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The true story of the RMS Douro


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RMS Douro

There are surely few golden coins that tell as compelling a story - steeped in the intrigue of her glamorous yet deeply tragic history - as those recovered from the wreck of the 'RMS Douro' in July 1996.

After two years of arduous research and searching - following the trail of many others before him - Sverker Hallstrom finally found the elusive wreck. With the help of his partner, the salvage vessel 'Deep Sea Worker', her precious cargo was lifted up from a depth of 1, 200 feet below the ocean's surface.

Her glittering treasure, which had rested undisturbed for 114 years on the muddy sea bed, was found to comprise several gold bars and a sizeable quantity of gold Sovereigns (mostly dating from the reign of Queen Victoria).

History

The story behind these valuable reminders of a bygone era has enchanted all who have encountered them, from treasure hunters and historians across the globe, to collectors and wistful romantics.

The lavishly-fitted 'Douro' was considered the shining star of the Trans-Atlantic lines right up until her 62nd - and final - voyage between Brazil and England in 1882.

Owned by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co., the slender iron screw steamer - distinguishable by her graceful clipper bow and two brigantine rigged auxiliary masts - was built in 1865 at the shipyards of Caird and Co. on the River Clyde in Greenok, Scotland. She measured 326 feet long and 40 feet wide, with a gross tonnage of 2.824 tons.

In July 1869, after servicing the West Indies run, she joined the exotic South American trade between Southampton and Buenos Aires. Her voyages took her past Lisbon, Madeira, Sao Vicente, Pernambuco, Bahia and Rio de Janeiro, and were characterized by elegant company, fine food, music and laughter. Her sheer luxuriousness was matched by her reputation for reliability and relative speed.

She accommodated 253 First Class, 30 Second Class and 30 Third Class passengers, as well as 80 officers and crew. The First Class cabins were booked well in advance by an esteemed selection of passengers - from diplomats to the fashionable, champagne-drinking elite who were drawn to her comfort and plushness. Indeed, she carried such notable passengers as, in 1872, emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil and his family, ensuring the 'Douro's' reign as the unrivalled queen of the South Atlantic.

She also carried on her South American run precious cargo the dream of many a would-be treasure hunter or latter day collector. Her holds were usually filled with the finest high-value products and goods from both continents and her bullion room was kept well-stocked with specie, bar gold and Brazilian diamonds. In addition, as a contract-bound Royal Mail ship, she carried sizeable quantities of newspapers and letters.

Her final Trans-Atlantic journey began smoothly enough on the return stretch to Southampton. But it will never be known for sure if the hour and a half delay she suffered on her departure from Lisbon had any bearing on the events that were to lead to her tragic demise that beautiful night of 1 April 1882.

Tragedy

On 31 March 1882 - after an hour and a half's delay - the 'Douro' finally departed from Lisbon at 20h30, her passengers preparing for yet another enchanting evening of romantic dining and dancing out at sea. To make up for the lost time, she sailed full steam ahead, under a fresh force 5 to 6 N-N-E wind, heading swiftly north off the west coast of Portugal.

A day of sailing followed, and when night fell on April Fool's Day, she passed Cape Finesterre under a full moon. Although the night was beautiful and calm, the sea was a little rough.

Most of the passengers were asleep when, at 22h45, catastrophe struck. Although the Fourth Officer had identified the light of a ship some two miles in the distance, he had been confident the Chief Officer on the bridge was keeping watch. But the Chief Officer saw the ship too late to avoid the approaching collision.

Two deep gashes were gouged in the 'Douro's' starboard side when the sharp bow of the Spanish steamship Yrurac Bat plunged into her at full speed, and then again, with the force of the rebound and the regaining momentum of her engines.

Her engines finally stopped, emergency procedures were immediately begun. What is clear from the many accounts gathered by the 'Douro's' researchers is that she was abandoned in a great hurry, and priority given to the well-being of her passengers rather than to saving the valuable contents of her strong room or safe.

