Dr Joseph Hiram Grisdale’s shipwreck

Posted: August 8, 2014 in bermuda
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Having left Boston four days before the cruise liner Prince David struck ‘Northeast Breaker Reef’ on the 13th of March 1932, while just twelve miles and two hours from its destination of St. George’s in Bermuda. All the eighty-seven passengers and crew on board were safely rowed in lifeboats to the nearby ship Lady Somers. Most of the vacationers were from New England but also onboard was Canadian Dr Joseph Hiram Grisdale, who had recently resigned as Canada’s Deputy Minister of Agriculture for health reasons. Travelling alone, Joseph was said to be ‘on his way to Bermuda for his health and intended staying there for some time’.

I will write more at a later date about Joseph’s life, but the shipwreck story is interesting, so I’ll start there. Edward Harris, the director of the Bermuda National Museum, writes:

Prince David in Vancouver in 1930

Prince David in Vancouver in 1930

As the Great Depression of 1929—39 was beginning, the shipping subsidiary of the Canadian National Railways, the Canadian National Steamships, ordered three identical passenger liners from the Cammell Laird works at Birkenhead, near the great maritime city of Liverpool.

The three were of a royal strain, being duly knighted Prince David, Prince Henry and Prince Robert, and were intended for luxury service on the Canadian west coast, operating out of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Alas, the Depression put paid to that concept and after brief service in those parts, two of the vessels were transferred to the Canadian Maritimes in the east, for service to Bermuda and the West Indies.

The two ships were placed on a regular cruise service to Bermuda from St John and Boston, berthing in St George’s, and it was planned the pair would operate to Bermuda for several months, with departures each Friday and Sunday.

The first departure was taken by Prince Henry, which departed Boston on 25 February, followed on 27 February by Prince David, with 122 passengers on board.

 

Prince David in Bermuda in January 1932

Prince David in Bermuda in January 1932

The cruise on which Joseph Grisdale was sailing was only the second the Prince David had made to Bermuda.

On 14 March 1932 The Ottawa Evening Journal reported:

St George Harbour, Bermuda

St George Harbour, Bermuda

HAMILTON, Bermuda, March 13.

The Canadian National steamship, Prince David, struck a reef two hours out of St. George’s today, forced the evacuation of her 87 passengers, and several hours later was sinking.

The accident was blamed on poor visibility in a blinding rain, storm, and occurred just before the Prince David picked up her pilot. According to passengers, the vessel was making a speed of about 23 knots when the accident happened. The third officer was on the bridge at the time, passengers reported, and all were ordered immediately to don life preservers.

The life boats were lowered quickly while an SOS was sent to the Lady Somers. When all the’ passengers had been taken off the Prince David was listing badly. The Lady Somers, fearful of entering the channel, stood by three miles out while passengers and crew alike worked at the oars. They rowed for an hour and a half in rough sea before reaching the Lady Somers.

Chief Steward Kerr of the Prince David was praised highly by passengers for his work in the transfer of passengers. All were brought safely aboard the Lady Somers and then taken ashore.

The transfer was accomplished without any serious Injury to any of the passengers or crew. It was 11 a.m. when the 3.072-ton vessel bearing 87 vacation-minded passengers from Boston for St. Georges, was brought up sharply upon the reef. Ships officers calmly directed and assisted passengers in donning lifebelts and soon lifeboats were -swung over the side and the long pull started to the Lady Somers.

Later, it was said by passengers, that there was little commotion as the majestic liner was abandoned. True to the traditions of the sea, Captain A. & McKay was the last man leave… the listing vessel. Captain McKay and two engineers remained aboard surveying the situation…  Most of the passengers of the ill-fated Prince David were New England holiday-seekers. The only Canadians known to be aboard were Dr. J. H. Grisdale, former Dominion Deputy Minister of Agriculture, and Mr. and Mrs. T. J. Murphy, Toronto.

There are many others reports in Canadian newspapers telling that Dr Grisdale had survived the wreck.

One passenger, Maxine Morgan, reported to the newspapers:

Lady Somers

Lady Somers

HAMILTON. Bermuda. March 13.

