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Star of India - An Historic Manx Ship

by Tom Glassey

In the mid 19th century, Ramsey was a port where many a fine three massed timber ships had been built both for home and for foreign trade. Sail was slowly surrendering to steam and timber was giving way to steel. As a shipbuilding nation the Isle of Man was held in high regard by ship owners and many a schooner constructed by the fine timber craftsmen of Castletown, Peel, Douglas and Ramsey plied the oceans of the world.

It is often said today that we are living in changing times, but I guess there has never been a time when things were not changing and for our Manx shipbuilding craftsmen, times were certainly changing then.

The new Iron Age of shipbuilding became a great boost to the town of Ramsey as men with new techniques in shipbuilding were brought to the town from England , Scotland and Ireland . Young Manxmen commenced to learn the art of iron shipbuilding and Ramsey became a busy thriving port. Boys were in great demand to work as rivet trotters, as they were generally called. Workmen from all over crowded the streets and the clatter of hammers could be heard from morn till night.  Probably 600 or 700 men were employed in shipbuilding and associated industries. I guess when Gibson and Hope the Ramsey shipbuilders were commissioned to build the iron sailing ship Euterpe, it would have been deemed as little more than some good business for the yard.

The two most important days in a shipyard in a ship's construction are the laying of the keel and the launch day.  On November 14th in 1863 it was a very special day on the Isle of Man and in particular in Ramsey. It was on this day that the iron sailing ship Euterpe was launched. The 205 foot long vessel Euterpe, meaning 'Greek goddess of music', had been commissioned by the Liverpool shipping company Wakefield Nash and was to operate in the Indian jute trade out of Liverpool .

In any town that has a ship building industry it is always a special day on the day of a launch. The local folk of the town would gather at the slipway along with dignitaries, politicians, councillors, priests, bishops and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. On the day of a ship launch there would be a lot of merry-making, plenty of food and wine. In Ramsey town back in 1863 this was no different.

The official account of the bishop's attendance was, that after his 7th glass of wine he was described as 'being on good form'. However, it is rumoured that he got so drunk that he had to be carted off by several church wardens and hid under some bushes until he had sobered up, by which time the Euterpe had duly been launched by Mrs Brown, the wife of Euterpe's first Captain, by braking a bottle of wine over Euterpe's bow. Presumably this was a bottle the bishop had not get his hands on.

It would appear that the merry-making at Euterpe's launch did not stop there and continued with her first crew. On her maiden voyage she suffered a collision with a Spanish trader off the North Wales coast and a mutinous crew . She was eventually brought into port and her crew thrown in to Beaumaris jail on Anglesey and a new crew was duly recruited. As if this was not a bad enough start, on her second voyage, she encountered a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal sustaining severe damage and her captain, William Story of Liverpool, died on passage and was buried at sea. It is hardly surprising that Wakefield Nash after only a couple of years, sold on Euterpe to the Shaw Savill line of London .

With the Shaw Savill line, the Euterpe sailed out of London , Glasgow and Liverpool , mostly taking immigrants to Australia and New Zealand . In her 20 years or so with Shaw Savill , the Euterpe circumnavigated the world no less than 21 times. Unlike the Cutty Sark built in 1869 (6 years later than the Euterpe) and one of the fastest sailing ships afloat, the Euterpe was one of the slowest ships on the ocean and a more appropriate name might have been Traa dy- liooar, this however made her a very comfortable ship for passengers.

In 1901 Euterpe was sold on to the Americans and she was eventually bought by the Alaska Packers and in 1906 she was renamed the 'Star of India'. The name change kept her in common with the Alaska Packers other ships that were all prefixed with the word Star. She remained with the Packers until 1923 carrying fish workers, boxwood and tin plate from Oakland California , down to the Bearing Sea each autumn and returning each spring loaded with tinned salmon. During the winter months she would be iced up, however once the ice had melted in the early spring, she would return to Oakland bringing the cannery workers back to fish the Southern waters during the summer months. She was eventually laid up in 1923 as the age of steam was by now well under way.

For some 35 years the Star of India lay rusting away until in 1957, maritime journalist and sea dog, Gerry McMullen spotted her. Gerry McMullen lambasted the locals and campaigned tirelessly for the necessary funds to restore this wonderful old lady of the sea. The fully restored Star of India, under the command of Captain Carl Bowman, put to sea once again in 1973 at the grand old age of 110. To this day she is still a seaworthy ship although her voyages now are few and far between.

The Star of India now berthed at the World Maritime Museum in San Diego California and is the oldest seagoing merchant ship in the world. Today, Bob Wright; a retired electrical engineer in San Diego , is one of those who tends the Star of India with loving care. For three years during her restoration Bob even slept on board as he worked round the clock helping to restore this wonderful old Manx Lady.

The 'Star of India' is indeed a great tribute to those highly skilled Manx shipbuilders of the 19th century. She is a Ramsey girl and is as Manx as our hills, unlike Lady Isabella, who is a come over from Wigan . Our Island with its proud maritime history should be proud of this great Manx relic in this year,  her 140th birthday. Even though she is now over six thousand miles away, she serves as an ambassador for our Island to the many thousands of folk who come from all over the world to marvel at this Manx conqueror of the oceans.

The 140 year old Star of India today is mainly in use for touring parties, functions and weddings. From time to time she still puts to sea and is still capable of coping with sea conditions that would send today's modern SeaCats and SuperSeaCats scurrying for shelter.

She is living proof that, steam, diesel and jet-power do not yet quite rule the waves.


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