The confused and frightened passengers were rounded up from their cabins and the ensuing pandemonium on the deck, and directed to the lifeboats amidst great panic. The women and children were the first to reach safety, followed by the men. Six passengers drowned, but the survivors were later picked up by the steamer Hidalgo of Hull, and taken to La Coruna.

She rapidly began to sink as tons of seawater surged through both gaps and, after a mere 30 minutes, she disappeared below the water to find her final resting place on the ocean floor. The Yrurac Bat suffered a similar fate, leaving a total of 59 passengers and crew from both vessels drowned. True to seafaring tradition, the 'Douro's' Captain Ebenezer C.Kemp, four of the Senior Officers, and the Chief and Second Engineer went down with their ship, together with her dazzling cargo of gold, silver and jewels.

When the 'Douro' wreck was finally discovered, and her treasure brought to light for the first time since 1882, many years of fruitless searching had already been undertaken. However, the last chapter in the saga began in 1993 when Sverker Hallstrom began with his mission of locating and identifying a number of wrecks in the probable area where the elusive ship went down. Huge technological advances in deep sea salvaging equipment meant that the puzzle of the 'Douro's' whereabouts would finally be resolved - using state of the art sonar and ROV operations.

But it was also Hallstrom's determination to find her - helped by a liberal degree of pragmatism and an open mind to risk-taking - that resulted in his eventual triumph.

The Research

Hallstrom was introduced to the 'Douro' by the researcher, Nigel Pickford, in 1991, and received from him a comprehensive file of information pertaining to the wreck. However, it was up to Hallstrom to do further research in order to determine a search area. It was obvious to him that his quest for more in-depth information should include looking to resources in Spain, Portugal and even Brazil. He managed to find some particularly useful material in La Coruna's "La Boz de Galicia", a newspaper established a few months prior to the 'Douro's' tragic collision (and which is still in print today). The publication stated the time that the 'Yrurac Bat' passed Sisargas, information that allowed Hallstrom to narrow down the search area considerably.

He was also fortunate to befriend some of the local fisherman in the harbor where his survey vessel - the 'Scorpio' - was anchored, and who imparted valuable information known to them about the area. Trawler skippers across the world are deeply familiar with their stretch of sea, and usually have maps showing all the obstacles where they might come into trouble. With their help, he was able to establish a list (with precise Decca positions) of all the known wrecks in the area.

One of the fishermen in particular, Francisco, verified the names - and sometimes the estimated age - of the wrecks that Hallstrom had already picked up on his sonar. He was also occasionally able to indicate the sizes and vague identities of some of these wrecks, which Hallstrom found to be most interesting and useful in his search.

With this information at hand, Hallstrom could begin the lengthy process of locating each of these wrecks - one after the other. Their identification would be aided by means of a ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle - a tethered robot equipped with video cameras, powerful lights, a manipulator, sector-scanning sonar, a dredging pump etc). But in spite of this, locating and identifying the 'Douro' would still prove to be one of the toughest projects of his entire career.

In the meantime, an agreement had been entered into with Deep Sea Worker (a joint venture between English company Blue Water Recovery and French company Louis Dreyfus), the operators of a unique drill ship of the same name. 'Deep Sea Worker' had the advantage of being able to delve into waters deeper than 300 meters, utilising the tools and technologies developed for the offshore oil drilling industry. Although they were not involved in the search and identification phase, they would enter the picture once Hallstrom had positively identified the 'Douro'.

In 1993, Hallstrom began his search off the coast of Cape Finisterre using his survey ship 'Benjamin', fully equipped with satellite navigation systems, towed sonars, ROVs and the like.

Many ships have suffered a similar fate to the 'Douro' along this notorious coast, and it was these Hallstrom encountered over the next two years. He mistook one such wreck - of about the same period, and in the right location - to be the 'Douro'. In an exciting instance, Hallstrom's ROV had brought the image of a ship's bell to the screen - thought to be that of the 'Douro'. However, once the bell was recovered and its grimy surface cleaned, it was clearly a case of mistaken identity. The bell belonged to the 'Gijon', a ship which had sunk after colliding with the 'Laxham' in 1884. But rather than experiencing defeat, Hallstrom was challenged to take a closer look at the other wrecks he had already found in the area.

