|For over a century the once estimable
reputation of a certain Captain Klaus Visman has, sadly, been tarnished. This is owing to
the outcome of legal proceedings that were followed after his ship, the 'Prins Frederik',
was involved in a collision with another, the 'Marpessa", in 1890. While the other
ship was relatively undamaged, carrying the passengers of both ships to safety, the 'Prins
Frederik' suffered a more dramatic fate, sinking to the sea bed with her cargo of silver
coins and other precious goods.
of the 'Prins Frederik' has proved most elusive to her many would-be salvors over the
years. It is thought that when she is found and positively identified, her exact position
might allow her researchers and other historians to restore the late Captain Visman's good
name for once and for all. During the court case, the circumstances of the collision,
including the speeds at which both ships were travelling that foggy night, were required
of each party. The court eventually ruled in favor of the 'Marpessa', even though it is
speculated that the information in her logbook was altered to spare her captain being
found as the guilty party.
The 'Prins Frederik', built in 1882 by J.Elder & Co. of
Glasgow, Scotland, was a screw-propelled iron steam ship with a gross tonnage of 2 978
tons. Like her sister ship, the 'Prins Alexander', the luxuriously-fitted vessel was built
for the Dutch shipping line, Maatschappy Nederland, and offered her passengers a most
comfortable journey to the East.
Under Captain Klaus Visman, the steamer departed from
Amsterdam, Netherlands, on 21 June 1890. She was carrying a full complement of crew and
193 passengers en route to Java, Indonesia, a long and arduous voyage. Apart from a
general cargo and the usual mails, she also had on board 400 000 silver coins, which were
locked in the ship's secure bullion room. The coins, stowed in wooden casks, were intended
for the payment of the Dutch army in Batavia (Jakarta).
The 'Prins Frederik' made a short call at Southampton,
England, departing on 24 June. By 1.30 p.m. the following day, she was just north of the
Bay of Biscay. The island of Ushant was observed bearing SE quarter E, at a distance of
about 10 nautical miles and the captain ordered the ship's course to be altered to SW
quarter W. At the time, the vessel was making full speed of about 11.5 knots. At around 6
p.m., when increasingly foggy conditions hampered the visibility, the ship reduced speed
in accordance with standard marine measures.
In the meantime, a British steamship, the 'Marpessa',
commanded by Captain Geary, was travelling across the Bay of Biscay in the opposite
direction. At 10.40 p.m. on 25 June, Captain Geary calculated that his ship was in the
position 47.00 (degree)N 6.30 (degree)W when he heard another ship's whistle a little in
front on the port side. Later, Captain Geary claimed that the 'Marpessa' was travelling at
only 3 knots and that upon hearing the other ship's whistle he had quickly put the ship
These avoidance measures were not enough, however, and the
two ships collided. The bows of the 'Marpessa' were stoved in, and the 'Prins Frederik'
was holed around its engine rooms on the starboard side. Shortly after the collision the
'Prins Frederik' sank. However, her boats had already been lowered and all passengers and
crew were taken on board the 'Marpessa'. The forehold off the 'Marpessa' filled with water
but the rest of the ship remained sound. According to Captain Visman, the 'Prins Frederik'
was not travelling at full speed, as had been suggested by Captain Geary, but only at 2-3
knots. Like Geary, Visman claimed that as soon as the other ship's whistle was heard the
'Prins Frederik's' engines were stopped and the ship put in reverse.
As soon as news of the disaster reached the owners of the
'Prins Frederik' they began legal action for damages against the owners of the 'Marpessa'.
During the case, the First Officer of the 'Marpessa' was found guilty of altering the
logbook after the collision to show the speed of his vessel to be 6 knots rather than 8
knots. Geary explained this away as a mere correction of a clerical error, and the court
eventually found in favour of the 'Marpessa' and against the 'Prins Frederik'. It had been
in the interests of both captains to minimize in their reports the speeds of their
respective ships prior to the collision, and it is more than likely for this reason that
there is a discrepancy in the positions given.
Sverker Hallstrom came to know about the 'Prins Frederik' in
1989, at which time a French company, Taurus International, was under contract by the UK
Salvage Association to find the wreck in question. Taurus International, in turn, had an
arrangement with another French company, Iframer, which was believed to have located the
wreck. The company had come across a wreck closely matching the description of the 'Prins
Frederik', in roughly the same position as had been given by her captain, in about 150
meters (500 feet) of water. The wreck was videotaped but she was covered in a tangle of
fishing nets and it was impossible at the time of the survey to make an absolutely
positive identification. It is also well-known that several other iron steamships (of a
similar description, with three masts) have gone down in this area.
In April 1990, Hallstrom met the Paris-based Taurus
International, who agreed to let him undertake the salvage should the wreck be found.
Hallstrom himself had serious doubts that the wreck targeted by Iframer was, in fact, the
'Prins Frederik'. He spent a considerable amount of time viewing the video footage -
counting and comparing positions of beams, bollards, portholes, winches - and his
conclusion was that this was not the one they were after.
