The Pieter de Coninck was built in 1881 at the yard of Alexander Stephen and Son Ltd., in Linthouse, Glasgow to the order of the Belgian company Theordore C. Engels of Antwerp. Constructed as a passenger and cargo vessel she sailed on the emigration routes. She had two decks. She could house as many as 1100 passengers but were limited by safety constraints to a maximum of 800. She measured 345.4 ‘ x 36.2′ x 25.0’ and weighed 3319 gross tons, 2445 net tons. She was powered by a compound steam engine by Stephens producing 1400 ihp. Her first voyage was 25th June 1881, from Glasgow to New York. Re-named Norge in 1889 when the ship was sold to A/S Dampskibsselskabet Thingvalla she then operated on the routes between Stettin, Copenhagen, Kristiania and Kristiansand. In 1898 Thingvalla encountered severe financial difficulties and the company was taken over by Det Forende Dampskibsselskabet (DFDS) of Copenhagen.
The Norge left Copenhagen, Denmark, for the last time 22nd June 1904. In charge of the vessel was Captain Gundel who had commanded the Norge since 1901. He was accompanied by 39 seamen, one doctor, and 27 service staff. There were 405 passengers from Copenhagen, of these, 134 were children. First stop on the 24th was Kristiania (Oslo) where a further 232 passengers embarked with 70 more children. In Kristiansand, the next stop, the ship was closely inspected before setting the course across the Atlantic Ocean. The ship was approved according to the Norwegian legislation. However, the captain made one serious omission which was to prove calamitous soon – he failed to hold a rescue drill meaning the passengers and the members of the crew who had only recently joined the ship were unaware of emergency procedures. While the examination proceeded , another 90 passengers boarded the ship including 19 more children. This final addition meant that a total of 727 passengers, including 223 children under the age of twelve, were now aboard the Norge. The eight lifeboats aboard the Norge had a total capacity of 251 people. This vital problem was because the Norge predated the introduction of regulations about lifeboat capacity and, as such, the rules did not apply.
Norge left Kristiansand on the 25th June 1904 with course north west towards the Pentland Firth. The voyage proceeded routinely until the ship entered the Atlantic and approached the last rocky outcrop of Britain – Rockall. The normal route was north of the rock but Captain Gundel decided to steam the slightly shorter course south of Rockall. He had taken this shortcut previously without problem and in fact this more southerly route often resulted in better sailing weather as the main flow of the Gulf Stream ran north of Rockall and often caused turbulent sea conditions.
However, on this occasion the choice would prove fatal. On the east side of Rockall there is a dangerous shallow reef – Helen’s Reef. The captain was aware of the reef and figured that they would be able to see the rocks if the weather was clear and steer away from them if necessary. Before nightfall sea conditions were perfect and Norge steamed ahead at full speed. The captain hoped to pass close to Rockall giving the passengers a view of the famous rock.
Early in the morning of the 28th June the weather began to deteriorate and visibility reduced significantly. The captain ordered an immediate course alteration to the south but this action was to prove fatal. The moon was full and the resultant spring tide had pushed them north of his planned route. In reality his ship was 6 miles north of his intended position. Through the night they had sailed by the compass alone failing to double check the compass with the stars. Furthermore, they had not calculated the influence of the strong currents. When the captain decided to change course south wards in the morning, the weather was too cloudy and foggy for him to use the stars or the sun to determine his precise position. What he did not know, however, was that the currents had drifted the ship so far north that they would have cleared Rockall on the north side. His turn south doomed his ship.Some time later, when the captain was confident the ship had passed south of Rockall he turned westward once more. Fifteen minutes later the Norge crashed onto Helen’s reef. The engines were reversed in an attempt to free the ship but to no avail. Briefly it appeared they were in little danger but it quickly became obvious that the ship was filling fast. Gundel had no option but to order everyone into the lifeboats.
All the passengers and most of the crew were in their bunks when she ran aground but quickly everyone assembled on deck. Despite the calls for women and children to be evacuated first the lack of evacuation practice now showed, as chaos ensued with passengers fighting to get into the available lifeboats. Some of the boats were damaged as they were lowered and others overturned as soon as they were launched. To add to the chaos many of the life vests proved unusable with rotten straps breaking as passengers tried to put them on. By now the deck of the ship was leaning precariously adding to the panic. With a few lifeboats pulling away from the wreck and many people swimming or already drowned in the cold sea the Norge slipped beneath the waves and disappeared. Of the eight life boats aboard the Norge only five escaped the sinking ship and were rescued – some after spending days drifting helpless in the ocean currents. The three others were lost overturning mainly due to overloading. Even then a few of the passengers in the lifeboats were to perish due to exposure before they were rescued. The captain was saved despite his wish to go down with his ship. He stayed on the ship while she sank but floated up to the surface and was picked up by one of the life boats. Only 129 passengers and crew survived. 663 people lost their lives.
The Wreck Today
The scattered and broken wreckage of the Norge was located by divers in 2004 in approximate position 57°36.500’N, 013°37.500’W. Most of the wreckage lies in depths between 45 – 50 metres on the north east side of Helen’s Reef