On this day in history – 10th August 1890: St Mary strikes rocks off Whale Point and is wrecked

It was at about 5:00pm on 10th August, 1890 that the 242-foot long American built and owned three-masted windjammer, St. Mary, running southeast of the Falklands, began her final approach to Port Stanley. She was in a very bad way, with most of her sails either blown away or shredded and water was coming through a damaged hull. At her helm was the first mate, accompanied by the ship’s carpenter who was warning that the heavily laden cargo vessel was much too close to shore. The mate waved aside the advice.

Her master, 57-year-old Captain Jess Carver was below, asleep in his bunk; worn-out after saving his ship from what he would later call: “One of the most stupid accidents that I ever saw” that had taken place three days earlier on 7th August. The St Mary had been rammed in what had then been near-perfect sailing conditions at 01:00am, as she rounded Cape Horn, by another cargo sailing ship, the British owned Megellan. Captain Carver’s vessel had been struck at her port quarter and the damage was severe, but she didn’t founder or sink. Unlike the Megellan, which went down like a stone, with the loss of all hands. No-one knows how many died or what she was carrying.

As the St Mary and her unhurt crew reeled from the disaster, the weather took a turn for the worse and Carver found himself having to use all his seamanship skills to keep her afloat and on a course for the Falklands, where he knew he could find shelter and people to repair his ship. But ‘lady luck’ was not riding with Carver or his crew. The fierce gale lasted for three days and nights, and everyone, including the captain, was exhausted.

When he returned to his quarterdeck at about 8:00pm, on 10th August, the ship’s carpenter immediately told him they were too close to land. One look was enough to confirm this and the horrified master frantically ordered the mate to change course. It wasn’t soon enough to prevent the St Mary from striking a rock to the northwest of Whale Point, where she stuck fast.

As dawn broke on 11th August, 1890 everyone on board the ship knew she was doomed. And Jesse Carver knew he was ruined. The crew lowered a lifeboat and prepared to head for Fitzroy, the nearest settlement. Captain Carver refused to join them and it’s said he drew a revolver and threatened to “blow the brains out” of any man who tried to force him off his ship. He was last seen drinking a “reddish mixture”.

The following day, the carpenter returned to the wreck and found his captain dead, with “froth at his mouth”. His ship was ‘beyond repair’, less than five months after her launch and without completing a single voyage.

Carver was suicidal not only because he had lost his ship. He had lost his fortune as well; he had part-funded the building of the St Mary, taking out a personal loan to do so as well as sinking his life savings into her. She had cost $120,000 to build and despite already being in debt, as a result of a previous nautical venture gone wrong, Jesse Carver put up $22,000 of that money – $12,000 in cash and $10,000 in the loan.

Repayments and profits were supposed to come from the cargos Carver and the ship would carry around the world and this first voyage was a sure-fire money-winner – or should have been. St Mary was carrying a mixed cargo of coal, boxes of tacks, whisky, iron pipes and cast-iron toy trains – loaded in New York and bound for San Francisco. The play trains were meant for the city’s toy shops and the lucrative Christmas trade. In all the shipment was worth $30,000.

Attempts to salvage the St Mary’s cargo were only partially successful and the principal beneficiaries were the children of the Falklands – the toys she carried in her hold found their way into the hands of many a Falkland’s child on December 25th, 1890.

St. Mary ship painting

‘The St Mary Approaching Cape Horn’
The painting is by England’s John Stobart, one of the world’s most renowned maritime artists, who sadly passed away on 2nd March, 2023, at the age of 93. Image copyright 1992 courtesy The Stobart Foundation.