The Tale of the S.S. Antinoe – The Most Famous Shipping Disaster of the 1920s!

The Tale of the Antinoe

These days, technologies such as sonar, radar and satellites warn us of dangerous weather and shipping hazards in our paths when we head out beyond sight of land. Helicopters, rigid-shell lifeboats with inbuilt motors, and clear and easy radio communications make rescue at sea easier and safer. But imagine what high seas rescue was like before these machines and technologies were invented. Imagine trying to affect a rescue in a roaring hurricane not with a helicopter, but with a wooden, oared lifeboat. Imagine life-or-death communications where you didn’t have radio or walkie-talkies – just the flashing pulses of a manually-operated Morse-lamp. No GPS. No satellite tracking – just maps, charts, maritime chronometers and a pair of compasses to find your way.

Imagine all these challenges and more, which were faced by the men who carried out one of the most famous ocean rescues of the early 20th century.

The S.S. Antinoe is completely forgotten today. If you stopped most people in the street and asked, they would have absolutely no idea what it is. And yet, this was an event which made international headlines when the news broke. It turned ordinary sailors into celebrities and heroes before they’d even set their feet back on dry land! A tale of endurance, bravery and sheer ballsiness not yet coming to a motion-picture theatre near you! Forget “The Perfect Storm”, the events surrounding the S.S. Antinoe are far more spectacular!

Wednesday, 20th of January, 1926 – The Roosevelt Departs

The year is 1926. American ocean liner, the S.S. President Roosevelt, is steaming out of New York Harbor. In charge of this vessel is Captain George Fried. The Roosevelt’s ultimate destination is the port of Bremerhaven, Germany, but it will make various stop-offs along the south coast of England along the way.

The voyage to Europe will be long. A week at sea at least. The weather was bad before the ship had even left American waters, but it couldn’t stop just because it was wet and cloudy – the Roosevelt had 200 passengers on board who had paid for safe passage, along with several thousand bags of U.S. Mail.

Before the days of satellite weather-tracking, the main way for ships to attain accurate weather forecasts was in the form of the telegraph. Ships out at sea sent Morse Code radio-messages between each other, warning of things as storms, icebergs, and other ships in distress. The President Roosevelt didn’t know it yet, but it was sailing into a storm of unimaginable ferocity.

A postcard of the S.S. President Roosevelt from the 1920s.

The Roosevelt was not just steaming into a storm. It was steaming into one of the fiercest hurricanes ever witnessed in the north Atlantic. Over the coming days, the situation on board ship deteriorated significantly and a number of measures had to be taken to ensure the safety of the passengers and of the ship. Roosevelt passengers were kept below-deck, forbidden from going outside, for their own safety. Lifelines were thrown up outside and inside the ship, to catch people who stumbled or fell when the ship rolled.

When it was safe to cook, stewards would soak table-cloths in water and wring them out before laying the tables. The wet fabric would prevent place-settings and dishes from sliding off the tables in the dining saloon when the ship rolled or plunged through another wave. And things only got worse as the voyage continued. By the third day, Capt. Fried ordered the ship’s engines to be run at reduced speed. It would be pointless to operate them at full-tilt and burn precious coal in a futile attempt to get anywhere in this storm. And so the Roosevelt laboured onwards.

Sunday, 24th of January, 1926 – The Antinoe Calls for Help

Despite the raging storm, Capt. Fried of the Roosevelt was determined that nothing more than the most essential precautions be taken, to prevent causing a panic among the passengers. As a result, regular crew-shifts went on as normal. There were no double watches or any other abnormal crew activity. Everyone was just expected to do their regular duties. If the situation got significantly worse, then extra measures would be taken.

With this mindset, the crew went about their duties. At four o’clock on Sunday morning, wireless-operator Kenneth Upton relieved his colleague and took up his position in the radio-room. He slipped on his headphones, sat down at the desk, and prepared himself for a long, boring shift of a whole lot of nothing. Considering the storm, there was probably nothing going on out there! How wrong he was!

Not two hours later, at 5:40am, a barely discernible message gurgled through the air. Because of the hurricane, radio reception was appallingly bad, and Mr. Upton could barely hear the frantically hammered-out Morse Code.

The cry for help came from the Antinoe, a British freighter-vessel which was fighting for life. It was severely damaged by the storm, unable to move, developing a heavy starboard list and had lost all her lifeboats, which had been ripped off her decks or smashed to pieces by the storm. She had no way of giving her position with great accuracy as the hurricane made it impossible for the crew to take a reading of their position by the sun or the stars.

Realising the gravity of the situation, Upton immediately informed Capt. Fried.

Using the Antinoe’s feeble radio-transmitter as a reference-point, Capt. Fried was able to determine through triangulation (using two known positions to find a third) the Antinoe’s location. Unfortunately, he also determined that it would take six hours just to get there!

The Tale of the Antinoe

The Antinoe was captained by Harry Tose. It had departed its port of embarkation on the 14th of January and had sailed without incident until the 23rd when it ran into the same hurricane battering the S.S. President Roosevelt. Heavy seas had damaged the ship severely. In all the heaving, rocking and rolling, an ice-chest had been knocked loose when the ship rolled from a wave. The heavy ice-chest had fallen and smashed against the ship’s steering-mechanism, rendering the vessel impossible to steer.

Despite throwing the damaged ice-chest and other broken parts overboard and trying to fix the broken steering mechanism, the ship was in sufficient enough danger that Capt. Tose ordered an S.O.S. signal to be sent out. Two ships responded: One was the S.S. President Roosevelt. The other was the famous Cunard ocean-liner, the R.M.S. Aquitania. In the end, it was the Roosevelt which dared to stay alongside the stricken Antinoe and attempt a rescue-mission in the midst of an Atlantic hurricane.