The Discovery

There was one in particular which caught his attention. In spite of the potentially hazardous old fishing nets covering it, Hallstrom, from his ship, 'Scorpio', sent his ROV to take a closer look at the gutted, shapeless wreck. All that seemed to remain was a hollow heap of iron and debris; no bell or bow, and no twice-gashed starboard side with which to recognise the ship. The remains of the engines and the shafts at least enabled him to discern head from tail.

Then luck came to the rescue. Someone in the control room noticed on the video screen what appeared to be a crockery plate wedged into the muddy bottom. The new ROV had been equipped for just such an occurrence, delicately using its 'arms' to scoop the plate - bearing the name of the Royal Mail Steampacket Company - into a special basket.

The 'Douro' was found at last!

Days later, the 'Deep Sea Worker' was engaged, bringing up a load of crockery plates, cups and milk pots all dutifully bearing the ship's name, as well as wine bottles, portholes and a magnificent pair of bronze dolphins.

A great and memorable moment soon followed when, amidst the mud, the salvors laid their eyes on literally thousands of golden coins brought up from the seabed. Luck further came to the fore when it was discovered that the gold was still closely assembled and there was no scattering.

Two days later, the salvage master estimated a probable - and previously unheard of - 93% recovery, which included several numbered and un-numbered gold bars. The treasure was taken to Jersey, under a fair British law, and officially declared to the appropriate authorities.

A year and a day was the waiting period required under this law for the releasing of the gold, subject to other claims, by the 'Receiver of Wreck.' Four months after this period had lapsed, the treasure was auctioned in London by Christie's-owned Spink and Son, the renowned coin auctioneers. The sale was a triumph. A large quantity of the coins - among which were many extremely rare Brazilian and Portuguese coins, some dating to the 1700's - were sold.

Corunna 2 April 1882

THE SINKING OF THE DOURO

"The Spanish Steamer Yrurac Bat came into collision at 4 o'clock this morning with the Royal Mail Steamer Douro, near Cape Finisterre. Both vessels foundered. The Yrurac Bat lost 31 men, including her captain and pilot. About 37 of the persons on board the Douro were saved. The number of the Douro's passengers and crew that drowned were not known. The survivors have arrived here."

Reuters

Thus The Times London broke the news of the collision between the RMS Douro and the Spanish steamer Yrurac Bat. The Douro, built in 1865 by Caird & Co. Greenock was one of the most popular ships of the Royal Mail fleet. She was far from the fastest, but she was elegant and comfortable and was a particular favourite of the wealthy first class passengers travelling from South America to the United Kingdom via Portugal.

The Douro was on her final leg of what was fated to be her last voyage, only two days from Southampton. Late in the evening of 1st April she passed the Finisterre Light having called into Lisbon. and was steaming north towards England. A passenger, Mr. Stoher, who was taking some fresh air before retiring, had spotted a light from the starboard bow. Stoher pointed out the light to Mr. Atherlev, the Fourth Officer, who identified it as a ship, but one at least two miles distant and, confident that the Chief Officer on the Bridge was keeping watch, he took no action. But the Chief Officer saw the light too late to avoid a collision, which, when it came was catastrophic. The Yrurac Bat, a Spanish passenger liner out of Corunna en route to Havanna, ploughed into the starboard side of the Douro in the area of the main mast. The impact was such that the Yrurac Bat rebounded, but the momentum of her engines immediately took her forward again and she struck the Douro a second time, in the area of the aft boat.

The Douro's engines were stopped and everywhere there was pandemonium. The passengers who had been asleep, ran this way and that, none knowing to which lifeboat they should report. Further time was lost when the mechanism to detach the lifeboats from their davits jammed, and no-one had a knife to cut the boats free.

