Bermuda's Wayward Steamer Wreck
by Walt Stearns
Can the sinking of one ship cause the sinking of another? For the Norwegian steamer, Iristo, on the morning of March 16, 1937, truth turned out to be stranger than fiction. A victim of her captain's poor judgement, the Iristo ran into the same trap as the Spanish liner, Cristobal Colon. Reportedly, her skipper, Captain Christian Stephensen, attempted to enter Bermuda through a channel near North Rock, five miles north of St. George's Island. At the time, the Cristobal Colon still sat high in the water, four and a half months after she ran aground. Unaware that the Spanish liner was supported by a barely submerged reef, Stephensen ordered the course of the Iristo changed to match the heading of the ship ahead of him.
A short distance from the Colon, the Iristo, too, struck bottom two miles off North Rock. Later that day a salvage tug from St. George's answered her mayday, successfully freeing the Iristo from her perch on the reef.
Despite her quick rescue, the wounds inflicted to her hull were of such grave nature she began to take on water. The following day, while under tow, the Iristo went down for the last time, one mile east of the reef's northeast breakers. Captain Stephensen was brought before the Marine Board of Inquiry and cited for the wreck of the Iristo.
The Iristo was no flyweight. She was 251 feet long, with a 43.5 foot beam and a displacement of 1,821 gross tons. Originally named the Lake Jessup, the large steamer was built by an American company in 1918, in Lorain, Ohio. The vessel was contracted by the British Government to be named the War Briar.When the U.S. entered World War I, however, all ships being built here were requisitioned by the U.S. Shipping Board. Because of German U-boat activity in the North Atlantic, freighters of any form were at a premium. After the war, in 1921, the Lake Jessup became the property of the International Coal Transportation Corporation. In 1925 she was sold to a Norwegian shipping company and renamed the Ekstrand. Sold a final time in 1935 to Norwegian shipping magnet, Hans F. Grann, she was re-named the Iristo.
She ran aground while enroute to Bermuda from St. John's, Newfoundland (Nova Scotia) with a reported cargo of flour, 200 barrels of gasoline, as well as a new steam roller and fire engine for the island.
For a long time after the incident, the Iristo was called Aristo, because the New York Times misspelled her name.
Today, scarcely a mile and half from the scattered remains of the Cristobal Colon, the Iristo's resting place is well inside the reef system that split her hull open. At 50 feet, she looks like a child's toy that has been twisted sharply to opposing angles. Her bow and stern sections, heavily overgrown with coral, sit opposite one another with profiles of 32 to 35 feet. The rest of her has been reduced to almost nothing but a long, dense series of crumpled ribbing, hull and deck plates. Among this clutter, between the bow section and the engineering midsection, divers can see the remains of both the fire engine and steam roller originally bound for the island, as well as one of the ship's spare propellers (with its blades protruding up from the wreckage).
Rising from the middle of the skeletal remains are the Iristo's once massive steam engine, with two huge boilers, the top portions of which rests just 23 feet from the surface. They are heavily encrusted with large helmet sized colonies of Brain and Star Corals. Also, the ship's two foot diameter propeller shaft now sits exposed to view.
Surrounded by stout coral heads, some as high as 35 feet, visibility at this site is often good to excellent and can reach more than 100 feet.
In addition to being a member of the Bermuda Shipwreck Certificate program, the Iristo is a fun and photogenic wreck dive.
BERMUDA DIVE OPERATORS
If you are interested in visiting Bermuda and diving its wrecks, contact any of the dive operators listed below:
Blue Water Divers Co., Ltd.
P.O. Box SN 165
Southampton SN BX, Bermuda
(441) 234-1034; (441) 234-3561 (fax)
Darrell's Wharf, 1 Harbour Road
Paget PG 01, Bermuda
(888) DO A DIVE
(441) 236-6339; (441) 236-8926 (fax)
Nautilus Diving, Ltd.
P.O. Box HM237
Hamilton HM AX, Bermuda
(441) 295-9485; (441) 234-5180 (fax)
Grotto Bay Beach Hotel
P.O. Box 658
Warwick WK BX, Bermuda
(441) 293-7319; (441) 295-2421 (fax)
South Side Scuba
Sonesta Beach Resort
(441) 238-1833; (441) 236-0394 (fax)