Sub Sea Research’s current project, the recovery of the SS Port Nicholson, has sparked numerous debates and conversation. The British ship is said to have been holding a large cargo of platinum ingots and precious metals when it sank in 1942. Just what is the history of this ship? There are still many unanswered questions, but here are some of the things we do know.
The SS Port Nicholson was constructed over the period of 7 months from November 1918 to May 1919. She was made by Hawthorn Leslie and Company in Hepburn, England. As a British cargo ship, she served in both the First and Second World Wars. The Port Nicholson was propelled by four steam turbines, allowing the vessel to move at a speed of 14 knots (16 mph / 26 km/h). The vessel was 481 feet long and 62 feet high. She had over 328,500 cubic feet of refrigerated cargo space. The ship was equipped with two refrigerating machines and cooled with brine and insulated with cork. Refrigerator ships, or reefer ships as they were commonly called, were useful in carrying perishable supplies during times of war. On occasion these ships would also carry valuables, as they were equipped with much more space than many other vessels used in wartime.
The SS Port Nicholson was registered to the Commonwealth and Dominion Line and her home port was London. The ship made many trips in her lifespan, traveling to Australia and New Zealand and many different locations in the United Kingdom. She did not make it through her 20+ years without incident though. The first trouble came in October 1924 in Spain. The vessel ran aground and a hole was made in the side of the hull. It took two weeks to repair, but she was soon back in service. Four years later, in 1928, the cargo the Port Nicholson was carrying to New Zealand caught fire. She had to stop in Pago Pago to get the incident under control, but aside from some ruined supplies the vessel suffered no lasting damage. In 1937, the Port Nicholson was docked in Melbourne, Australia, where she was transporting a number of cattle and livestock. The wharves nearby caught on fire, spreading to the adjacent ship. The animals were saved, but the strange spell of bad luck would not cease anytime soon. The following year, the Port Nicholson was involved in a collision with the tugboat Ocean Cock, which subsequently sank. Four men perished in this accident.
When the Second World War began, the Port Nicholson continued delivering cargo around the globe. Her last voyage was in 1942, and she traveled from Avonmouth across the Atlantic to Halifax, Nova Scotia, captained by Harold Charles Jeffrey. She arrived in port on June 14th, 1942, with orders to stop in New York and join a convoy back to Wellington, UK. She joined up with the convoy but never made it to New York.
The German U-Boat U-87, commanded by Joachim Berger, caught up to the convoy 100 miles off the coast of Portland, Maine on the morning of June 16th. He fired a torpedo and then a second a minute later, thinking the first had missed. Both torpedoes had hit the Port Nicholson, one in the engine room and the second in the stern. Two men working in the engine room were killed instantly. The ship drifted for the remainder of the day and night, staying afloat well into the dawn of the next day. The other crew had been picked up by the HMS Nanaimo, and the next morning a group of men returned to the Port Nicholson to see if she could be salvaged. The captain, chief engineer and first lieutenant went back to the ship, accompanied by three men from the HMS Nanaimo. The weather began to grow worse, and so the team had no choice but to abandon the ship to let her sink, traveling in a small boat back to the HMS Nanaimo. In the bad weather, the Port Nicholson sunk stern side first. The suction from the sinking caused their boat to overturn, and four men drowned. The two survivors, both HMS Nanaimo ratings, were rescued by their ship. They and the other survivors of the Port Nicholson made it to port in Boston later that day.
This tragedy was honored by Sub Sea Research on the 70 year anniversary of the sinking. A plaque with the names of the men who perished was lowered onto the bow of the Port Nicholson, and Greg Brooks said the following speech:
“It is told in the Bible that once the Lord was in the fisherman’s boat and a great storm came upon them, and the fishermen feared they would drown. The Lord said to them, have faith in Me. And thus it was they had the faith to survive. This same situation was and is repeated each day at sea.
No man has ever served at sea without knowing that each day could be his last and no one would even know where at sea he lay. No man served a day at sea without the knowledge that the ship he sailed might not survive to sail another day. But no man at sea let these fears overcome him. He knew his shipmates were beside him to help stand the watch, to plot the course, and to be the family and support we all need to meet and survive another day. They were his shipmates.
We honor the men of the Port Nicholson as we toll the bell to mark the end of their final watch.
Well done men, well done. It was a great voyage, and you served your watch. We are proud to to know you through our quest.
You have completed your final watch, now rest in peace.”