoyed a pleasant christmas cruising voyage. Suddenly a fire started in a barbershop. A pressure boiler exploded and almost immediately the ship was filled with thick smoke. Panic spread, the captain ordered to put on the life jackets, but the loudspeakers were not working any more. Some passengers got the order to assemble in the dining hall, others flooded the boat deck. Chaos ruled. The wireless operator was able to send an SOS signal and only a short time later six ships arrived on the scene. They cooperated perfectly and were able to save 908 people. 128 people died in the fire or were missing. Tugs tried to tow the 'Lakonia', but the ship listed more and more and on the seventh day she sank in the Atlantic Ocean. Lakonia burning

Viking Princess The 'Viking Princess', a Norwegian passenger ship, was built in 1950 at St. Nazaire. On the 8th of April, during a cruising trip through the Caribean Sea, fire broke out in the engine room. The fire spread very fast and the captain immediately ordered to leave the ship. Emergency signals were sent. Several ships reached the 'Viking Princess' and saw the vessel engulfed in flames. Lifeboats under motor were towing other lifeboats clear from the burning ship. The rescuers succeeded to save 492 person of 494. Only two people did not survive the flames. Four days later the US Navy and the Coast Guard towed the charred wreck to Kingston, where it was sold for dismantling.

The 'Atlantic Empress' was a so-called 'supertanker' built in 1974 at Odense with the following measures: length 347 meters, beam 51 meters, draft 28m, tons deadweight 292,666. In July of 1979, she was travelling in the Caribean Sea, carrying 270,000 tons of crude oil. There she collided with another supertanker, the 'Aegean Captain'. Visibility was low, but both ships were equipped with RADAR systems. The bow of the 'Aegean Captain' crashed into the port side of the 'Atlantic Empress', which had right of way. Immediately both ships were engulfed by flames. 29 of 34 crew members aboard the 'Atlantic Empress' lost their lives, because they fumbled with the lifeboats. 280,000 tons oil spilled into the sea and the thick oil carpet quickly reached the coast of Tobago. The Atlantic Empress' burned for 13 days. Again and again some tanks exploded until the wreck finally sank. Atlantic Empress
The fire aboard the 'Aegean Captain' was extinguished and she was towed to Curacao. After unloading the remaining oil she was declared unrecoverable and was wrecked.

Queen Elizabeth In her times the 'Queen Elizabeth' was the greatest passenger ship of the world and the pride of all of the British merchant navy. She was built in 1940 with a length of 1031 ft, a gross tonnage of 83,673 and a speed of 32 knots. During World War II she was used as a large troop transport and afterwards she ran between Southampton and New York. In 1968 the owning Cunard Line sold her to Americans as she generated not enough revenue any longer. Two years later she was towed to Hongkong and renamed to 'Seawise University'. Her new owner C.Y.Tung wanted to rebuild the ship into a swimming university. But the renovation process was sabotaged as multiple fires broke out at different places all over the ship at the same time. An oil kettle exploded and the fire spread over five decks.
The local fire brigade pumped immense quantities of water into the 'Queen Elizabeth' which finally exstinguished the fires but caused the ship to list and capsize. She sank on the 9th of January, 1972. Two months of investigation only revealed 'one or two unknown persons who lighted the fire'.

The 'General Slocum', built in 1891 with a wooden hull, was a paddle steamer working as a ferry on the Hudson River, New York. On the 15th of June, 1904, she started her regular sunday cruise with 1388 people aboard, among them many children of a sunday school. After one hour a fire started in a drug store containing many colours and inflammable goods. A strong wind supported the quick spreading of the fire. In less than minutes the wooden superstructure was burning. The captain wanted to run the ship aground but they were just passing great oil tanks along the shores. Many passengers jumped into the water, a lot of them drowned. Others burned to death aboard. A tug, which tried to help, caught fire by itself and had to pull out. Only 30 minutes after the fire started the burning ship began to sink. 1021 people died.
General Slocum
Afterwards the investigation revealed, that all fire pipes were rot and life belts were placed too high, so women and children could not reach them. The crew was not able to lower a life boat to the sea. The captain was arraigned and condemned to imprisonment for homicide.

