30th April 2019

Shipwrecks of Falmouth: The Bay of Panama

Described as one of the finest ships of its day, the Bay of Panama was built by the Belfast shipping firm of Hartland and Wolff in 1883.

With a steal hull and four square-rigged masts, she was fast and beautiful, however, it was in March 1891 that the ship, bound for Dundee and approaching the Cornish coast in weather that was rapidly declining, came into trouble.

Uncertain of their exact position due to poor visibility, the Captain decided to heave to in order to assess the water’s depth and generally weigh up the options. Unfortunately, only a few hours later, the worst blizzard for over two centuries swept in.

Whilst on land the freezing temperatures caused livestock to perish in the fields, at sea the men desperately furled the sails, praying they could ride out the storm. As the night drew in, however, things became ever more desperate and distress flares were fired to no avail.

In the early hours of the morning, amongst the driving snow came a huge wave that smashed against the ship, crashing over the stern and destroying all the boats on deck. Soon after, the ship was driven onto the cliffs just south of Nare Point.

As another big wave hit, the second mate, the Captain, his wife and other crewmen were swept into the sea and drowned. Driving snow was making visibility almost impossible and soaked by freezing rain, panic broke out on board.

The crew were ordered into the rigging. However, the freezing spray from the water quickly turned to ice and many were frozen to death.

By dawn, the ship was a truly awful sight to see. Some men still managed to cling to life up in the rigging, whilst others had perished – frozen were they clung.

A local man spotted the wreck and headed out to call for help – an effort in itself that was almost superhuman. Riding to Helston on his horse, he hoped he would be able to send a telegram to the coastguard in Falmouth but arrived to find the wires down.  With the weather too bad to continue on horseback, he decided to make his own way to Falmouth on foot despite the freezing temperatures. With the alarm finally raised, the coastguard went to the rescue and, using a breeches buoy, survivors were helped from the ship.

Unfortunately, their hardships were not to end there. Following a night in nearby St Keverne, the surviving crew set off for Falmouth in a horse-drawn bus only to find their way blocked by snow drifts. Forced to continue on foot – some without shoes and all only clothed in rags and blankets – they somehow managed to reach the town.

Out of the forty people onboard the Bay of Panama, seventeen survived in what can only be described as a remarkable feat of endurance.