Description: freighter; steel.
Dimensions: length 380.5 ft., width 49.1 ft., depth 25.7 ft.
Tonnage: gross 4062.
Propulsion: steam, propeller.
Machinery: (1), 3 cylinder, triple expansion engine, cylinder diameters 27", 45", 74" with a stroke of 48", 442 nominal horsepower; 2 single ended boilers, 8 corrugated furnaces.
Cargo: $5 million in clothing - sheepskin jackets, woolen underwear, rubber boots, olive drab shirts; $2 million in railroad car parts - wheel sets, 200 tons of high carbon steel in the form of railway billets; Swedish steel; pig lead; war Supplies - 3 million rounds of ammunition, motorcycles, machine guns, phosphorous bombs, trucks.
Date Sunk: November 2, 1918.
Location: Nantucket Sound, Hedge Fence Shoal.
Coordinates: latitude 41° - 29' - 43" N; longitude 70° - 33' - 15" W.
Loran: 14097.7 and 43930.7.
Chartered by the Furness, Withy Company of Boston and with a general cargo that included war supplies and ammunition for the American Mission fighting in France, Port Hunter's first stop was New York City to join a convoy. Although armed with a deck gun on its stern, the freighter stood little chance in the Atlantic crossing, where Germany's U-boats were an ever present danger if left unprotected by a screen of warships.
The early morning hours of November 2nd found Port Hunter approaching the western entrance to Nantucket Sound, between Martha's Vineyard and Falmouth where the passage narrows and is divided by Hedge Fence Shoal. At about the same time, the tug Covington was entering the Sound from the opposite direction, towing Consolidated Company barges No.'s 10 and 24. At 1:48AM, shortly after Port Hunter cleared the westerly tip of the shoals, Covington collided with the freighter. The tug struck Port Hunter about 50 feet aft on the port bow, opening a gash 15 feet high and 7 feet wide. The force of the impact threw 20 men from their bunks. Water poured through the freighter's torn hull plates, flooding the forward compartment almost immediately. The ship's pumps could do little to stem the deluge and as the steering compartment filled, Port Hunter began to settle by the bow.
The freighter would have gone down in deep water if not for the quick action of Covington's skipper, who maneuvered his tug to push Port Hunter onto the western slope of Hedge Fence Shoal. Boats rushed to the scene and rescued the freighter's crew. Within two hours of the collision Port Hunter sank with only a section of the bow and foredeck above water.
Dive Site Conditions
Depth in feet: maximum 85, minimum 25.
Visibility in feet: average 20.
Except for the bridge and engine room sections, the Port Hunter is largely intact, listing to port on the fine, white sandy slope of Hedge Fence Shoal. Depths vary depending on the amount of sand build up. Only 20 feet of water covers her bow. Less than 100 feet aft on the port bow the "V" notch made when Covington dealt the fatal blow is visible in the freighter's hull plates. Drifting sand has engulfed most of its mid-section, which was blown apart by salvers looking for a rumored contraband gold cache. Fortunately for divers, strong tidal currents keep the stern section free from sand. Covered by 50 feet of water, a deck gun can be found on Port Hunter's stern. At a depth of 85 feet the vessels rudder and propeller shaft can still be seen, salvers removed the propeller. Due to strong tidal currents it is advised to explore this wreck only at slack water.
Constructed: in 1906 at Newcastle, United Kingdom by Hawthorn Leslie & Co. Ld.
Construction details: 2 steel decks, steel shelter deck; water ballasted, cellular construction of double Bottom, aft; 6 cemented bulkheads; flat keel.
Crew: Master: Captain William Stafford (1917).
Owners: Commonwealth & Dominion Line, Ld.
Home or Hailing Port: London, England.
Official number: 123689. Country: United Kingdom.
Other Comments: engines and boilers constructed by Hawthorn Leslie & Co. Ld., Newcastle.
Contemporary accounts of the freighter's loss report that the Government waited 3 months before awarding salvage rights. Red tape and carelessness were blamed for the delay. However, the "Waterfront News" column of the Boston Globe reported daily progress of salvage operations, which were hampered by rough seas. Many local fishermen illegally removed material from the forward holds, which at the time were only a few feet underwater. Quahog rakes and grapnels were used to "fish" out small objects, including leather jackets, olive drab shirts, woolen underwear and other Army garments. The Government put a halt to this practice and confiscated much of the material.
It wasn't until February 12, 1919, that a New Bedford firm began official salvage operations. Within 5 months, 200 men and a number of support vessels had removed most of Port Hunter's cargo. After auction the Government realized a $4 million loss from the original $5 million in clothing.
Of the heavier objects comprising the ships cargo, little is said. In 1936 a Vineyard diver reported seeing 800 sets of freight car wheels and 1400 tons of steel billets still aboard the freighter. Another report states there were only 200 tons of billets. In 1949 divers salvaged the propeller.
In 1958 James Green of Boston acquired rights to the wreck. The following year a group of divers removed items from the ship, which were put on display at the Dukes County Historical Society in Edgartown.
In 1961 a syndicate of investors was formed to recover $200,000 - $300,000 worth of scrap metal still aboard the wreck. One of the investors was Boston tax attorney John S. Bottomly, who expected a 5 to 1 return on his initial investment. However, before a diver could be put in the water, funds ran out. Bottomly decided to go it alone after the other investors dropped out and in the spring of 1962 began work. Bottomly's plan was to use a suction dredge to move sand, which had engulfed sections of the hull. Scrap metal would then be removed using a large electromagnet. It was about this time that Bottomly heard a rumor that 400 pounds of gold had been welded to the inside deck plating of the engine room. The freighter's first mate revealed in a death bed confession that the contraband cargo was being smuggled to France where a huge profit was expected. In their search for the gold Bottomly's team blew the engine room apart only to find copper condensers and the engine's solid brass pistons. Adverse weather conditions limited salvage work to little more than 3 hours/day. Many times, sand removed one day was replaced the next and at $2000/day the costs soon mounted.
Although hundreds of tons of metal were eventually removed, as of 1964 no profit from the salvage had been realized. Due to the collapse of the scrap metal market, Bottomly had only recovered $3000 from what had thus far been sold. With expenses more than 15 times greater than his return, it was not economical to recommence operations.
Fishable Wrecks and Rockpiles; Coleman & Soares, 1989
Lloyds Registry of Shipping; 1918-19
The Fisherman, magazine; February 18, 1988
West Wind Explorer, newsletter; Peter Reagan, November, 1998
Wrecks Below; Luther, 1958
Yankee Magazine; September 1963, January 1964