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The s.s. Samkey


A wonderful bit of artwork of a Liberty Ship by Leif Söderman

Jeremiah Obrien

   A Liberty Ship: they win no awards for beauty, but they were sound vessels used for mass transit of men and machinery during World War II. Like so much war surplus they were sold into commercial hands after such large numbers were no longer needed. They bore many flags and continued to ply trade for decades.

   The Samkey was a British ship now. Her final voyage began at London on January 28, 1948. She carried 43 crew. Her destination was Cuba. She was traveling in ballast only. No cargo.

     Samkey had some novel gear for the time because of her wartime construction. As a “Liberty Ship” she had been one of thousands of prefab ships built of that design during the war. When the surplus were sold after the war, the vessels had an impressive array of items the commercial owners kept in use. In her case, she had 4 steel life boats. Together they could hold 136 people. They had quick launching mechanism for immediate release, a necessity in wartime in case a ship was suddenly torpedoed. She carried a number of radios, including those for the lifeboats, and one battery operated radio in case she should suffer a power plant breakdown. She also carried 48 life jackets and 8 life savers with her name on it.

   The Board of Investigation into her loss, which convened after she failed to arrive at her destination of Cuba, was pressed to come up with a solution to her disappearance. She had no cargo whatsoever, so there was nothing hazardous that she was carrying that could have contributed to her loss. She was traveling in ballast, so she was high in the water and didn’t have to worry about cargo shifting. 

   The testimony below summed up the known and dry facts with which the Board had to deal.

Q. 23 When and Where was the s.s. Samkey last seen?

A. Latitude 45o 21 N Longitude 19o 17 W.

Q. 24 What was the last known position of the s.s. Samkey?

A. Latitude 41o 48 N. Longitude 24o W.

Q. 25 When was the latest time at which the s.s. Samkey was known to have been afloat and what was the last signal received from the s.s. Samkey?

A. About 1:45 G.M.T. on the 31st of January at which time the last signal received from the Samkey was received.

Q. 26 What was the wind, weather and sea at the time and place of last location of s.s. Samkey?

A. Wind South-West force 6, weather fair, sea unknown.

     The Board gathered an impressive amount of information, including the fact that Samkey had just been in dry dock in January for a regular maintenance checkup, and had easily passed. The vessel was built in 1943 and was only 5 years old. It is amazing that from this knowledge the Board asserted dogmatically that the Samkey was lost from foundering in heavy weather. However, they also expressed a strong opinion that “ . . .the ‘Samkey’ was sound in hull design and construction, and was equipped with machinery which, also, sound in design and entirely adequate to its task. Further, the vessel was thoroughly well maintained as to both hull and machinery and carried British Corporation Classification.”

   An indication of how pressured the Board was can be found in that they subsequently and, one might say, dogmatically asserted that Samkey must have foundered and capsized due to heavy weather, although they admitted her last message said “weather fair.” They assumed the type of ballast she was carrying was not stowed properly, and this was the factor. Yes, many have decried this explanation, and certainly decried the dogma with which it was asserted (included Alan Villiers), but it was the official and remains the official conclusion. It was one of the rare moments, if not the only moment, in history in which a vessel vanished and absolutely no evidence led to a firm and certain conclusion.

     The Samkey’s last position placed her near the Azores. She was not to make any routine contact again for 48 to 36 hours, around which time she would be deep in the Sargasso Sea and just entering the Bermuda Triangle.