Hatteras sinking
Now on to some stamps depicting our theme 'fire aboard' caused by effects of war. Here we can see the gunboat 'Hatteras' of the United States. Built in 1850, she was a paddle steamer with auxiliary sails. During the American Civil War, in January of 1863, the 'Hatteras' cruised off the coast of Galveston. The crew sighted a British ship and thougt it a simple blockade runner. Closing in, it turned out to be the brand new 'Alabama', which immediately started firing with her superior batteries. The 'Hatteras' was heavily damaged, she started burning and finally sank. Only two persons died, the others were picked up by the 'Alabama' and taken prisoners.

This is a stamp of the burning 'Alarm'. Built in 1777 at New York she was employed in the American Independence War. She belonged to the British fleet and was commanded by Philippe d'Auvergne. When she patrolled along the coast of Long Island she was cut off by the arrival of the French fleet. To save the crew and the arms the ship was beached and afterwards set on fire. Alarm burning

The next stamps depict two war sceneries. Both pictures show attacks using fire ships. This included lightening (i.e. sacrificing) the own ships and steer them directly into the fleet of the enemy to cause as much damage as possible!
Armada fire ships
Russian painter
In 1588 the fabled Spanish Armada and the English fleet clashed in several naval engagements in the British Channel. When the Spanish were at anchor off the coast of Calais the Englishmen employed the so-called fire ships. The wind and the tide drove eight burning ships into the Armada. Total chaos arose. The Spanish ships had to slip their anchors to avoid catching fire and reach the free sea. And this was the beginning of the end. In 1770 the Russian fleet attacked the Turkish fleet at anchor off the island Chios in the Aegean Sea. The Russians used four torch ships to weaken the enemy. The fires spread quickly from ship to ship. Within short time the whole Turkish fleet except one ship was ablaze. This battle was painted by the Russian sea painter Aiwassowski. We can see his picture on the stamp above.

burning Bounty
native attack
In 1789 most of the crew aboard the English sailing ship 'Bounty' mutinied. Their captain Bligh was disembarked into a small boat and the remaining crew sailed to Tahiti, later on to Pitcairn. There they burned the 'Bounty' to assure never to return to England. This is depicted on the stamp. This stamp depicts the burning 'Port Au Prince'. It carried the Englishman Will Mariner to Tonga in 1805. The ship was captured by natives and set on fire. The whole crew was taken as prisoners and probably doomed, but Mariner was able to befriend the chief. After several other stations he finally managed to return to England in 1811.

Here we can see see the burning German battleship 'Tirpitz' in a Norwegian fjord. Built in 1940 the 'Tirpitz' was used against Allied convoys in the North Atlantic. For four years Britain and Russia tried to sink the ship and at least they had success. In November 1944 the British Air Forces used a newly developed 5.4 tons bomb, called 'Tall Boy'. One of those bombs was able to penetrate the thick armour plating of the ship and detonated inside the hull. The 'Tirpitz' listed and sank, 1204 crew members died.

Once upon a time .... in the 4th century on the island of Korsika a bad governor tortured the christs. Among them was a young believing girl named Devote, who died in prison. Other christs put her on a small boat to ship her to Africa to get her a proper christian burial. During the voyage a heavy storm was setting and the ship seemed lost. But suddenly a dove came out of the mouth of Devote, the storm weakened and the boat reached the shores of Monaco. There she was buried in a chapel and since that days this chapel is a place for pilgrimage.
One day her relics were stolen, but fishermen caught the thief in his boat and brought the relics back. The boat was burned, and even today there is a procession every year in honour of the holy Devote. After the procession a boat is ritually set on fire and the evening ended with fireworks.

  This chapter 'fire aboard' could be a section in every collection about distress at sea, sea rescue, ship catastrophes, collisions, shipwrecking or stranding.

© 1998 - 2003 Bjoern Moritz, all rights reserved.

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