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The Unlucky Olivebank?
The Unlucky OLIVEBANK?

It isnt often we acknowledge the days of sail, our thoughts of the Clyde centre on steam and diesel, but for a time, the Clyde was renowned for it's steel sailing ships, and we are fortunate to have one of them, the GLENLEE, at Yorkhill to remind us that there was a time when such ships were built.

In the years 1892 and 1894 the yard of Mackie & Thomson, Govan built to the order of Andrew Weir & Co, the famous, then Glasgow-based, shipping company, three steel barques, the OLIVEBANK, the CEDARBANK and the FALKLANDBANK. The first two were sisters, both constructed in 1892 and by far the biggest sailing vessels owned by the company at 326 feet in length and around 2824 tons.

It is said that OLIVEBANK was an unlucky ship, and she had quite a bit of fame, or infamy, attached to her. To be fair, we have to remember that practically every sailing ship had a degree of bad luck, indeed, nearly every sailing ship owned by Andrew Weir eventually came to grief, as opposed to the more mundane slow demise at the hands of scrappers. Modern seafarers dont know they are born!

The FALKLANDBANK was a smaller vessel, built in 1884, of 1913 grt and 265 feet. She laster until 1907, when, like so many sailing ships (and steamers) before her, the cruel sea somehow claimed her. She sailed from Port Talbot to Valparaiso on 7th November 1907 and was never seen again.

The CEDARBANK was unluckier (if such a word exists) in that not only did she disappear in much the same way after leaving Halifax, Nova Scotia on the 9th May 1917 (by this time owned by Norwegian owners), but she caught fire as she entered San Franciso in July 1893. This was quite a common occurence on vessels in those days, especially ships that carried very dry cargos. She had to be filled with water to douse the fire and sank, later refloated. An unlucky ship?

None compared to OLIVEBANK for reputation. Despite the fact she outlived her sisters by many years, she seemed to attract bad luck, or rather, she seemed to attract more attention than any other Weir vessel, becoming well known to many. Her bad luck reputation stemmed initially from her ability to find head winds, which meant she was delayed coming into and going out of ports. Quite why the elements did not favour her in such a personal and singular manner is unknown, but perhaps she earned the reputation, then, as seamen tend to do, they enforced it through superstition.

She really earned her unlucky label on two voyages. Under the command of Captain Carse, she was 'wearing ship', a manoeuvere similar to tacking, but bringing the stern into the wind as opposed to the bow, as she approached Sydney Heads. Considered safer and less stressful than tacking, but, it had no better effect on her. A particularly bad blast snapped off the top of the mizzen mainmast and she had to be towed to Newcastle (Australia) for repairs. She was out of commission for six months. This was in 1909.

On her next round voyage when she left Hamburg for Santa Rosalia. Plagued again with head winds all the way! If that was only what troubled that particular voyage as she entered, late as usual, into the port, her crew could have been forgiven for being entirely satisfied. Loaded with coke and other 'patent' fuels it was her misfortune to to show her own exasperation by igniting!

The fire began in the after store-room and immediately efforts were made to batten the hatch of the aft hold. The fire raged between the decks aft and due to the ship having useless and ineffectual fire fighting equipment, other vessels came to her aid, but their efforts had little effect on the flames which were engulfing the entire poop deck.

The GLENLEE - Typical of steel hulled sailing vessels of the late Victorian era. Photo: Gary Lucas

The local authorities were urged to do something, otherwise, this ship could pose more than a little local difficulty, packed as she was with combustible fuels. Electric pumps were brought down to the quayside and filled the ship with water, so much so that she grounded and began to list to port. Her captain assessed her moorings and believed that if they were slackened she would right. This did indeed do the trick and slid into deeper water. By now the fire was under control, but it had one last dying effort, an explosion blew the aft hatches into the air, but also, depriving the last embers of any oxygen, blew itself out.

The aft area of the ship was gutted, the poop totally destroyed and the ship was towed out into the roads to await orders. It would be some time before new stores and new sails (all having been burnt) would come from Britain, so the crew settled to wait.

In June it was decided that the ship was sufficiently seaworthy to sail for repairs, but, old lady luck turned nasty - very nasty, again.

On the nights of June 29th and 30th a terrible hurricane hit the port. In violent winds and torrents of rain, the ship was thrown onto the breakwater, damaging her plates. In the middle of the storm, a Danish ordinary seaman fell down the hold and was killed.

The crew had to wait until the storm abated before they could carry the dead man ashore, and when they did, they could not believe their eyes

The town had practically gone! Great boulders from the mountains had thundered down, and what the hurricane didn't rip away, the boulders smashed into.

Thankfully the ship was not too greatly damaged and orders were sent for her to go from Tacoma to Limerick with a cargo of grain.

Eventually the ship made Limerick - but not after of course, being delayed by headwinds.

From the on the ship passed through many hands and apparently without incident. We can only assume both head winds and reputation dogged her anyway, but she survived a lot longer than many of her peers, as steam, and by now, motor ships, drove sail from the world's oceans. Indeed, despite not being very fast or reputable, she was, by all accounts greatly liked. She had character. Briefly she was renamed CALEDONIA by one of her Norwegian owners, but changed back to OLIVEBANK in 1923

In 1939 she was still sailing and probably, who knows, may have survived even longer to battle her headwinds, but the final fate of OLIVEBANK was approaching. On 8th of September the world had recently been transformed by Britain's declaration of war on Germany. Ships were now targets. And amongst the first was this spirited, elderly sailing vessel as she struggled home to Mariehamn, through the North Sea off Jutland, having left Barry Docks. No hand pulled the trigger however, it was just her luck. She sailed into the path of a floating mine, it detonated. 14 of her crew, including her captain, Carl Granith, perished. Seven were rescued two days later by a trawler, the Danish TALONA.

A sad end.

So she was ultimately 'unlucky' but I dont think she earned that title. A much better title to remember the Govan built ship would be, I would suggest, the 'plucky' OLIVEBANK.

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