From Shipshape to Shipwreck

photo courtesy of David Stern

photo courtesy of David Stern

The worst thing imaginable for any boater is to lose their vessel in a shipwreck. Unfortunately, it happens more often than you may think. Attila Nagy, image curator at, reports that “according to a United Nations report, there are more than 3 million shipwrecks on the ocean floor,” and illustrates that fact with some amazing photos. As blue-water sailors, we’ve seen quite a few shipwrecks firsthand.

There are a few different causes for a shipwreck. Historically, many ships have been lost in wars, but apart from those, the mishaps are usually either by misdeed or misadventure. From our perspective, sailor and blogger Kimball Corson is right when he says that “Seas rarely sink sailboats. Mistaken attempts at landfalls do.”

photo courtesy of Mac Pale

photo courtesy of Mac Pale

One example of that is the loss of an aluminum-hulled Swan at the entrance to the Ala Wai Harbor in Honolulu. The story goes that the yacht approached the harbor at night and the captain prudently determined that it would be safest to stand off and wait until daylight. The owner, who was on board, overruled him and decided to take it in himself. The outcome was disaster.

Like many harbors in urban areas, the leading lights that indicate the course to follow to enter the Ala Wai Harbor are difficult to see. They are lost among the coconut trees and the many lights on shore. It doesn’t help that the channel is very narrow. Local boaters will look for the “spaceship”—a revolving restaurant atop a high-rise tower—as a local landmark to gauge whether they are in the right general area.

The owner of this yacht followed the wrong course and put his beautiful yacht on the reef to starboard of the channel. No lives were lost, but the waves lifted the yacht and dropped it on the unforgiving coral all night. The following day a salvage tug pulled it off. One side was unaffected, but the other side looked like it had been beaten up by a bulldozer. Amazingly, it was never holed.

wreck on a reef

photo courtesy of Odan Jaeger

Some wrecks are the kinds that attract adventurers, like the wreck of the Elingamite in 1902. Forty-five people perished when the passenger vessel hit a reef and sank near Three Kings Islands off the northern tip of New Zealand. This steamship was carrying a cargo of coins for New Zealand banks, and ever since its loss salvagers and treasure hunters have been attracted by the mystery of the lost gold.

Others, like the ill-fated S.S. President Coolidge, located off the entrance to Port Vila Harbor in Vanuatu, present great attractions for sport divers. This luxury liner had been commandeered by the U.S government to

photo courtesy Juan Velasquez

photo courtesy Juan Velasquez

transport troops and equipment during WW II. The ship unknowingly sailed into a sea of American mines that had been placed to foil attack by the Japanese. Unfortunately, nobody had told the captain of their existence. We have dived on this wreck ourselves, and have seen the skeletal remains of others on reefs outside the harbors of Suva, Fiji and Pago Pago, American Samoa.

Sunken long liner in Pago Pago Harbor, American Samoa

Sunken long liner in Pago Pago Harbor, American Samoa

We actually witnessed a rusty old Asian long-liner attempting to become the matching bookend to the existing wreck on the opposite side of the entrance to Pago Pago Harbor. We describe the grounding and salvage of the Kwang Myong 65 in the chapter of our book entitled A Suspicious Sinking. We were fortunate enough to benefit from the survey of the wreck by being on hand to help salvage the Steinlager beer!

While shipwrecks are noted for their disaster, one pair of enterprising sailors that lost their yacht on a reef off Antigua in the Caribbean in the 1960s transformed the negative into a positive. They set up a “shipwreck” shop, decorating it with wreckage of their yacht. When they found that it was successful, they took the concept to St. Maarten. Shipwreck Shops is now a dominant brand on the island.

As luck would have it, the manager of the Shipwreck Shops saw a review of Beer in the Bilges in The Daily Herald and wants to carry our book. They have asked us to come down to meet them, so it looks like we’re on the move again. This will be the second time that we will benefit from a shipwreck!

featured image courtesy of Asmussen Foto


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