Star of Russia

The Grand Old Lady
The Grand Old Lady

The Irish Star

Harland and Wolff built the Star of Russia in 1874.  This Belfast shipping company built hundreds of ships, both steam and sail, but is a household name these days due to the infamy of another ship they built, the  Titanic.

The Star of Russia was assigned the official British Reg. No. 63958 and signal NSLB.

Iron hulled and a fully rigged three masted ship, she truly exemplified the grand old square-riggers of the late 1800’s.

Originally built for the Indian jute trade, the Star of Russia was one of a number of similar square-riggers built at the time. This was one of the last great booms of the sailing era, and in the ten years around the time of the commissioning of the Star of Russia, Harland and Wolff built over 110 ships.

The Irish company J.P. Corry commissioned a fleet of 12 iron-hulled ships from Harland and Wolff, and of them the Star of Russia was the largest.

An Esteemed Career

The Star of Russia enjoyed a long career with a number of good passages to her credit.  At the time the Star of Russia made her first journey, the steam ship was encroaching on the clipper trade, making it difficult for the Star’s owners to obtain jute cargoes from India.

Yet the Star of Russia proved to be a speedy and efficient ship, one to rival some of the steam ships of the day.

Her maiden voyage to Calcutta took just 87 days and she returned to London in only 95 days.

On the way she recorded her best days run, covering 388 miles over 23 ½ hours, an average of over 16 ½ knots!

During the journey she also proved her seaworthiness, braving a number of fierce storms throughout the journey. In fact the crew believed it to be some of the wildest weather they had ever experienced.  The journey was actually slowed by having her main upper topsail blown out, and she continued on to Melbourne without being able to set a full topsail.

The speedy journey was made even sweeter by the fact that the Star of Russia had managed to outrun another fully rigged ship completing the same route, the Sobraon, by more than five days. The Sobraon had been carrying passengers to Australia and arguably had more favourable weather for sailing than the ‘Star’ throughout the passage.

Life aboard the Star

Life aboard the Star of Russia during its ocean crossings could best be described as ‘rugged’.

But perhaps the most infamous journey of the Star of Russia took place in 1884 when she transported a 4000-ton cargo, consisting mostly of cement, from London to Melbourne.   This was her tenth journey and she was still under the command of the same skipper, a Captain Simpson.

The ‘Star’ set out from London on the 4th Dec 1884 and arrived in Melbourne 75 days later.

There was often no escaping the damp wet living quarters, the crew lived on meager rations and had to battle through atrocious seas.  There were no such things as safety harnesses in the Star’s day and work on (and above!) the deck was extremely hazardous.

Many of the texts referenced elsewhere in this booklet provide a good insight into life on board the square riggers of the day.

Tragedy on the Star

Twenty years on from her first voyage, on a horrid night in 1895 the Star of Russia was to lose all hands on watch, apart from the helmsman.  That night the wind and sea had been building but the mate waited until the ship began to steer wildly until bringing down any sail.

With the rest of the crew forward the helmsman allowed the ship to luff and the mate and watch were washed overboard never to be seen again.

The helmsman’s dramatic account of the nights events have been recorded in Fenceless Meadows by Bill Adams, which ended as follows:

“The sail reefed, they [the second mates watch] descended to the deck.  Each man in passing me either avoided me or scowled savagely. The second mate hastened aft to the poop.  I, most cold and hungry, a horrid fear upon me, followed his men along the swamped deck to the forecastle.  I entered the forecastle behind the last of them.  They stared at me. ‘ Where are Scot, Dougal and the mate? Where are my watch? A sailor then stepped towards me, then, ‘They’re drowned,’ he said ‘You luffed!’

“This tragedy gave the ship an unenviable reputation as a man killer.  I don’t think it was really merited, she had no more incidents of the kind recorded against her, and the probability is that she was in no sense to blame.  She was a fast and beautiful ship, like all her sisters, and one cannot feel a pang of pity for a ship thus branded for life with the mark of Cain.”

A Change of Hands

In March 1898, the Star of Russia was sold to Shaw, Savill and Co.

Two years later the ship was sold to the Alaska Packers Association, who was established to service the growing salmon fishing industry in Western Alaska. Their impressive fleet of square-riggers transported supplies and labor north from San Francisco and then returned at the end of the season with canned fish for the markets.

Also amongst the fleet was the Star of India, which is still sailing American waters to this date.  It is now fully restored and carrying a different cargo, tourists visiting the San Diego Maritime Museum.

Interestingly the Euterpe and other ships lost their original names as the Alaska Packers Association based all of their ship names on the pride of the fleet, the Star of Russia.

The Alaskan fishing trade was a fitting twilight to an esteemed career.  The Star of Russia raced with a fleet of 15 other square-riggers to and from the fishing grounds in Alaska once a year, spending the rest of the winters at rest with her sister ships.

The Alaska Packers Association also acquired a number of Harland and Wolf’s iron hulled ships, and could boast one of the last great fleets of square-riggers in the world.  Among them were some of the Star of Russia’s original sister ships including the equally speedy and beautiful Star of Bengal and the Star of France. While she was re-rigged down to a barque, the Star proved her speediness in many of the races north and homeward, her fastest passage being in 1924 when she placed first with the Star of Greenland on the return to San Francisco.

The Star was finally moved to the backwaters of the New Hebrides where she was used as a hulk primarily for copra cargoes and bore the name Dupetit Thours.

In Epics Of Square Rigged Ships, Charles W Domville-Fife describes the surprise a Captain Olsen received when he laid eyes on the ship he had once sailed:

“She was hulked, stripped of her towering spars, and even her deckhouse was gone; this was all that remained of the Star of Russia, once a famous Belfast clipper, and to quote the Captain “one of the smartest ships that ever sailed the seas.”

By 1953 she was lying on Port Vila’s harbour floor. Having been battered on her mooring by numerous cyclones, she surrendered herself to the sea.

The Star was to complete her last voyage in 1926, when she was sold to the French to be used as a cargo hulk in the South Seas. In April of that year she left Tacoma bound for Apia, Samoa arriving 43 days later.

There, she was converted into a hulk by Burns Philp and renamed La Perouse. She was later moved to Noumea and served as a coal barge, under the name Bouganville.

She was later moved on to Sydney and in 1929 she was re-united with her original owner, Sir James Corry. He boarded what was once the grand ‘Star’ and found that while her hull was in fine condition; the rest of the ship had been either stripped or left to deteriorate.

For more information on the Star of Russia and to get a copy of our printable P.D.F File on the Star of Russia click Here

Nautilus Watersports runs dive to the Star Of Russia several times a week. Due to its location viability is limited however this usually ads to the mystic of the dive. Nautilus also runs regular night dive to the Star as well.

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