With no solid proof to back his opinion, Hallstrom, however,
explained his concerns to Taurus International, and offered to carry out another
identification using one of his own ROVs. A provision was that one of the other companies
would provide the ship but this, unfortunately, fell through, and it was expected that
Hallstrom should rather hire a ship at his own expense. Furthermore, he was given a
position for the wreck which he found somewhat unconvincing. This was in June 1990, 100
years after the 'Prins Frederik' sank.
At this same time, Hallstrom was preoccupied with the 'Vung
Tau' excavation project in Vietnam, which was followed shortly by the 'Douro' project.
Before the 'Douro' gold was recovered, Hallstrom was introduced to a Scottish salvaging
group based in Aberdeen who were third in line to search for the 'Prins Frederik' under
contract with the Salvage Association. The Scottish group were interested in Hallstrom's
involvement but, without explanation, nothing ever came of this.
After the recovery of the 'RMS Douro's' glittering cargo,
Hallstrom was keen to search for the 'Prins Frederik' on his own, in which he would
arrange a deal with the relevant contract holder. But other pressing commitments took him
- and his ship, the 'Scorpio' - to journey to Somalia, Mauritius, Madagascar, Mozambique
and South Africa. Not until March 1998, however, was he successful in obtaining a contract
with the Salvage Association regarding the 'Prins Frederik'.
After completing a survey in South African
waters, Hallstrom returned to Sweden to prepare his other ship, the 'Benjamin', to resume
the search for the as yet undiscovered wreck. While there, he was approached by another
salvage company, this time Germany-based. The person who contacted him explained that the
company had been searching for the same wreck for two seasons, and believed that they had
finally found her. Shortly after their discovery they learnt of Hallstrom's contract with
the Salvage Association and, now, were hoping to strike a deal with him.
Hallstrom drew up an agreement - of which all approved - and
also gained the approval of the Salvage Association. But the Germans had not signed the
paper and it seemed they were interested in starting the recovery only at the end of March
1999. Hallstrom, feeling slightly perturbed about the deal, again set off on his own, this
time in the 'Scorpio' (better suited to adverse weather conditions). On 31 March, he
reached the Best Estimated Position (BEP) of the 'Prins Frederik', soon covering the whole
of his first decided search area. In the process, the 'Scorpio' had lost a side-scan
sonar, caught in fishing nets at a waterdepth of approximately 350 meters. Although there
was a complete set of spares, the search was slowed down considerably owing to the
possibility of further nets.
When the weather deteriorated, the 'Scorpio' headed to Brest
to wait it out. Here, the German company again approached Hallstrom, this time signing a
contract that was agreeable to all parties. The contract was such that Hallstrom himself
could leave the scene and resume work on another wreck in the South China Sea, and, in
addition, the 'Scorpio' would be hired by the German company.
To date, however, the cargo of the 'Prins Frederik' has still
not been salvaged. Hallstrom himself has not viewed the video footage in possession of the
German company, having thus no conclusive proof that their targeted wreck is, in fact, the
Hallstrom has always harbored reservations about certain
aspects of the 'Prins Frederik' project, especially those concerning the positions and
speeds of the colliding ships.
After extensive research, including reading up on the
hearings and courtcase, Hallstrom finds it difficult to believe that Captain Visman, his
officers and the crew of the 'Prins Frederik' would have fabricated that the vessel had
reduced speed on hearing the warning whistle sound (which would have indicated that the
other ship was very near). Navigational rules entail that in foggy conditions speed is
reduced to the extent that a ship can stop in a distance which is half of the estimated
distance of visibility. Today, owing to radar technology, this rule is not widely
followed, but in the 19th Century this would not have been the case. While he cannot
properly conclude the real circumstances, he finds it unlikely that the ship's speed was
not reduced, a fact he believes is qualified by the absence of testimonies to the contrary
by the 173 people who were rescued off the ship. Their lives at risk, these people would
have had no reason to protect the captain. On the other hand, witnesses from the other
ship, the 'Marpessa', were found to have twisted the truth on more than one occasion
Another scenario exists, though, which is contradictory to
the former. It regards the position of the 'Prins Frederik' at 13h30 off Ushant and the
Noon position of the 'Marpessa' . If both vessels were travelling at full speed they would
have met at the time the collision took place. That position would put the wreck of
the'Prins Frederik' in very deep waters indeed (approximately 3 000 meters). Hallstrom
feels that if the Noon position of the 'Marpessa' was correct it would have been
impossible to have reached shallow waters by the time of the impact.
Owing to the thorough searches carried out by both the German
company and Hallstrom himself, he feels that, should the current target not turn out to be
the 'Prins Frederik', then it is more than likely that she lies in deeper waters. If this
is the case, it will severely hamper the search, making it almost impossible to salvage
her cargo and almost too costly for the excavation project to be wholly worthwhile.
For now, Hallstrom continues to ponder her whereabouts.
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