Lost at Sea

Another lockdown morning, another chance to explore the neighborhood…

We see the Pompallier Cemetery when we drive north for weekend shopping trips. It looks pretty dramatic from the road, old gravesites on a hill. But on foot it was not quite so old, the monuments not so ornate.

Lee found this one and showed it to me. How sad that the mother died, relatively young, just a few years after her son was lost at sea.

Enter Wikipedia. The SS Canastota (it seems to be misspelled on the headstone) is the subject of a fascinating but very long article. I’ll summarize for you…

The Canastota was a bit over 400 feet in length. Built in Scotland in 1907 as the Falls of Orchy, she moved coal and other cargo around for a few years, did a little troop transport during WWI, and was sold and renamed as the Canastota in 1915. She settled into a regular run moving petroleum from America to Australia and New Zealand.

For her last voyage, she was hauling “benzine” or “case-oil”. That’s gasoline to me (and petrol to my Kiwi friends). Since there was no refining capacity in Australia or New Zealand at that time, they had to bring the refined — and more flammable — gas from America on ships. And bulk transport was in its infancy, so most of the trade was in thin-walled 5-gallon cases with tin seams.

These containers sweated and leaked (we didn’t get the jerrycan you still see strapped on the back of Jeeps until stealing the design from the Germans in WWII) . In an enclosed hold the vapors built up… boom! And, and, and… the containers leaked more when they were handled multiple times. The containers in the hold of the Canastota had been handled a lot, because this load of fuel was going back to America due to faulty refining. It had too much sulfur and so was discoloring the metalwork on the Humbers and Archers and Phaetons being driven by Australia’s smart set.

There was a maritime search, although later some said more should have been done. There was an inquiry, although again it was criticized as being somewhere between a rush job and a cover up. The Smith’s Weekly newspaper did a series of sensational stories accusing all kinds of negligence and wrongdoing, calling the ship a “floating bomb”. But the only legal consequence of this ill-conceived journey was a fine of £1 for loading the cargo without a proper permit.

And so Captain Lockie, a Master of 12 years, a dozen white officers, and three times that many Chinese (and one Peruvian) crew were gone without a trace. His mother Mrs Greenshields Lockie died a few years later. Eventually we learned how to ship flammable liquids more safely.

Whew! What a journey our morning walk turned into. Back in time 100 years, around the world many times, across the expansion of the petroleum economy, flying past two World Wars and the desperate crewmen dying in the Tasman Sea, peeking into the halls and back rooms where commerce and justice meet, and finally coming to rest aside the deathbed of a grieving mother … and back in time for tea.

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