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Newfoundland & Labrador's Maritime Heritage

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A punishing mid-Atlantic gale claimed the schooner Olwen but not her Carbonear crew


Topsail Schooner Olwen

Topsail schooner Olwen owned by W.A. Munn & Co.

The schooner Olwen was built at Pembroke Dock in southwest Wales in 1896 by J&W Francis, who were shipbuilders from Milford Haven. She was built and fitted to be a commercial trade and cargo vessel. The three-masted wooden topsail schooner, built mostly of local oak, had an overall length of 97.7 feet and a beam of 22.4 feet. She had a gross capacity of 153 tons and a net cargo capacity of 124 tons. She had a single deck and a depth of 11.2 feet with large holds designed to maximize cargo space.

From 1897 to 1920 Olwen worked, as did hundreds of similar merchant ships, on the northern European trade routes between Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Spain and Portugal. By 1920, she had been purchased by W.A. Munn & Company of St. John's, who had her delivered to Harbour Grace in July of that year.

Munn appointed Douglas Burden from Carbonear as master of their new schooner. The 25-year-old captain quickly took over command of the 25-year-old Olwen. After spending the summer in northern Newfoundland and Labrador, she arrived in St. John's in October from Snug Harbour, leaking unfortunately, and in need of minor repairs. Capt. Burden had received orders to deliver a cargo of dried salted codfish to Genoa, Italy. On Nov. 29, Olwen left St. John's. This would be the skipper's first trans-Atlantic crossing in command of his own ship, and on Dec. 21 he arrived in Malaga, Spain.

The vessel departed Malaga on Dec. 30 and on Jan. 16, 1921, they sailed into Genoa where they discharged the cargo. After four weeks they were cleared to leave and on Feb. 19 departed for Torrevieja, Spain. After only a two-day stay to take on a cargo of salt for the fishery back home, they left Torrevieja. After a brief stop in Gibraltar, Olwen made the return trip back across the Atlantic and landed in Harbour Grace on April 22.

May, 1921, was spent anchored at Carbonear. In June, Olwen completed loading a cargo of dried codfish and was ordered to sail again for Italy. They left Carbonear on June 13 and after four weeks successfully crossed the Atlantic, sailing into Gibraltar on July 14. The following day, she cleared Gibraltar and headed for Ancona, an Italian port on the Adriatic Sea. She arrived on Aug. 26, where her cargo was discharged and sold. She then left the Italian port in ballast and headed for Torrevieja again where she loaded salt for the return trip home. She left the Spanish port for St. John's on Oct. 20 1921, the crew unaware of what lay ahead.

On her second day out Olwen met with high seas and terrific gales of wind. The captain and crew were unable to do anything other than to reduce sail and ride out the storm, which drove the vessel up and down the mid-Atlantic for 46 days. At one point, a heavy sea carried her mainsail away and the topsails were ripped by the winds. Later, her bulwarks were carried away and her deck seams were opened.

The crew worked without rest to keep the ship afloat but things were beginning to look bleak. Just about the time their hopes of survival were at their lowest, a black smudge from the smokestack of a tramp steamer appeared on the horizon and in a short time they were taken aboard. The rescue ship was the Vulcano, bound for Italy. The date was Dec. 4 1921.

After the crew had gathered their possessions and was safely off the ship, the captain decided she had suffered too much damage and was not salvageable. Olwen was set afire so the floating wreck would not be hazard to other ships. She sank just east of the Grand Banks in approximately 10,000 feet of water.

A wireless message from Vulcano, received in London via Terceira on Dec. 8 stated:
Dec 4, 10 G.M.T., in lat 42 22 N., long. 41 48 W., three-masted schooner Olwen, 107050 registered number, 124 registered tons, belonging Munn, of St. John's (NF.), where bound, been abandoned for leak. All six men crew rescued by Italian steamer Vulcano, bound Torre Annunziata. Vessel left submerged but on fire.

Vulcano, having completed her rescue mission, resumed her voyage and arrived in Naples a few days later. The six Carbonear men then began their long voyage home. They traveled from Naples to London and then to Liverpool, where they purchased fare and embarked on the 500-foot trans-Atlantic passenger ship Metagama for Saint John, New Brunswick. They landed on New Year's Day 1922 and left for Carbonear on Jan. 11, arriving safely home after a very eventful voyage.

Olwen's crewmembers on her final voyage, all from Carbonear, were:
Captain : Douglas Burden
Mate : William Burden, the captain's first cousin
Mate : John Burden, the captain's brother
Seamen : John Fraize, John Clarke, and James Crocker.

Text and illustration courtesy of Bruce Burden, Waterloo, Ontario

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