Daily Event for May 7, 2012

Some dream of an adventurous life, and some choose one, such is the life of a seaman. For such adventures one must have a vessel and so on June 9, 1894 the 350' long freighter Annandale was launched for Robert MacKill & Company of Glasgow by William Hamilton and Company. Just another steamer, 3,847 tons with a single screw for propulsion. An unremarkable ship set for a career of hauling cargo after cargo from port to port.

In 1899 she was sold to P. Brown & Company of Copenhagen, Denmark and continued the merchant trade. Once she set a record shipping 200,000 bushels of corn from Galveston, Texas, that was in April of 1900. However in May of 1902 Nordby, the name chosen by her Danish owners, would be involved in one of the mysteries of the sea.

Having sailed form Sicily to the Caribbean she stopped at St. Michael's, Barbados for water, then proceeded toward the USA. Two days out of Barbados there was an event that shook the crew and, as we now know, would make world headlines. Rather than making an attempt to describe what happened, I will use Captain Eric Lillienskjold's own narrative of the event.

" Tuesday, May 7 (1902) We were plodding along slowly that day. About noon I took the bridge to make an observation. It seemed to be hotter than ordinary. I shed my coat and vest and got into what little shade there was. As I worked it grew hotter and hotter. I didn't know what to make of it. Along about two o'clock in the afternoon it was so hot that all hands got to talking about it. We reckoned that something queer was coining off, but none of us could explain what it was.

You could almost see the pitch softening in the seams. Then, as quick as you could toss a biscuit over its rail, the Nordby dropped - regularly dropped - three or four feet down into the sea. No sooner did it do this than big waves that looked as if they were coining from all directions, at once began to smash against our sides. This was queerer yet, because the water a minute before was as smooth as I ever saw it.

I had all hands piped on deck, and we battened down everything loose to make ready for a storm. And we got it all right - the strangest storm you ever heard tell of. There was something wrong with the sun that afternoon. It grew red and then dark red and then, about a quarter after two, it went out of sight altogether. The day got so dark that you couldn't see half a ship's length ahead of you. We got our lamps going, and put on our oilskins, ready for a hurricane. All of a sudden there came a sheet of lightning that showed up the whole tumbling sea for miles and miles. We sort of ducked, expecting an awful crash of thunder, but it didn't come. There was no sound except the big waves pounding against our sides.

There wasn't a breath of wind. Well, sir, at that minute there began the most exciting time I've ever been through, and I've been on every sea on the map for twenty-five years. Every second there would be waves fifteen or twenty feet high belting us head-on, stern-on and broadside, all at once. We could see them coming, for without any stop at all flash after flash of lightning was blazing all about us.

Something else we could see, too. Sharks! There were hundreds of them on all sides, jumping up and down in the water. Some of them jumped clear out of it. And sea birds! A flock of them, squawking and crying, made for our rigging and perched there. They seemed as if they were scared to death.

But the queerest part of it all was the water itself. It was hot - not so hot that our feet could not stand it when it washed over the deck - but hot enough to make us think that it had been heated by some kind of a fire. Well, that sort of thing went on hour after hour. The waves, the lightning, the hot water and the sharks, and all the rest of the odd things happening, frightened the crew out of their wits.

Some of them [the crew] prayed out loud - I guess the first time they ever did in their lives. Some Frenchmen aboard kept running around and yelling, ' C est le dernier jour! ' [This is the last day.] We were all worried. Even the officers began to think that the world was coming to an end. Mighty strange things happen on the sea, but this topped them all.

I kept to the bridge all night. When the first hour of morning came the storm was still going on. We were all pretty much tired out by that time, but there was no such thing as trying to sleep. The waves were still batting us around and we didn't know whether we were one mile or a thousand miles from shore. At 2 o'clock in the morning all the queer goings on stopped just the way they began - all of a sudden. We lay to until daylight; then we took our reckonings and started off again. We were about 700 miles off Cape Henlopen. No, sir; you couldn't get me through a thing like that again for $10,000. None of us was hurt, and the old Nordby herself pulled through all right, but I'd sooner stay ashore than see waves without wind and lightning without thunder."

Captain Lillienskjold was no shrinking violet, during the Greco-Turkish War of 1897 he brought his ship, Ashby, alongside a Turkish schooner that was burning and rescued thirty-three men from a terrible death. He was awarded the Order of Medjidi by Sultan Abdul Hamid II.

Nordby made port at Delaware on May 16, and it was then that they learned that on May 7 and 8 two volcanoes had erupted on islands not far from where the mysterious event had taken place. La Soufrière on St. Vincent blew first killing over 1,600 people, but a far more powerful eruption occurred on Martinique just hours after that when Mount Pelée exploded and a pyroclastic flow destroyed the town of St. Pierre killing about 30,000 of the inhabitants (only two people in the town survived). The flow ran into the harbor and destroyed several ships killing even more people (see Daily Event May 8, 2005).

Those in Nordby were lucky, they were far enough away that they survived, but early May would play a part in the Nordby story again two years later. She was wrecked at Santa Maria, Chile on May 4, 1904, what the volcano could not do, the sea took care of. The lack of salvage ability in the area meant the total loss of the Nordby.
© 2012 Michael W. Pocock

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