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“S. O. S. Florizel ashore near Cape Race. Fast going to pieces.”

For the week of February 22, 2016

On February 24, 1918, just before 5 am, the Florizel sent out a distress signal. The ship had struck a reef 25 km north of Cape Race, Newfoundland, and was in danger of breaking up. Of the ship’s 136 passengers and crew, only 44 were eventually rescued. This was a tragic end for the colony’s largest and most noteworthy vessel of the period.

S.S. Florizel in St. John’s Harbour NL
© Library and Archives Canada / Andrew Merrilees / e004665783

The S.S. (Screw Steamship) Florizel was built in 1908 for the Bowring Brother’s New York, Newfoundland and Halifax Steamship Company. At 309 metres long and 9 metres deep, the Florizel was the largest ship in Newfoundland’s merchant fleet. The vessel was also one of the first in the world to be specially designed to navigate sea ice.

Although primarily a cargo carrier and luxury liner, the Florizel was used each spring for the seal hunt where the ship's speed and strong hull gave a competitive advantage over other vessels. When the First World War began in 1914, the Florizel transported the first 500 volunteers of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment (the Blue Puttees) to England. During the war most Newfoundland merchant ships were needed to transport supplies to Britain. The Florizel became one of only a few ships making regular trips from Newfoundland to mainland North America.

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Florizel breaking up after running aground near Cape Race
© Library and Archives Canada / Andrew Merrilees / e004665780

At 8 p.m. on February 23, 1918, the Florizel departed St. John’s for Halifax under Captain William Martin, an experienced seaman and navigator. The ship carried 136 people and a cargo of fisheries products valued at $250,000. About an hour into the voyage, the Florizel ran into a heavy blizzard, severely reducing visibility. Around 4:30 am on the 24th, Captain Martin believed the Florizel had cleared Cape Race at the southern tip of the Avalon Peninsula and turned the ship west toward Halifax. He did not know that, upon leaving St. John’s, the engine room had failed to comply with his order for “Full Speed” and the ship had travelled only 72 km in the last eight hours instead of more than 100 km as he believed.

Just before 5 a.m. the Florizel struck a reef at top speed, lifting the ship's forward section onto the reef and sinking the aft-section beneath the water. Upon receiving Florizel’s distress call, five rescue ships and a relief train were dispatched from St. John’s but dangerous seas prevented rescuers from reaching the wreck until the next morning. By then 92 passengers and crew were lost. The survivors had been forced to endure freezing conditions, without food or adequate clothing, for 27 hours.

The Cape Race lighthouse, the warning beacon for the dangerous coastline that wrecked the Florizel and the first location to pick up the distress call from RMS Titanic in 1912, was designated a National Historic Site in 1974.

For more stories about Canadian shipwrecks, read The Sinking of RMS Empress of Ireland, The Elizabeth and Mary: A Shipwreck in the St. Lawrence River, and An Impossible Rescue in the This Week in History archives.

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