No.52: The Fortschritt

Pouring oil on troubled waters

As the Fortschritt, of and from Szczecin for Dublin, with a general cargo, struck on the Goodwin Sands in 1848, her crew signalled for assistance, but none was forthcoming. As the tide ebbed, the ship, if not exactly “high and dry”, was not in immediate danger, and the crew remained on her overnight, suggesting that she was not being pounded to pieces on the sands.

By the morning’s flood tide, it was a different story, and too dangerous to abandon ship with breakers on the sands which would have overwhelmed the ship’s boat immediately. The crew, however, were resourceful – they had, after all, had all night to think about it. They used what was to hand, and broke into the barrel cargo, but not, as you might think, to use as floats.

Instead they staved them in.

It was not wanton destruction of a cargo not belonging to them. They were after the oil inside, for a purpose: they poured it overboard, which, it was noted, permitted them to cross the Goodwin Sands in safety. They had literally poured oil on troubled waters.

Stories of this kind are rare, but are certainly not unknown, with at least two other wrecks in English waters being recorded as saved by oil cargoes in this fashion, in 1637 and 1922. That this does not occur more frequently is intriguing, given 188 shipwrecks on the database recorded as carrying cargoes of oil, and as far back as Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) the effects of oil on troubled waters were known.

There could be many reasons for this. Some may have been ignorant or incredulous of the effects (although according to Benjamin Franklin, who investigated the matter, herring fishermen and whalers noted the same effect with oily water discharged from on-board processing) (1); it may be that in many cases time was not on their side; in others the risk of fire might have been too great; or seamen knew it only worked in certain circumstances.

Franklin noted the varied success of his experiments in pouring oil on water at a pond on Clapham Common and at sea off Portsmouth, suggesting that the calming effect was most likely on the windward side. So what happened next? The wind was reported easterly at London and ESE at Lowestoft on that day (2) suggesting that the vessel was blown onto the Goodwins from the east. Did the crew then pour the oil on the windward side, where deep water rather than breakers across the sands lay beneath? What did they know that so many other seamen either failed to know or feared to use?

(1) Benjamin Franklin, “Of the Stilling of Waves by Means of Oil, Extracted from sundry Letters between Benjamin Franklin, LLD, FRS, William Brownrigg, MD, FRS, and the Reverend Mr Farish”, Philosphical Transactions, 1774, 64  http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/64/445

(2) Times, 23 December 1848; Standard, 23 December 1848

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