The rule of women and children first was strictly adhered to. Of the six passengers

The search for the Douro began in 1949 with a cryptic note written by Thomas Pickford, the project research's father. It simply read "Douro, 1882, ?53,000, Bay of Biscay". Thirty years later Nigel Pickford rediscovered the note and decided to develop the research.

Ten years research into old newspaper articles, log hooks. company directors' reports. Lloyds' Registers. ships' drawings. personal records, banking records and ancient sea charts was completed before Pickford was able to put the project forward to Sverker Hallstrom. a Marine salvage specialist, as a viable salvage Opportunity in the Summer of 1992.

At that time a cargo of gold had never been recovered from inside a collapsed and rusting iron hull in a depth of water approximately 1,500 feet deep. It was an extremely bold undertaking.

By means of careful analysis of various conflicting statements of witnesses and survivors, combined with detailed calculations on ships' speeds, routes, times of departures etc. the initial search area of 500 square miles was reduced to 150 square miles. Any prior salvage was highly unlikely due to the water depth.

So the search began. Hallstrom left the Swedish naval base of Berga in his survey vessel, the Benjamin on 4 June I 993. Equipped as a state of the art survey vessel, the yacht included side scan sonar, sector scanning sonar, a Scorpio ROV with SIT and colour cameras attached, a hydro acoustic referencing system as well as a variety of transponders.

The survey continued for almost two years during which an alarming number of wrecks from the Victorian steam ship era were located. Deciding which of them was the Douro was going to prove extremely difficult.

Hallstrom finally succeeded in identifying the Douro in May 1995 and negotiated a salvage agreement for the provision of Deepsea Worker and the Grab Salvage System developed by Blue Water Recoveries Limited.

The Search for the Douro

The search for the Douro began in 1949 with a cryptic note written by Thomas Pickford, the project research's father. It simply read "Douro, 1882, ?53,000, Bay of Biscay". Thirty years later Nigel Pickford rediscovered the note and decided to develop the research.

Ten years research into old newspaper articles, log hooks. company directors' reports. Lloyds' Registers. ships' drawings. personal records, banking records and ancient sea charts was completed before Pickford was able to put the project forward to Sverker Hallstrom. a Marine salvage specialist, as a viable salvage Opportunity in the Summer of 1992.

At that time a cargo of gold had never been recovered from inside a collapsed and rusting iron hull in a depth of water approximately 1,500 feet deep. It was an extremely bold undertaking.

By means of careful analysis of various conflicting statements of witnesses and survivors, combined with detailed calculations on ships' speeds, routes, times of departures etc. the initial search area of 500 square miles was reduced to 150 square miles. Any prior salvage was highly unlikely due to the water depth.

So the search began. Hallstrom left the Swedish naval base of Berga in his survey vessel, the Benjamin on 4 June I 993. Equipped as a state of the art survey vessel, the yacht included side scan sonar, sector scanning sonar, a Scorpio ROV with SIT and colour cameras attached, a hydro acoustic referencing system as well as a variety of transponders.The survey continued for almost two years during which an alarming number of wrecks from the Victorian steam ship era were located. Deciding which of them was the Douro was going to prove extremely difficult.

Hallstrom finally succeeded in identifying the Douro in May 1995 and negotiated a salvage agreement for the provision of Deepsea Worker and the Grab Salvage System developed by Blue Water Recoveries Limited.

THE SALVAGING OF THE DOURO

The salvage commenced in June the same year. Due to the capabilities of the salvage spread and the power of the Grab System, the wreck was quickly cleared of the fishing nets obscuring it, like a cloud from stem to stern. The wreck lay exposed ready for the search for the gold to begin. The Blue Water Recoveries team using the deck and layout plans of similar era vessels, advised the Salvage Master of the most likely location of the bullion room.

Only five days after commencing the salvage operation the Grab had recovered 98% of the bullion cargo from over 400 metres deep.

