October Issue 229: The Palatine light


Sometimes between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, there is a ghostly light not unlike St. Elmo’s fire seen rising off the northern tip of Block Island. This apparition is said to be the glow of a ship afire — a vestige of the ship Princess Augusta, which ran aground in December of 1738.

Princess Augusta was British-registered and 220-tons, common enough in its day. It carried immigrants from Europe to the New World. She sailed from Rotterdam in August 1738 under the command of Captain George Long, with a crew of 14 and a cargo of 240 immigrants from the Palatine area of Germany, bound for Philadelphia.

A few weeks out, the freshwater got contaminated, causing an outbreak of “fever and flux,” resulting in the death of more than half the passengers and seven of the crew, including the captain.

First mate Andrew Brook took command of the ship, but the vessel, kept getting swept up in gales that drove her north of the intended track. The frightened passengers endured three months of shortened rations. With the ship low on food, Brook lined his pockets by forcing the passengers to pay for their rations. The ship got shoved northward and ended up running aground during a snowstorm at Sandy Point on Block Island on Dec. 27.

The skipper and crew reportedly got into the ship’s longboat and rowed ashore. The passengers had to fend for themselves — 20 died during the grounding, and Block Islanders helped those who survived. The official inquiry, which was not located until 1925, found no blame and the crew faced no charges. The fate of the wreck is not precisely known — some accounts say it was set on fire.

There has always been a question about the role of the Block Islanders concerning the wreck. Off-islanders claimed the islanders were “wreckers” and not above intentionally luring ships ashore for salvage, and then dispensing with the crew and passengers.
This wreck, like many thousands other of the period, might have ended up as a historical footnote had it not been immortalized in a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier in 1867 called The Wreck of the Palatine:

“And then, with ghostly shimmer and shine
Over the rocks and the seething brine,
They burned the wreck of the Palatine.
In their cruel hearts, as they homeward sped,
‘The sea and the rocks are dumb,’ they said.
‘There’ll be no reckoning with the dead.’”

Let’s join the captain and the crew somewhere on the Atlantic. We will use the 2015 Nautical Almanac. Height of eye is 20 feet and the day is Sept. 21. The DR at the time of the observation of the sun on or about noon was 38° 25’ N by 59° 10’ W. Use the NA to solve the latitude at the time of this observation. The time of the shot is 1550. The Hs of the lower limb of the sun was 52° 10’. Let’s see if we can find our latitude.

A. What is the HO? 
B. What is the sun’s declination at the time of the shot?
C. What is the latitude?

A. Ho is 52° 20.9’
B. Declination is 0° 39.4’
C. Latitude is 38° 18.5’ N

By Ocean Navigator