Derelicts & Ghost Ships — Are Catamarans the New Lumber Schooners?

Rainmaker, somewhat worse for the wear, after being adrift for over a year

Derelicts, abandoned ships often waterlogged and just barely afloat, are fascinating ghosts which wander the seas according to the vagaries of the winds and the currents. They are also significant hazards to navigation. In the later half of the 19th century, American lumber schooners were particularly susceptible to become derelicts. When these schooners were abandoned by their crews in heavy weather or after a collision with another ship, their buoyant cargoes of timber would often keep the schooners drifting with their main deck just above the surface for extended periods, sometimes for literally years.

For example, in 1885 the three masted tern schooner Twenty One Friends carrying a full load of lumber was abandoned after collision with a another ship off Cape Hatteras. The ship continued to be spotted for the next two years on either side of the Atlantic before she finally drifted ashore off Ireland. Remarkably, her cargo was salvaged and the schooner repaired. She spent several more productive years as a fishing vessel. 

Another interesting case was that of the three masted lumber schooner Fannie E Wolston which was abandoned off Cape Hatteras in 1891. She was observed by dozens of other ships over the next three years. According to these observations, the schooner drifted almost due east, then south-east during the first year. For the next year she drifted in circles in the mid-Atlantic before drifting west again, did one more loop before drifting north and east, finally seeming to ride the current of the Gulf Stream before finally being sighted for the last time on October 21, 1894. It is estimated that she drifted almost 9,000 nautical miles before she finally disappeared.

These days, as catamaran sailing yachts become more popular, they may be the derelict equivalent of the lumber schooners of old. One of the selling points of cruising catamarans is that they are unsinkable, which doesn’t mean that they won’t capsize or be dis-masted or otherwise overwhelmed by the sea.

In November of last year, Leopard, a 57’sailing catamaran capsized 400 miles north of the Dominican Republic. The crew was saved but the yacht drifted away. Six months later it was sighted off the North Carolina coast near Morehead City and towed in.

Likewise, in late January 2015, the brand new Gunboat 55 catamaran, Rainmaker, set off from North Carolina bound for St. Martin and was dis-masted and then abandoned off Cape Hatteras. The derelict was spotted several times but was finally salvaged over a year after it was abandoned. Bizarrely, it was finally salvaged off Bermuda by sailors from Oracle Team USA who had taken a day off from practicing for the America’s Cups races to go fishing.

Rainmaker was a high-tech carbon fiber catamaran estimated to have cost around $2.5 million. After drifting for over a year she was put up for auction with a starting bid price of $15,000.   

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One Response to Derelicts & Ghost Ships — Are Catamarans the New Lumber Schooners?

  1. Willy says:

    Granted I dont know enough about sailing. Yet it sounds to me that either the sailboats rigging was too light for the mast or there was too much sail. This on the fact these boats are being demasted as a common ailment.

    I had been fortunate to ride on a boat “Sea Smoke” out of Marina Del Rey in California. A 52 foot yacht once owned by James Arness of Gunsmoke the TV show. Sea smoke is a poetic way to rename fog. Yet she is a beautiful boat that allowed about 15 people to take a one week adventure out to Catalina Island and back. It was a very enjoyable trip.

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