The Lost Treasure of the Douro

Loaded with coffee, diamonds, gold and affluent passengers, the RMS Douro was on the final leg of a 10,000-mile voyage from the trading ports in Brazil to England on April 1, 1882, when it collided with another ship and sank. Thirteen unlucky people on board the Douro and the entire cargo went down with the ship, presumably lost forever at the bottom of the Bay of Biscay in the Atlantic Ocean. Lost for over a century, but not forgotten...

Disaster on the High Seas

A comfortable and elegant vessel, the Royal Mail Steamer Douro was one of the most popular vessels of its day. She was a particular favorite of wealthy first class passengers traveling from South America to England via Portugal. On April 1, 1882, the Douro was on the final leg of what was fated to be her last voyage. Late that evening a passenger was taking a stroll on deck to get some fresh air before retiring for the night when he noticed a light in the distance. He informed the ship's fourth officer, who identified it as a ship some two miles away. Confident that the Bridge was keeping watch, the officer took no action. Within minutes, the Spanish steamer Yrurac Bat ploughed into the Douro's starboard side. The impact was with such force that the Yrurac Bat rebounded and, with her engines still propelling her forward, struck the Douro a second time.

The Douro immediately stopped its engines as pandemonium broke out among the passengers. Roused from their beds, panic-stricken passengers ran this way and that, not knowing which lifeboat they should report to. It only took 30 minutes for the Douro to sink. As precious time slipped away, the lifeboats were jammed in their davits and no one had a knife to cut them free. When the lifeboats were finally launched, the oarlocks could not be found. To make matters worse, some of the boats were also missing their plugs, which resulted in frantic bailing in order to keep them afloat.

The rule of women and children first was strictly adhered to. Of the six passengers who drowned, none were children. However, one was a woman who, in a state of panic, refused to get into a boat. The captain, four Senior Officers and the Chief and Second Engineers went down with the ship, though 49 passengers and 60 crewmembers were saved. The Yrurac Bat sank in 15 minutes and 30 people lost their lives. Survivors from both ships were rescued by the British steamer Hidalgo.

The Discovery and Salvage of the Douro

Equipped with sonar, cameras and other state-of-the-art equipment, the salvage team spent two years searching for the Douro. During that time, they battled terrible weather conditions while discovering a large number of Victorian-era shipwrecks. Many of the wrecks had to be investigated to determine if they were the Douro. By the end of 1994, Hallstrom and Pickford believed they had found the Douro. After retrieving the ship's bell in 1995, the team realized they had the wrong ship. It turned out to be the wreck of the S.S. Gijon, which sank in the same area in 1884. Later that year, the salvage team finally discovered the Douro in a treacherous tangle of old fishing nets and rope. The final confirmation was the discovery of a porcelain plate. When the plate was brought to the surface, it bore the Royal Mail's insignia of a seahorse, proving that the Douro had been found. Excavation work began on the stowage position by Deepsea Worker LTD, an international deep-water, heavy-lift salvage company. The exact location of the bullion room had not been found, but a combination of luck and patient analysis paid dividends. In the course of the carefully targeted recovery operations from the bullion room in the aft section of the ship, 28,000 gold and silver coins — featuring an unprecedented range and variety of gold sovereigns — were brought to the surface. After 113 years, the treasure of the Douro finally made it to England

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The Lost Treasure of the Douro

Loaded with coffee, diamonds, gold and affluent passengers, the RMS Douro was on the final leg of a 10,000-mile voyage from the trading ports in Brazil to England on April 1, 1882, when it collided with another ship and sank. Thirteen unlucky people on board the Douro and the entire cargo went down with the ship, presumably lost forever at the bottom of the Bay of Biscay in the Atlantic Ocean. Lost for over a century, but not forgotten...