The Prince David struck a reef today, and we all had to take to the lifeboats to complete a pleasure trip to Bermuda from Boston. It was about two o’clock when the ship was brought up abruptly against a reef. The third officer got into action immediately, while the rest of us were trying to figure out what happened… My mother and I adjusted belts, as did the other men and women passengers. There was no great commotion although I guess we were all very excited. While the process of adjusting our belts was going on, the crew of the Prince David was busy getting ready the lifeboats. Soon we were told to get into them. There was no chance to collect wraps or personal baggage. I went into the lifeboat with my mother, and neither of us had a chance to go to our staterooms and collect our effects. Other women and men were in the same predicament.

After we got into the lifeboats, we were lowered into a rough sea- and then the task of rowing to the steamer Lady Somers was started. As we pulled away from the Prince David, she seemed to be listing badly. We were told after we reached land that the craft was sinking slowly. The ride out to the Lady Somers, which apparently did not venture into our position for fear of meeting the same fate, was not a pleasant one but the men passengers in the boat proved good seamen and took a hand at the oars. It took about an hour and a half before we reached the Lady Somers, which made the trip down here from Boston the same day we Jeff-last Friday.

The man whom I think was the hero of the whole affair was the chief purser. Kerr is his name. He was efficient, gentle and courageous and certainly helped us women a great deal. Most of the passengers said the same thing about him: The Lady Somers brought us all safely ashore the only thing we missed, especially, the ladies, was a change of apparel. Tonight we had hopes that some of our effect might be saved before the ship sinks.

Lady Somers

Lady Somers

The timing of the ship hitting the reef varies in the various newspaper reports. More recently marine historian Piers Plowman in A Century of Passenger Liners to Bermuda  wrote:

St George Bermuda in 1930s

St George Bermuda in 1930s

On the morning of Sunday, 13 March 1932, Prince David on its second cruise was approaching Bermuda in heavy rain causing poor visibility.

Shortly before noon the Island hove into sight, and the officers on the bridge estimated their position from the radio direction finder, as they had done the first time the ship cruised to Bermuda.

Unfortunately, only days previously the Bermuda radio direction equipment had been moved from its original position near St George’s to ‘Eagles Nest’ in Devonshire, but the captain of Prince David was either unaware of this, or forgot.

The result was that, instead of following a course that would bring them safely to the entrance of the channel through the reef, the ship was several miles off course.

At 12.40pm it struck one rock, went over it and then became firmly lodged on a second rock that formed part of the reef near North Rock.

An SOS message was immediately sent, being picked up ashore, and also by Lady Somers, which was also approaching the Island from Boston.

An hour after the ship went aground, the rain stopped, but a strong wind sprang up from the south west, which soon whipped up a heavy sea, preventing Lady Somers, or the tugs that had rushed to the scene from St George’s approaching the grounded ship.

At first there seemed little danger, and passengers were served their lunch in the dining room as usual.

During the afternoon Prince David began to sink by the stern, and as the tide began to fall, also began listing to starboard.

This increased concern for the safety of the 84 passengers, resulting in them being placed in the lifeboats, along with some members of the crew, and transferred to Lady Somers.

Eventually at low tide Prince David was listing at 45 degrees, and the stern had disappeared beneath the water, only the captain and four officers remaining on board.

The five officers remained with the ship throughout the next day, but rising seas on the evening of 14 March forced them to decide to abandon the ship too.

A group of St George’s men, including some pilots, manned a small boat to rescue the officers. Battling strong squalls and heavy seas, the boat took three and a half hours to reach Prince David, at 2am on 15 March.

By then the men on the stricken ship were numb with cold, and it was a major task to rescue them, but at last all five were safely on board the small boat.

The voyage back to St George’s was as difficult as the outward trip, the small launch battling huge seas that threatened to swamp it at any moment. It was 5am before the boat finally tied up at Market Wharf.

When the weather moderated, divers were sent out to examine the hull of the ship. They found much of the bottom plating at the forward end of the ship had been torn off, and it was awash to B Deck aft.

It was thought the ship would be a total loss, but it was held firmly on the reef by the bow, and it was thought she might be saved.

Salvagers later determined that the cheapest course was to turn the Prince David back to her owners, Canadian National Steamships, who eventually got her off, refitted her and sent her back for another four years’ service. Later she served throughout the war before being broken up at Swansea in 1951.

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