The Arrival of the S.S. President Roosevelt

Around midday, the two vessels found each other. Capt. Tose of the Antinoe wanted his ship taken in-tow and hauled back to safety…wherever that was! Capt. Fried agreed, but had no idea HOW to do it! Three attempts at bringing the Antinoe under tow failed.  The weather was too rough and either the towline never caught on, or it would snap once it had been fastened to the Antinoe.

By that evening, the situation was spinning further and further out of control. The nonstop pounding of the waves had smashed in the Antinoe’s decks. This flooded the engine-room, killing the generators and depriving the ship of all electrical power. Now, she had no lights, no heating and no radio! And to cap it off…it started snowing in the middle of the ocean! Capt. Fried knew that he if abandoned the Antinoe now, her crew were almost certainly going to die.

The raging storm was wreaking havoc on both ships. The wind, the crashing waves, the pitch blackness and the white-out blizzard conditions made keeping visual contact between both ships almost impossible! For a period of several hours on Sunday night, it was impossible for the Roosevelt to see the Antinoe – the blinding snow rendered the Roosevelt’s powerful searchlights impotent, and Capt. Fried feared the very real possibility of a single wave slamming both ships together and sending them to the bottom of the sea!

The Antinoe had no lifeboats of her own, so to try and carry out a rescue-mission, Capt. Fried ordered his officers to use their own lifeboats to row across to the Antinoe and bring back survivors. The Chief Officer, Mr. Miller called for volunteers. Positioning the ship to launch the lifeboat, Miller and eight men got into the boat and it was lowered away into the raging sea. It was a complete disaster! The ship rocked unexpectedly, slamming the lifeboat against the hull! Two men were thrown out and were drowned at once. The other seven were quickly hauled back on-deck. The lifeboat was considered a total loss.

Monday 25th of January, 1926 – Lifeboats Lost to the Sea

By the next day, things were getting desperate. In numerous failed attempts to maintain contact with the Antinoe, the Roosevelt lost another four of her own wooden lifeboats and was running out of patience and time…especially time! Because, gallant as Capt. Fried’s actions and intentions were, he could not stay alongside the struggling Antinoe indefinitely. His supplies of fuel and food were finite. On top of that, he had passengers who he was supposed to take to Europe. He had mail on board which he was supposed to deliver to Germany!

So what? That was the attitude that Fried took. And he told anyone who asked him, just so! He was not about to leave until the job was done. And that was final! And that was what he told his bosses, too! In fact, Fried sent telegrams back to his company offices in New York, informing his superiors of the situation, and stating quite firmly that come Hell or High Water, he would stay alongside the Antinoe until the ship either sank, until an effective rescue had been completed, or until he could no-longer render assistance.

These words of defiance which were flashed across the ocean went on to have an incredible effect which few, least of all, the people at the centre of this drama, could possibly have foreseen. Trapped at sea, nobody on either the S.S. President Roosevelt, or the Antinoe could possibly know that Capt. Fried’s telegrams back to New York were at that very moment making the rescue of the Antinoe an internationally-observed incident!

Tuesday, 26th of January, 1926 – Rescue At Last!

The next day, the weather finally started to let up. The Roosevelt was able to re-establish contact via searchlight with the Antinoe and rescue-attempts began anew. A lifeboat was successfully launched and rowed over to the Antinoe.

Upon sighting the boat, Capt. Tose insisted that all married men, with the exception of himself, should go first. As a result, the first dozen men to abandon the Antinoe were the ones with wives and families waiting at home. Rowing back and forth between both ships for several hours, the crew and captain of the Antinoe were successfully evacuated to the decks of the Roosevelt. The lifeboat, badly worn out by the rough seas, was cast adrift.

One last attempt was made on the 27th to rescue the badly-damaged Antinoe but when once again the towline snapped, all aboard agreed that to keep trying was a waste of time. They left the ship to founder, and then sailed for Plymouth, England.

Back on Dry Land!

The toll had been heavy. The Antinoe was lost. Two crew from the Roosevelt had drowned at sea and six of her lifeboats had been destroyed by the hurricane during a rescue that had lasted three and a half days! But all twenty-five members of the crew on board the Antinoe had been saved!

When the Roosevelt and her crew arrived in Plymouth, England at the end of the month, they were greeted like heroes! Wild applause followed them, and reporters jostled for interviews! Newsreel cameras rolled, flash-bulbs popped! Mrs. Tose ran up on board the Roosevelt to be with her husband. Later, she publicly thanked Captain George Fried in front of the newsreel cameras, for delivering her husband, Captain Harry Tose, and his crew, safely from the jaws of certain death.

News of the dramatic rescue flashed around the world as fast as telegraph could take it. Articles appeared in the Straits Times in Singapore, the Buffalo Evening News in the United States, the Argus in Melbourne, and The Queenslander in Brisbane. The arrival of the triumphant President Roosevelt and its exhausted passengers and crew was filmed for posterity by newsreel cameras when it docked in England.

The saga of the Antinoe, and the ship which rescued its crew became legend! When Captain Fried and his men returned to America, they were treated once again to a heroes’ welcome, and given a ticker-tape parade through the center of New York City! The Antinoe was probably one of the most famous sea-rescues in history since the Titanic, and would not be eclipsed in peacetime until the sinking of the Andrea Doria in the 1950s.

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This article was originally published in The Australia Times – HISTORY magazine in March, 2015. Permission for republishing on throughouthistory.com was granted by the original author and copyright holder…me! 
 

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