“Breakers ahead” was a frightening cry from a lookout on a sailing ship. It forewarned of impending disaster, that the ship was too close to shore.
That horror lay ahead of the big and elegant sailing ship, Stephen Whitney, as she departed New York for Liverpool on Monday, October 18, 1847, with a call scheduled into Cork Harbour.
She was a packet ship in Robert Kermit's Red Star Line, named after a company investor, New York businessman Stephen Whitney.
The 1,034-ton ship had 76 passengers on board and a crew of 34. Cargo included 1,000 bales of cotton; 10,000 bushels of corn; 600 boxes of cheese; 1,000 barrels of flour and twenty boxes of clocks.
On Wednesday, November 10, she was nearing Mizen Head after an uneventful voyage. Weather was “hazy,” making visibility difficult. The haze turned into thick fog, never welcome at sea. The ship stopped, to ascertain depth soundings and sail was reduced, with wind strengthening.
The main light then for ships to identify in that area when approaching the Irish coastline was on Cape Clear. That had been established in 1818 on the southern part of the island. However, the maritime community was not happy with it, claiming that its position on top of a cliff meant it was frequently obscured by fog and mist.
Captain Charles W. Popham, in his 50s and originally from Cork, was in command of the Stephen Whitney and was experiencing exactly what mariners had complained about.
Cape Clear light could not be detected in the weather conditions. According to reports, it appears that he and his officers mistook a then light at Crookhaven for the Old Head of Kinsale. The ship was actually off Brow Head near Crookhaven.
Later inquiry reports said officers identified it was too near to land, changed course “clawed offshore and made offing towards sea.” But course was adjusted again, with the apparent belief that they were near Cork Harbour, but that took them back into danger.
Around 10pm the dreaded shout went up “breakers ahead.” Desperate attempts were made to turn the ship away but its stern struck the western Calf Island in Roaringwater Bay. Twice more waves smashed it broadside onto the rocks and it broke up quickly.
In the ensuing shock and chaos, 92 died. Some were thrown overboard. Some passengers apparently thought that bales of cotton washed out of the holed cargo area were rocks, tried to climb onto them and drowned.
Captain Popham was killed when dashed against rocks while trying to swim ashore. One of the crew who survived, William Smith from Baltimore in Maryland, described what happened to a subsequent inquiry: “We had all the necessary boats but not time to launch them. Some of us were washed onto rocks and, in the dark, crept up them until we felt grass under our feet and got to a cabin where people did their best to help us.
They didn’t seem to have any turf or wood, but they kept burning their straw all night to keep us warm and gave us what food of their own that they had.”
Next day a Revenue Cutter from Schull, sent to the area, reported passing through “a sea of wood,” from the remains of the ship. During the next few days, bodies were washed ashore, “a child, a richly dressed lady wearing three gold rings, a sailor with only one shoe,” were amongst the descriptions.
Many of the names of those who died never became known, apparently because only passengers who occupied cabins were recorded, not those in steerage class.
The tragedy led to a review of navigation warning lights along the Cork Coast and the replacement of Cape Clear light by the Fastnet.