Launched from the Harland and Wolff yard in Belfast on 14th January 1899 the Oceanic measured 704.00′ x 68.4′ x 50.0′ and weighed 17,272 gross tons. Her massive triple expansion reciprocating steam engines provided 28,000 hp. The Oceanic was designed by Thomas Ismay, director and owner of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, as the flagship of his fleet and intended to be the biggest and most beautiful liner sailing the seas in her time. She was to be known as the ‘Queen of the Seas’.
Her keel was laid in January 1897 and it took two years and one million pounds for the 1800 shipwrights employed in her construction to complete the job. Before the outbreak of World War One she had a successful career serving on the North Atlantic route although even this part of her career was not without incident. In 1901 she collided with and sank the SS Kincora in heavy fog killing 7 aboard the steamship. In 1905 a crew mutiny over working conditions caused more problems and the eventual trial and imprisonment of 35 of the crew.
At the outbreak of World War One the Oceanic was commissioned into naval service as an armed cruiser. On 25th August, 1914 the newly designated HMS Oceanic left Southampton to take up a patrol role in the waters between the north of Scotland and the Faroes. Her merchant master, Captain Henry Smith with two years naval service served alongside her naval captain, RN William Slayter. They were empowered to stop and search any shipping in the area to look for, and if necessary, confiscate any material with German connections.
After stopping briefly at Scapa Flow the Oceanic headed out on her first patrol. As was usual in the area the captain set a zigzag course to attempt to hamper any attacks by enemy submarines. In fact, it was the difficulty of steering such a complicated course in waters often swept by strong tidal streams that was to be the undoing of the Oceanic rather than any enemy action. A fix of their position was made on the night of the 7th September by Lieutenant David Blair but, as the ship headed on the course intended by Captain Slayter towards the island of Foula, she was heading straight towards the dreaded Shaalds of Foula, a notorious reef east of the island which nearly breaks surface. Captain Slayter then retired to his cabin leaving Captain Smith in charge. Smith was not comfortable with the intended course and therefore ordered a change of course more to the west to take them out to sea away from Foula. It appears that Slayter felt the course change as he returned to the bridge and countermanded Smith’s order. Almost immediately the ship ran hard aground on the reef. The ship was some fourteen miles from their intended position when she stranded in the early morning of 8th
September. She had been driven off course by the extremely strong tides the area experiences. Indeed the tide the following day during the rescue operation was reported by one party as reaching twelve knots. Thankfully the sea was flat calm so the crew were in no immediate danger and were quickly taken off by the Aberdeen trawler Glenogil which managed to manoeuvre alongside the stranded ship allowing the crew of the Oceanic to scramble down ropes and ladders to safety.
At the subsequent court martial Lieutenant Blair took the bulk of the blame and was reprimanded for failing to take account of the tidal conditions when establishing the position of the ship. This judgement appears very unfair as retrospective calculation of the position established by Blair confirmed his readings at the time were correct and the stranding was therefore due to variations in the course steamed after the reading due to abnormal tide conditions in the area. Amazingly, both Captains Smith and Slayter were acquitted.
As the crew left the island of Foula they felt that the huge ship might be refloated and if not would sit in the rocks for many years but the locals knew better. One local fisherman was heard to comment that she would be lucky to last two weeks. In fact, almost exactly two weeks later, on 29th September, a massive gale hit the Shetlands and the Oceanic disappeared.
Some salvage was carried out on the wreck in the 1920’s but she lay almost forgotten on the reef until the 1970’s when two divers, Simon Martin and Alex Crawford, took over the salvage efforts and began work on the wreck. The work was hard and dangerous as the swells and currents that sweep the reef made in extremely difficult to work in the shallow water above the wreck site. However, over a period of five years and around 200 dives they succeeded in removing some 250 tons of non-ferrous metal from the ship which was then abandoned once more to the mercies of the sea.
The remaining wreckage of the Oceanic lies in position 60° 07.019’N, 001° 58.843’W (WGS84). The wreckage, which lies approximately NE/SW is spread over a huge area in depths up to 20 metres but mostly in shallow water. The engines are visible and three of the huge boilers are still almost in tact. The wreckage covers an area some 200 metres by 30 metres. Any dive on the wreck must be carried out at slack water and in calm seas as the swell which pounds the reef would make any dive in rough seas extremely dangerous.