Disaster on the High Seas

A comfortable and elegant vessel, the Royal Mail Steamer Douro was one of the most popular vessels of its day. She was a particular favorite of wealthy first class passengers traveling from South America to England via Portugal. On April 1, 1882, the Douro was on the final leg of what was fated to be her last voyage. Late that evening a passenger was taking a stroll on deck to get some fresh air before retiring for the night when he noticed a light in the distance. He informed the ship's fourth officer, who identified it as a ship some two miles away. Confident that the Bridge was keeping watch, the officer took no action. Within minutes, the Spanish steamer Yrurac Bat ploughed into the Douro's starboard side. The impact was with such force that the Yrurac Bat rebounded and, with her engines still propelling her forward, struck the Douro a second time.

The Douro immediately stopped its engines as pandemonium broke out among the passengers. Roused from their beds, panic-stricken passengers ran this way and that, not knowing which lifeboat they should report to. It only took 30 minutes for the Douro to sink. As precious time slipped away, the lifeboats were jammed in their davits and no one had a knife to cut them free. When the lifeboats were finally launched, the oarlocks could not be found. To make matters worse, some of the boats were also missing their plugs, which resulted in frantic bailing in order to keep them afloat.

The rule of women and children first was strictly adhered to. Of the six passengers who drowned, none were children. However, one was a woman who, in a state of panic, refused to get into a boat. The captain, four Senior Officers and the Chief and Second Engineers went down with the ship, though 49 passengers and 60 crewmembers were saved. The Yrurac Bat sank in 15 minutes and 30 people lost their lives. Survivors from both ships were rescued by the British steamer Hidalgo.

The Discovery and Salvage of the Douro

Besides passengers, the Douro was also carrying nearly 30,000 gold and silver coins. The entire treasure cargo sank with the ship to the bottom of the Bay of Biscay. For nearly 60 years, nothing else was heard of the Douro and her fabulous treasure. But in 1949, Thomas Pickford, a shipwreck researcher, hastily scribbled a note that read, “Douro, 1882, ?53,000, Bay of Biscay.” At that time, the thought of recovering a cargo of gold from inside a collapsed and rusting iron hull 1,500 feet down was considered impossible, so Pickford set the note aside and forgot about it.

Thirty years later, his son, Nigel Pickford, rediscovered the note. Fascinated by the story of the Douro and its fabulous cargo, the younger Pickford spent the next 13 years researching old newspaper articles, log books, company directors' reports, drawings, personal records, banking records and ancient sea charts. By means of careful analysis of statements made by witnesses and survivors —combined with detailed calculations on ships' speeds, routes and times of departures — Pickford and salvage specialist Sverker Hallstrom determined an initial search area of 150 square miles. Ignoring a rumor that another salvage team had located the Douro and had reported that the wreck was in too poor a condition for any salvage attempt, Hallstrom set sail in search of the Douro on June 4, 1993.

Recovering the Treasure

Equipped with sonar, cameras and other state-of-the-art equipment, the salvage team spent two years searching for the Douro. During that time, they battled terrible weather conditions while discovering a large number of Victorian-era shipwrecks. Many of the wrecks had to be investigated to determine if they were the Douro. By the end of 1994, Hallstrom and Pickford believed they had found the Douro. After retrieving the ship's bell in 1995, the team realized they had the wrong ship. It turned out to be the wreck of the S.S. Gijon, which sank in the same area in 1884. Later that year, the salvage team finally discovered the Douro in a treacherous tangle of old fishing nets and rope. The final confirmation was the discovery of a porcelain plate. When the plate was brought to the surface, it bore the Royal Mail's insignia of a seahorse, proving that the Douro had been found. Excavation work began on the stowage position by Deepsea Worker LTD, an international deep-water, heavy-lift salvage company. The exact location of the bullion room had not been found, but a combination of luck and patient analysis paid dividends. In the course of the carefully targeted recovery operations from the bullion room in the aft section of the ship, 28,000 gold and silver coins — featuring an unprecedented range and variety of gold sovereigns — were brought to the surface. After 113 years, the treasure of the Douro finally made it to England.

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