Mysteries of the Sea: The Lost Crew of the Lamorna

The steamer Tees, which found the wreckage of the Lamorna near Vancouver Island in 1904

The British ship Lamorna sailed from Puget Sound on March 1, 1904, with a cargo of wheat destined for Australia. The 2,159-tonne vessel, under the command of Captain Crichton, ran into a terrible southeaster shortly after departing Tacoma on March 6. Wreckage believed to be from the Lamorna washed ashore on Vancouver Island a few days later, but neither Captain Crichton nor his crew were ever seen alive again.

But the disappearance of the crew of the Lamorna is not the strangest part of this epic mystery of the sea.

Officers from the steamer Tees spotted wreckage at Vancouver Island shortly after the storm, with the officers identifying portions of Lamorna's deck boats, deckhouses, hatches and spars. Chaff from the ship's wheat cargo that had washed ashore seemed to clearly establish the fact that the lost ship had been found, and that the ship had been utterly demolished by the gale. Meanwhile, the schooner Alliance recovered one of Lamorna's empty lifeboats adrift in the Pacific, far south of where the wreckage had been discovered.

The official explanation for the ship's demise, as stated by insurance underwriters, was that the ship had been damaged by the storm but managed to survive, and that Captain Crichton had probably attempted to sail the Lamorna back to Puget Sound before a second gale came along and drove the ship onto the rocks of Vancouver Island. No second gale was reported by other ships in the vicinity at the time, however. The owners of the ship, Kerr, Gifford & Co. of Portland, Oregon, filed an insurance claim for $20,000. The insurer, Lloyd's of London, refused to settle the claim after conflicting accounts emerged.

The schooner Alliance, which recovered one of Lamorna's empty lifeboats

Around the same time another report came to light, which clearly conflicted with the official version of what had happened to the lost ship. A third report made a month later by the captain and crew of a German ship further deepened the mystery, and additional reports only added to the confusion.

The captain of a coastal schooner, the W.H. Smith, reported that he had seen the lost ship off Coos Bay, battered but intact, after the crew of the Tees claimed that they had found the wreckage of the Lamorna on the rocky coast of Vancouver Island.

According to the captain of the W.H. Smith, the Lamorna was spotted at noon on March 7, forty miles west-northwest of St. George Reef, which is approximately 400 miles south of Vancouver Island. The captain of the schooner was familiar with the Lamorna and insisted that he could not have been mistaken.

In May of 1904, the German ship Artemis sighted a derelict drifting in the Pacific, far from land. But there was something quite odd about the abandoned vessel-- it was sailing on its own accord, defying nature by plowing its way directly into head winds. Even though the ship did not respond to any of the Artemis' signals and no living persons could be seen aboard, someone-- or something-- must be at the helm of the vessel.

Captain Walker of the Artemis was perplexed by the mysterious sight. When the winds shifted to the east the captain steered his ship southwest, and so did the derelict ship. The phantom ship then threw her head to the east, a maneuver that would be impossible without somebody sailing her. The strange ship then began to execute a series of elaborate maneuvers, laying up to the wind, changing her course, and coming in and around the stern of the German ship until it was alongside the Artemis. Captain Walker got out his glasses and examined the ship from bow to stern. He saw no sight of a crew, but he could clearly make out the name of the vessel: Lamorna.

Puzzled, Captain Walker consulted the shipping records and saw that the Lamorna was hundreds of miles off course from where she should have been and was long overdue. He sent a signal of inquiry to the Lamorna but received no response. For several hours the phantom ship sailed alongside the Artemis, whose crew blasted sirens and fired signal rockets, but to no avail.

Captain Walker and the rest of his crew were so engrossed by the mystery of the abandoned ship that they sailed dangerously close to the shore, narrowly missing the submerged rocks. Amazingly, the Lamorna veered out of the way of the rocks on her own accord, but soon disappeared from view. One witness claimed that she plunged into the sea in one fell swoop, while others said that the Lamorna turned, steered a straight course for the open sea, and sped away. At any rate, the Lamorna was never to be seen again.
But that wasn't the last sighting of the mysterious British vessel.

The lost ship's owners, Kerr, Gifford & Co., claimed to have received a strange telegram from Australia on March 17. According to the message, the keeper of the Cape Bea lighthouse in Victoria said that he had spotted the Lamorna sailing erratically in the waters off the cape.

On August 10, a capstan bar was picked up off the coast of Vancouver Island by the steamer Danube. The steamer's captain, Captain Locke, told Canadian authorities that the oaken bar bore the name Lamorna in two places, which seemingly indicated that the ship had indeed crashed somewhere along Lugwell Island as initial reports suggested.

If the Lamorna went down near Vancouver Island on March 6, 1904, then how does one explain the ship's sighting on March 7-- some four hundred miles away-- by the captain of the W.H. Smith? And how does one explain the eyewitness accounts from the captain and crew of the Artemis? Or the lighthouse keeper in Australia?

And if the wreck of the Lamorna was as sudden and as violent as the physical evidence suggests, thereby making it impossible to man the lifeboats, then why have no bodies ever been recovered? It appears that the mystery will never be solved, which only makes the tragic tale of the Lamorna even more bewildering.

Vancouver Daily World, April 4, 1904. Page 1
The San Francisco Call, April 8, 1904. Page 14
The Tacoma Times, Aug. 10, 1904. Page 1
The Tennessean, April 30, 1905. Page 35
New-York Tribune, July 12, 1908. Page 37