The Van Stable was a steel, barque rigged sailing ship, built by the Ateliers & Chantiers de la Loire shipyard at Nantes in France and launched in 1901. She measured 276.7’ x 40.3’ x 22.5’ with tonnage of 2439t gross and 1777t net. She was registered in Dunkirk and owned by the Sociétés Voiliers Dunkerquois.
The Van Stable left Glasgow on Saturday 17 January 1903, aboard was her master Captain Quemper and twenty six crew. She was bound for San Fransisco via Hobart, with a valuable cargo totalling 3000 tons, which included pig iron goods and dutiable goods, mainly in casks. She was taken south by tug and her tow was slipped in the lower Clyde. This would be the last reported sighting of the Van Stabel for two weeks.
On the morning of Saturday 31 January, the Receiver of Wreck in Tigharry, North Uist was alerted to a large ship ashore on the reefs offshore to the west. It was blowing a full gale, and had been for most of that week, visibility was extremely poor, and mountainous seas were rolling in from a full Atlantic storm. What he did establish was, that the vessel was dismasted and had a sail streaming from what was left of the foremast. There was no possibility of communicating with the vessel, and putting to sea in the conditions would be suicide. All the islanders could do was watch and pray for anyone aboard, there was no sign of life from the vessel, nor any rockets or signals of distress.
The following day broke with more wind and rain, overnight the wind had increased but had moderated slightly by daylight. The ship was gone, there was no sign of the vessel which had sat on the Mid Dureberg Reef the previous day. Those close to the shore began to notice large quantities of debris being washed ashore including casks of spirit, and parts of a ship, at this stage there was still no sign of the crew, nor any hint to the identity of the vessel.
The reef the vessel had been last seen on is around six miles north of the Monach Islands (aka. Heisker Is.) and the same from the north west shore of North Uist, the reef is covered at high water and only shows between 1-2 metres at low tide. Much of the area north of the Monach’s can only be navigated in small boats, there are a few deeper channels, but these require local knowledge. As such, until the weather moderated it was unlikely anyone could travel to the wreck site to investigate. On news reaching Stornaway about the wreck and the existence of a cargo of spirits a Preventive Officer – Alexander Macdonald was sent south to North Uist to manage the situation, and secure any cargo on behalf of the Revenue and the owners. The steamer Asia was also put on standby to travel from Stornaway once the weather moderated, she was to carry a small compliment of armed Coastguard’s.
Some days later two bodies were washed ashore, one was later identified as Captain Quemper, from his marriage ring. Information slowly came together and the identity of the wreck was becoming clearer, it was probably the Van Stabel. A message was found in a bottle washed a shore on Islay on 5 February. The note was signed C. Pasio, Mate – Van Stabel , and stated that their ship had been dismasted off Islay on 29 January.
Alexander Macdonald finally managed to reach the Monach’s on 11 February. Here he found large quantities of wreckage and of course some of her valuable cargo, but it is likely the islanders managed to recover some and perhaps put in safe keeping. Another bottle with a message had been found on the Monach’s, similar to that on Islay, but included a piece of paper with an imprint of the ships name – Van Stabel.
As for the Van Stabel, it is likely she was torn apart in the storm. Her valuable cargo of wines and spirits would most likely have floated out of the wreck, but the remainder of her cargo would have sunk with the hull. As for the crew, they all lost their lives in the disaster, the full story of their journey will never be fully known, may they rest in peace.
We have not been unable to establish if the wreck was sold or if her remains were ever found. A search around the Mid Dureberg Reef may prove fruitful, or perhaps in deeper water behind the reef (circa 25 metres), as she may have been pushed over the reef on the night she disappeared. The position we have assigned this wreck is in the middle of the Mid Dureberg, which is exposed at low water and this is 57° 34.973’N 07° 40.170’W.