The Carnatic

The Carnatic, situated at Abu Nuhas, is one of the oldest, traceable wrecks in the Red Sea. It is also another British disaster case where a reputable shipping company sent a high profile vessel crashing into an Egyptian reef system. Like many other significant ships that have met their demise in the Northern Red Sea, the Carnatic was relatively young, at only seven-years-old. The Thistlegorm was just 18 months, the Numidia less than a year and the Dunraven also a young casualty at three years old.

The great tragedy of the Carnatic was that in the short period between its grounding and sinking there was ample time to leave the ship and save all on board. This was a situation not unlike the one made by Captain Hassan Moro, over 100 years later, when driving the Salem Express through the poor weather approaching Safaga port. A short cut through the Hyndman Reef would shave a few hours off the journey and spare his passengers further discomfort from the pounding waves. The Salem hit a low-lying reef and sank within minutes killing hundreds.

On 12 September 1869, Captain P.B. Jones sent the Carnatic onto a low-lying reef in Abu Nuhas. Later, a decision was made, based on the skipper’s opinion that the ship was stable and safe, to remain on board for another night despite the outside weather conditions. Like Hassan Moro, it was a trade off between further exposing the passengers to the elements or risking what seemed like a more comfortable alternative of staying inside in the warmth. The 210 passengers and crew remained on board despite some of them voicing their misgivings. The Carnatic, with a steel hull, was perched on hard uneven coral, which began to work away at the ship. Jones later attributed the unusually strong current as a factor in driving his ship from its proper course. Soon, physics took over and on the evening of the 14 September water began to enter the ship through the cracked hull. Captain Jones eventually called to abandon ship allowing the women and children to be first into the lifeboats. Almost immediately the ship broke in two. The crew and passengers worked bravely to assist all into the remaining crafts.

A total of 31 people lost their lives on the Carnatic that night. The Sumatra ship, another vessel belonging to the same shipping line, ’The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company’, was due by at any time. To attract attention, bales of hay were set alight and the only surviving flare was fired into the night sky. They were rescued by the passing Sumatra but not before enduring a cold night stranded on the island of Shadwan to which they had rowed three miles in the flotilla of lifeboats.

The Carnatic was launched on the 8 December 1862 and weighed 1,776 tons. It was 89m long, 9m wide and had a draft of 5.3m. Both steam and sail, it had a regular speed of around 12 knots. Her maiden voyage was on 27 April 1863 from Southampton to Alexandria in Egypt. These were the days before the Suez Canal and it was the Numidia ship (now a wreck on Brothers Islands) that became one of the first ships to navigate the new canal. In the meantime, ships sailed via Gibraltar and transferred the passengers and cargo in Alexandria for a 200-mile overland journey to Suez where they met the ship that would continue to India. Soon the Carnatic entered service on the Suez-India route and from her first voyage round the Cape of Good Hope proved to be reliable and fast, taking only 49 days from Southampton to Ceylon.

Two months before her demise, the Carnatic hit a sand bank outside Alexandria but managed to float off in high tide. In Abu Nuhas, she now lies at a depth of 25m making diving easily accessible for reasonably experienced scuba divers. It was this relatively shallow depth that resulted in the decision to make what is believed to be the first underwater salvage operation using hard hat divers. The cargo warranted the risk and expense. The Carnatic was carrying 40,000 gold sovereigns, which today would have been valued at several million pounds Sterling. Copper ingots, cotton bales and Royal Mail were also on board. The first diver made the grim discovery of two bodies; one found with his head wedged through a porthole in a desperate attempt to escape the sinking ship. The salvage vessel, captained by Henry Grant, removed all of the gold, which had been relocated on the ship while the Carnatic was high on the reef. Local Bedouin freedivers were chased away from the site, but were later asked to assist in recovering some of the copper ingots. Their techniques were primitive to say the least, with some divers reaching 20m with a rope tied around their waists. Nonetheless, they pulled up hundreds of copper ingots weighing over 30kg each.

The name Abu Nuhas roughly translates into ‘Copper Reef’(Actually ‘father of brass’). The wreck was discovered in 1984 and despite breaking in two shortly before sinking, the ship practically landed in one piece. The shallowest point is at about 17m and the deepest is on the seabed at 28m. She lies on her port side and divers can easily navigate through many rows of wooden floor beams. The stern and rudder section are in good condition and considering she has been on the seafloor for one hundred and forty years there are many fine features to this wreck. It can be reached by daily boats from Hurghada and sometimes from Sharm El Sheikh; however, to get the most out of this wreck and the nearby Giannis D a wreck safari trip is the best option.

FIRST PUBLISHED ON BLUE MAGAZINE Issue 7, Oct - Nov 2010 Written by John Kean.

Photos by Jane Morgan.