The Labrador was built by Harland & Wolff in Belfast and launched in 1891. She was a steel cargo passenger steamship of 2998nt and her dimensions were 401.0′ x 47.2′ x 28.3’.
There can be few remoter places in the British Isles to be shipwrecked than at Mackenzie’s Rock near Skerryvore. It lies nearly fifteen miles from the nearest landfall at Hynish on Tiree and some sixty miles into the Atlantic from the Scottish mainland. For an ocean-going liner to run aground and sink there with no loss of life is nothing short of a miracle, but this is exactly what happened to the Dominion Line steamship Labrador on 1st March 1899.
The Labrador’s voyage from St John’s, New Brunswick for Liverpool was unremarkable for most of the trip but, as Captain Erskine’s ship reached the eastern Atlantic, the weather closed in and, unable to take the sun for the next three days, he had to navigate as best he could by dead reckoning. During the night of the 1st of March and the early hours of the following morning he imagined himself to be somewhere off the north of Ireland, but he was in fact some sixty miles off course to the north and heading, at full speed, straight for Skerryvore.
As the sixty-two passengers were waking up and preparing for their last day aboard ship, they were disturbed by a slight shudder around 7am, but most dismissed it and continued with their preparations for the day. Slowly the alarm spread round the ship as they learned that she had run aground and that preparations were being made to disembark the passengers into the ship’s boats. There was no great alarm but, by the time the boats had been launched, it was clear that the ship was badly damaged. The grain which formed the majority of her cargo was bursting through the decks evidently swelling as it was soaked by the inrush of sea water through the torn hull. Most of the passengers and crew escaped with only a few belongings but at least they were off the doomed ship.
Their plight would have been very serious if the weather had been bad but luckily the sea was fairly calm. A second even more fortuitous piece of luck was that, shortly after they left the Labrador, the Norwegian steamer Viking arrived on the scene and picked up all of the passengers and crew except one boatload who had already headed off for Skerryvore. Only after boarding the Viking did they learn how lucky they were. The Viking had also had problems with the weather and was well behind schedule and some four miles off course. If she had been on her planned route and time, she would have been nowhere near Skerryvore. Even then, she nearly steamed past the stricken ship and was only attracted to her assistance when one sharp eyed crew member on the Viking spotted steam coming from the whistle of the Labrador. The engines on the Labrador had stopped as the fires were extinguished by the rising water in the ship and there was insufficient steam to sound the alarm on the whistle, but the white plume of steam was visible against the characteristic black of the funnel of the Dominion Line.
Over the next few days items of floating wreckage littered the surrounding sea and many items came ashore on Coll, Tiree and Mull. Only a few of the 153 mail bags aboard were recovered. The ship itself soon disappeared below water level and by the 6th March, had parted amidships and became a total wreck. She was later heavily salvaged for scrap.
The Wreck Today
This is one of the classic wreck sites of Scotland. It is certainly one of the remotest. The location of Mackenzie’s Rock itself, lying three miles south west of the majestic lighthouse at Skerryvore, is the first challenge. At low tide the rock is just visible on the horizon from Skerryvore. At high tide the rock is best located using GPS although the swell, which is almost a continual feature of the site, may well result on waves breaking on the rock even at high tide. The wreck itself lies on the north east side of the rock in position 56°17.466’N, 007°10.047’W (GPS). The wreckage is vast. Her huge boilers and condenser lie within 50 metres of the rock in around 16 metres and the wreckage spreads out, towards the north east, from there. The stern steering gear is located in the centre of the wreck, obviously swept there by the huge forces of the sea which pounds the rock for most of the year. As the wreckage spreads further from the rock it is concentrated in a deep gully which descends to around 28 metres before the wreckage finally runs out. Note depths to the east of this gulley rise to around 18 metres before descending again to depth. We suggest you commence the dive in shallows to west of the above position and work your way east, down the rock shelf into the gulley.
Labrador Dive slideshow
The sea-life on the rocks and seabed around the wreck and on much of the wreck itself is incredible with anemones and sponges of every variety, size, and colour imaginable. On many parts of the site an orange carpet of dead man’s fingers totally obscure the rocks below. Huge wrasse and pollock patrol the wreckage and the many gigantic boulders and gullies which are a feature of the undulating seabed.
All in all it is an incredible dive site. It is also a site that can only be visited in perfect weather conditions and with detailed advanced planning. The rock is totally exposed and subject to strong tidal flows and heavy swell. Good boat cover, using at least two boats, and use of surface marker buoys at all times are essential for a safe visit but it is worth the effort.