The Wreck of The Cita - March 26, 1997
The class Ealing movie "Whisky Galore!" will be familiar with many people. This popular 1949 feature film was based on the loss of the Liverpool owned Harrison Line ship SS POLITICIAN (renamed SS CABINET MINISTER for the movie) in 1941 on the rocks off a remote Scottish Island. The movie recounts the salvage attempts on the cargo which comprised many thousands of cases of whisky bound for export.
However, the SS POLITICIAN was only carrying a single principal cargo. Could you imagine what would happen if a general cargo ship ran aground on a remote island which due to timing and a quirk in the weather prevented the civil authorities and "the men from the ministry" arriving until almost 24 hours after the event?
Such an incident actually happened on March 26, 1997 on St. Mary's Isles of Scilly of the coast of Cornwall – I just happened to be on holiday, staying at Hugh Town at the time.
Shortly after 03:00 the German owned feeder container vessel MV CITA (3,900 grt) operated by Bugsier-Reederei-und Bergungs-Gesellschaft mbH & Co of Hamburg sailing from Southampton to Belfast struck New Foundland Point on the south coast of St. Mary's due to the watch keeper falling asleep. The vigilance device which could have woken the watch keeper had been switched off! Apart from a relatively minor injury sustained by one seafarer, the mainly Polish crew were safely brought ashore by RNLB ROBERT EDGAR unscathed.
The crew sailed to the UK mainland on board the SCILLONIAN III that afternoon. Your web master, staying at the Harbourside Hotel, was awoken early that morning by a commotion on the quay outside the hotel. Marine communications traffic made interesting listening on a scanner as the events of the morning unfolded. It transpired almost all of the containers loaded with goods bound for Ireland had gone overboard off the ship. [continued below gallery]
These containers were bobbing around in the sea all around St. Mary's whilst some had already washed ashore. To complicate matters, it did not become apparent to the authorities on the UK mainland just how serious the situation was. They appeared to think in the early stages that they were dealing with a simple grounding - not a full scale wreck. When the gravity of the situation had become apparent it was not possible to send support out to St. Mary's. The passenger ship SCILLONIAN III had already departed Penzance and unusually air services were grounded due to poor visibility at airports in Cornwall and the south west of England, though surprisingly, on Scilly, visibility was quite good as can be seen from the photographs.
Taking a taxi round to the most accessible vantage point at Porth Hellick immediately after breakfast I was greeted my some of the most remarkable scenes I have ever witnessed in my life! There were containers everywhere, and I couldn't see the ship at that stage. The local police had turned up, but the small island detachment of the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary appeared just as bemused as everyone else. Meanwhile some people were beginning to explore ways of opening the sealed containers.
Walking beyond the first batch of beached containers the wreck of the CITA came into view. She was partly submerged with a starboard list, local boats circled around. Viewing the wreck from the land is one thing - but it was clear that a close-up view would be better. I returned to Hugh Town Harbour to see if one could get a boat to the wreck. With the 1997 season just getting underway the St. Mary's Boatman's Association were not missing the opportunity. At 14:00 there was to be a trip to see the wreck. Before reaching the CITA one had the opportunity to observe the debris viewed from the land. It had also become apparent the ship had been carrying plywood as many sheets could be seen washed up on the shore. By mid-afternoon local 'salvage' operations were well underway. Access roads to the coast near the wreck were thronged with traffic and people.
It was not apparent at first just how close in that the local boatman would go to the wreck. As it happened he went VERY close. Back in the mid-1990s I was using a 35mm Contax range finder camera which had a maximum telephoto capability of just 90mm. Many of the photographs were actually taken with a standard 50mm lens - that is how close the boatman brought the launch in.
The Isles of Scilly Steamship Company's inter-island vessel LYONESSE LADY retrieved some of the errant containers. This OOCL container was loaded with bulk tobacco. Two locals can be seen in one picture bringing sheets of plywood. For the duration of the day air traffic remained suspended due to poor visibility on the mainland. The 'authorities" chartered the SCILLONIAN III to make a night sailing from Penzance - something quite unheard of - this brought various officials, the "men from the ministry" as well as police reinforcements. But by now quite a lot of the cargo had been spirited away.
With the arrival of reinforcements and a salvage team boat trips to the wreck were banned. Islanders were reminded of their obligations to declare found cargo - some, including expensive golf bags were returned and those returning them were paid salvage money - though it was accepted by the local police and reported in the local press that there would be little excuse for cars on the islands having bald tyres for many years to come - thus you may guess there was a large consignment of new tyres!
Due to difficulty of retrieving cargo most owners abandoned it to the finders in lieu of the payment of salvage. The CITA's cargo comprised a very wide range of goods including: Batteries, polyester sheeting, bulk tobacco, clothing, footwear, tyres, plywood, wooden house doors, computer components - especially computer mice, fork lift trucks, carrier bags destined for the Irish supermarket group Quinnsworth and golf bags.
Apart from the batteries, polyester sheeting (used for making video tape) and bulk tobacco - all of which was considered a pollution hazard most of the cargo were reusable. Stocks of Qunnsworth bags in the island shops outlived the supermarket group itself! The containers, of course proved to be a hazard to navigation, as some would float just below the surface. Many drifted into the Celtic Sea with a number being recovered by fishermen and brought into Newlyn Harbour.
Unfortunately, I had to return home the day after the wreck but was able to capture the appearance of the Marine Pollution Control Unit plane at St. Mary’s Airport. A few days after I left the St. Mary’s the CITA slipped off the rocks and sank in deep water, breaking in two. To be on St. Mary's at the time of the CITA wreck was one of the most memorable things in my life. I will never forget the experience. I took nothing except these photographs - Honest! However, with hindsight, I wish I had secured a small souvenir from the cargo - some holiday visitors were reported to be returning home with tyres!
General cargo ships have been wrecked since the CITA incident - but the UK authorities have soon closed off access to beaches to prevent salvage. Probably never again will such scenes be witnessed .... I am glad I did and I hope you enjoy the fascinating pictures. I wish I had taken many, many more. Perhaps one day a movie producer will see the potential for making a film that has the potential to be more entertaining than "Whiskey Galore!"?
The events surrounding the sinking of the CITA on St. Mary’s during March 1997 were even stranger than a movie maker could have dreamt - there were, to quote the lines of Ross Poldark in the BBC Poldark series when a ship went ashore in a nearby cove ”There be pickings for all!"