The Gales of November: Mataafa Shipwreck

  • September 1, 2012

A gale swept Lake Superior after extraordinary high pressure began to fall on November 27, 1905. Snow, ice pellets, freezing temperatures and mountainous seas caused havoc all over the big lake. The most spectacular accident claimed the Mataafa.

The ore-laden freighter departed Duluth, towing the consort barge James Nasmyth, in the late afternoon of November 27, only to be attacked on the open lake. After a futile battle with the elements, the Captain of Mataafa decided to turn back and seek shelter. He managed to turn his freighter and the trailing barge, but trying to bring both through the port entry in these conditions was unwise. As a result, the James Nasmyth was left at anchor on the lake to ride out the storm.

On the run for the harbor entry, Mataafa got caught by the current and was pushed off course. The hull hit bottom, smashed the pier and soon lost power. The ship and all on board were at the mercy of the wind, waves, and current; it was driven aground and broken into three pieces.

Of the twelve sailors on the settling stern, only three managed to work their way forward to the shelter of the Captain’s cabin. Nine perished from exposure when the boilers went out, taking the last of the heat. It was not until conditions subsided on the morning hours of November 19 that the sailors could be rescued.

As a sideline, the barge James Nasmyth left to the mercy of the seas in 1905, survived the tumult in tact.

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