Forum logo How much is known about the shipwreck at Nikumaroro?

On the night of Friday, November 29, 1929 the steamer S.S. Norwich City made an unscheduled stop at Gardner Island. She was under the ownership of the Reardon Smith Line, Captain Daniel Hamer, Master, and about halfway on her run from Melbourne to Honolulu to pick up a cargo bound for Vancouver. With empty holds, the freighter’s 397 foot length was riding high, especially at the bow, and her 53.5 foot beam rolled with the heavy swell. Amidships her 412 H.P. oil-fueled, triple-expansion steam engine was serviced by nine Arab firemen, while topside a crew of four officers and 22 British seamen completed the ship’s company. Her keel had been laid in Hartlepool, England in 1911 and she was registered out of Bideford in 1919 as ship no. 132596, gross tonnage 5,587 on the Mercantile Navy List.

According to the testimony of Henry Lott of Folkestone, England, Second Officer, given at a Naval Court held December 9, 1929, in Apia, Samoa:

The first thing I knew was at 5 past 11 there was a crash and the vessel went up on the reef. I jumped off the settee in my room, went outside, and returned and put on some clothes. I went straight to the bridge for orders.

The Norwich City was making water in two of her six holds so Captain Hamer ordered everyone to gather in the galley and wait for daylight.

After a considerable time I noticed smoke coming from the fiddley. I looked down in No. 3 [hold] and could just see flames down below.

Hamer ordered the lifeboats lowered but the mountainous seas breaking against the stranded ship ripped one boat from its davit and swept the Captain overboard.

By that time the ship was a furnace .... We had the intention of waiting on board till daylight. [Then] she started exploding down below.

Those who could took to the remaining lifeboat but it was no sooner launched than it was capsized by a wave. Lott was swept to the reef, then back to the ship, and finally, around daybreak, found himself on the beach. In all, five British seamen and six Arab firemen were lost. The 24 survivors were rescued five days later by ships which had set out from Samoa when the first SOS was received.

After two rescue ships arrived from Samoa the survivors were forced to move to the “lee side” of the island because the surf was too severe near the wreck for boats to take them off the island. It is not clear from the available accounts just where on the shore the rescue was effected A note sent by Captain Hamer on December 4th to the captain of one of the rescue ships provides an interesting list of the needs of Europeans marooned on Gardner Island for five days, “… Please send as much water as you can as we have none. We have meat but a case of milk would come in useful as would matches, chlorodyne as some of us have diarrhea and any old boots (one pair size tens) and any old hats and tobacco.” For a complete report of and discussion on the wreck of the Norwich City, see Norwich City.

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