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Maritime Disasters: The Arctic

April 26th, 2016 by Piper Smith

The 284-foot-long, 2,856-ton Arctic, which made its maiden transatlantic voyage in 1850, was known for its speed and could cross the Atlantic in just nine days. On September 27, 1854, while sailing from Liverpool, England, to New York City, the Arctic collided with a smaller French steamship, the Vesta, in thick fog off Cape Race, Newfoundland. Initially, the French vessel appeared to have suffered greater damage, but the Arctic’s captain soon realized his own ship was rapidly taking on seawater and he made the decision to abandon the Vesta and head for land in order to save his passengers. However, after leaving the Vesta, the damaged Arctic continued to take on water, causing its furnaces to go out and its engines to stop working. The captain ordered that women and children should be put into lifeboats first, but instead a number of the crew and some male passengers made a dash for the boats, leaving hundreds of people to die when the Arctic sank.

In the end, of the estimated 400 people aboard the Arctic, only 87 survived the disaster, 22 of them passengers and the rest crew members; none were women or children. The Arctic’s captain went down with the sinking ship but managed to stay alive by clinging to some wreckage before being rescued by another vessel. Meanwhile, the Vesta did not sink and instead made it to St. John’s, Newfoundland, on September 30. The Arctic crew members who took the lifeboats and abandoned ship were criticized in the media for their behavior, which also violated laws forbidding sailors to put their own safety before that of passengers in emergencies. However, none of the men were prosecuted for their actions.

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