Underwater Explorers Solve 115-Year-Old Mystery About Sinking of Steamer De Ruyter

Колокол De Ruyter. Фото предоставлено Разведывательно-водолазной командой
Колокол De Ruyter. Фото предоставлено Разведывательно-водолазной командой

The Dutch steamer “De Ruyter”, which was lost in August 1906 on the way from St. Petersburg to Rotterdam with a cargo of oats and lumber, was discovered and identified by “Underwater Exploration Team” with the support of the Russian Geographical Society and marine engineering company "Fertoing" – the participants of the joint underwater search expedition "180 Miles to Leningrad: The History of the Tallinn Breakout on the Modern Sea Map". The work was carried out as part of the long-term project "A Bow to the Ships of the Great Victory. 180 Miles to Leningrad", with the support of the Presidential Grants Fund and "Transneft" PJSC.

The steamer was built in 1889 at a shipyard in Belfast and was originally named “William C. Mitchell”.

“At first, the ship's bell became the main source of identification, but it did not guarantee the final result,” said the head of the expedition Konstantin Bogdanov. “We got the final conformation when the name written in brass letters was captured on the stern during the process of creating a photogrammetric model of the vessel.”

The participants of the expedition managed not only to identify the ship, but also to make an assumption that the Dutch captain gave somewhat incorrect testimony about the causes of the sinking in order to get insurance for the cargo.

“It is interesting that it was entered into the Lloyd's Register only three years after its construction, which initially made it difficult to find it in the documents,” says historian Mikhail Ivanov, a member of the expedition. “Therefore, initially we believed that this was the ‘Ausma’ vessel that was lost in the Tallinn Breakout, because the found object fully corresponded to the size and structure of the ‘Ausma’, and the bell with ‘De Ruyter’ on it could have been a replacement purchased at an auction, as it often happened.”

However, a new dive in May 2022 with calm weather and good visibility at the location put everything in its place.


Фото предоставлено Разведывательно-водолазной командой
Фото предоставлено Разведывательно-водолазной командой

In 1897, the steamship “Wm C. Mitchell” was sold to a Dutch company and received the name of the famous Dutch admiral – De Ruyter. In August 1906, it left St. Petersburg for Rotterdam with a cargo of oats and lumber. According to the captain's information, which he gave to the insurance company after the shipwreck, the ship was lost on August 12 near Helsinki from a collision with a sunken object. The mention of Helsinki gave the expedition team reason to assume that the bell could have been lifted from the shallow water and sold along with other elements of the ship at a ship-lifting auction to other shipowners. Probably, according to the results of the investigation, the shipowner of the “De Ruyter” received the due insurance amount, and the ship was forgotten.

However, the Russian expedition discovered the hull in the waters of Russia, near the island of Rodsher. It's about half a day's journey from Helsinki. In the holds, the very same grain was found, the cargo of oats specified in the documents; on the deck, the remains of stacks of boards. At the stern, the crew’s operator Abbot Innokenty (Olkhovoy) recorded the name written in brass letters – “De Ruyter”.

Most likely, due to a navigational error, the steamer could have hit a bank near the island of Rodsher and sunk. However, it was impossible to exclude the chance of a significant drift of the vessel abandoned by the crew, which was kept afloat due to the buoyancy of its cargo. The ship got a hole in the bow. When sinking, the hull of the vessel hit the bottom with the bow and broke. Judging by the absence of boats and lowered davits, it didn’t sink quickly, and the whole crew managed to escape.


Фото предоставлено Разведывательно-водолазной командой
Фото предоставлено Разведывательно-водолазной командой

The situation was somewhat clarified by the materials of the Hydrographic Service of the Russian Empire for 1906, where it was indicated that the steamer sank to the west of the island of Rodsher. However, the captain testified that there was a collision with a ship that had sunk earlier.

So far, the equipment of the “Fertoing” team and “Underwater Exploration Team” has not found any traces of earlier shipwrecks in the area where the steamer “De Ruyter” sank, although several banks were noted, which could well have caused its sinking due to a navigational error. Research continues. The Russian search specialists plan to create a 3D model of the steamer and present it on the site of “Underwater Exploration Team”. According to Konstantin Bogdanov, negotiations have begun on the creation of a documentary on the history of the ship and the details of its sinking.

Currently, the “Fertoing” team is returning to the area to resume the search for the “Ausma” vessel, which was lost in the Tallinn Breakout on August 29, 1941.