|THE STORY OF THE 'R.M.S DOURO'
There are surely few golden coins that tell as compelling a story -
steeped in the intrigue of her glamorous yet deeply tragic history - as those recovered
from the wreck of the RMS Douro in July 1996.
The tale behind these valuable reminders of a bygone era - resting undisturbed for more
than a century on the muddy sea bed - is at first as enchanting as the legendary Douro
voyages. But it is also filled with darkness and terror, the kind that has always drawn
the listener closer, unable to turn away in spite of the spine-chilling content....
Owned by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co, the lavishly-fitted vessel was the shining
star of the Trans-Atlantic lines right up until her 62nd - and final - voyage between
Brazil and England in 1882.
here to see a larger image)
The slender iron screw steamer - measuring 326 feet long and 40 feet wide - was
distinguishable by her graceful clipper bow and two brigantine rigged auxiliary masts. She
was renowned for her reliability, relative speed, and, most of all, for the sheer luxury
of passage she offered whilst servicing the exotic South American trade between
Southampton and Buenos Aires.
Picture of the 'R.M.S Douro' courtesy of
the British Maritime Museum
Her voyages took her past Lisbon, Madeira, Sao Vicente, Pernambuco, Bahia and Rio de
Janeiro, and were characterized by elegant company, fine food, music and laughter. Most of
her passengers travelled First Class, although there was a small amount of cabin space for
Second and Third Class travellers. The Douro was indeed most popular with diplomats,
nobility and the fashionable, champagne-drinking elite, drawn to her comfort and
In addition to her passengers, officers and crew, the contract-bound Royal Mail ship
carried sizeable quantities of letters and newspapers on her South American run. She also
carried a precious cargo the dream of many a would-be treasure hunter or latter day
collector, her holds containing the finest high-value products and goods from both
route of the R.M.S. Douro
(Click here to see a larger version
of this map)
After departing from Buenos Aires on
her journey back to Southampton, the ship called at the Brazilian ports of Santos, Rio,
Bahia and Pernambuco. Here she loaded coffee, gold and diamonds, as well as many
influential passengers. After a somewhat high-spirited journey, she sailed into Lisbon
where over 150 passengers disembarked, setting the tone for a more peaceful home stretch.
On 31 March 1882 - after a delay of an hour and a half - the "queen of the South
Atlantic" set off under the stars as her remaining passengers prepared for yet
another enchanting evening of romantic dining and dancing out at sea.
To make up for the lost time, she sailed full steam ahead, under a fresh force 5 to 6
N-N-E wind, heading swiftly north off the west coast of Portugal. A day of sailing
followed, and when night fell that evening - April Fool's - she passed Cape Finesterre, a
rocky stretch known also as the "Coast of Death," under a full moon. Although
the night was beautiful and calm, the sea was a little rough. It had just gone 10.30p.m.
By 11pm the Douro's lights were usually turned off and most of the passengers were
expected to be in their cabins. However, while some were soundly sleeping, others were
enjoying a last breath of air on deck. But, at approximately 22.45p.m, catastrophe struck.
The Fourth Officer, whose watch had started at 8.00p.m, had identified the bright light
of a ship some two miles in the distance, but was confident that this second ship would
pass behind the Douro's stern. The ship's course was the responsibility of the Officer on
the bridge, not his own, and the Fourth Officer seemed certain that the appropriate
calculations had been made.
However, the Chief Officer would not have wished his ship to slow down or change course
unnecessarily, because she was already behind schedule. What's more, the mail ship had its
reputation for punctuality to uphold. A few minutes later, when the Chief Officer shouted
to the helmsman to put the wheel hard to port, it was already to late. Far too late.
The Spanish steamship Yrurac Bat - a passenger liner out of Corunna on route to Havana
- ploughed into the starboard side of the Douro, at full speed, in the area of her main
mast, leaving a gaping tear in its wake. Yet another deep gash was torn in her side when
the sharp bow of the other vessel again lunged forward, propelled by the immense force of
the rebound and the regaining momentum of her engines.
The violent lurching of the Douro and the subsequent pounding of panic-stricken feet
heading to the deck woke up most of the slumbering passengers. Confused and very
frightened, they were rounded up from their cabins, or other areas of the ship, and
immediately directed to the lifeboats. There was no time to consider their personal
belongings, and some of the passengers barely had time to pull on adequate clothing.
There was pandemonium on deck, with many unsure to which lifeboat they belonged.
Furthermore, as the boats were lowered, it was realized that there was no knife with which
to sever the ropes, to free them from the severely listing ship. Eventually a pocket knife
was found, and the passengers' hopes of reaching safety at last a reality.
The rule of women and children first was strictly abided, as witnessed in the final
death toll. Only one woman died, however; a lady's maid who, terrified, had refused to get
into the boat and drowned when the ship was submerged. It took only 30 minutes for the
once proud vessel to sink, with tons of seawater surging through both gaping holes in her
In the lifeboats, panic still governed the cold, drenched survivors as they witnessed
the other ship, the Yrurac Bat, slowly succumb to the same fate as the Douro, swallowed up
by the sea.
Fortunately, a third steamer - the Hidalgo, from Hull - was standing by,
and hauled up the shaken passengers, transporting them later to Corunna. All in all, six
Douro passengers lost their lives, leaving, together with those from the other ship, a
total of 59 passengers and crew drowned. True to seafaring tradition, the Douro's Captain,
four Senior Officers, and the Chief and Second Engineer went down with their ship,
together with her dazzling cargo of gold, silver and jewels. (Read the news reports from The Times during 1882).
When her tangled wreck was finally discovered, and her treasure brought to light for
the first time since 1882, many years of fruitless searching had already been undertaken.
In 1993, Sverker Hallstrom his own long, arduous search, but which was to prove an
When he found the Douro, thanks to modern
technology's offerings of Remotely Operated Vehicles, sonar and a dash of luck, it was not
long before his partner in the recovery operation- Deep Sea Worker - joined and the team
began to bring up an assortment of relics from the seabed. And that great, memorable
moment, when heaps of golden coins would be brought up from a depth of 1, 200 feet, was
about to take place...