SS Port Nicholson (1918)

SS Port Nicholson was a British refrigerated cargo ship owned by the Port Line. She entered service shortly after the First World War and was sunk by a German U-boat during the Second World War. Her wreck has subsequently been discovered, attracting attention with claims that she was carrying a large cargo of platinum ingots and other precious metals when she was sunk.

Name: Port Nicholson
Owner: Port Line
Port of registry: London, United Kingdom
Builder: Hawthorn Leslie and Company, Hebburn
Yard number: 487
Launched: November 1918
Completed: 13 May 1919
  • UK Official Number 143058
  • Code letters JWKB (1919–34)
  • Code Letters GRST (1934–42)
Fate: Sunk on 16 June 1942
General characteristics
Class and type: Refrigerated cargo ship
Length: 481 ft 2 in (146.66 m)
Beam: 62 ft 3 in (18.97 m)
Draught: 30 ft 0 in (9.14 m)
Depth: 33 ft 0 in (10.06 m)
  • 4 × steam turbines SR geared
  • 2 × screw propellors
Speed: 14 kn (16 mph; 26 km/h)
Capacity: 328,592 cubic feet (9,304.7 m3) refrigerated cargo ship


Port Nicholson was 481 feet 2 inches (146.66 m) long, with a beam of 62 feet 3 inches (18.97 m). She head a depth of 33 feet 0 inches (10.06 m) and a draught of 30 feet 1 inch (9.17 m). She was assessed as 8,402 GRT, 5,338 NRT. She was propelled by four steam turbines of 967 nhp, single reduction geared, driving twin screws. The turbines were built by Hawthorn Leslie,[1] they could propel her at 14 knots (26 km/h).[2]

Port Nicholson was a refrigerated cargo ship. She had 328,598 cubic feet (9,304.9 m3) of refrigerated cargo space. There were two refrigerating machines. Coolant was brine and the cargo holds were insulated with cork.[3]

Construction and early years

Port Nicholson was built by Hawthorn Leslie and Company at their Hebburn yard, and launched in November 1918. She was completed on 13 May 1919 and delivered to her owners, the Commonwealth and Dominion Line.[2] Her port of registry was London. The United Kingdom Official Number 143508 and Code Letters JWKB were allocated.[1] These were changed to GRST in 1934.[4]

She made sailings between the United Kingdom, and Australia and New Zealand.[5] During her service life, she was involved in a number of incidents. On 23 October 1924,[6] she ran aground at Las Palmas, Canary Islands, Spain and was holed.[7] She was refloated on 6 November.[6][8] Port Nicholson was twice damaged by fire. The first incident occurred while en route to New Zealand in 1928, when her cargo caught fire, forcing her to put into Pago Pago.[5] The second occurred while moored in Melbourne in 1937, when the Government Cool Stores caught fire. Port Nicholson was adjacent to the wharves at the time, and had a cargo of cattle on board. Water was sprayed onto the livestock, saving them.[5] In 1937 the Commonwealth and Dominion Line was re-branded the Port Line.[2] Port Nicholson was involved in another accident on 9 June 1938, when she collided with and sank the tugboat Ocean Cock, with the loss of four lives.[5]

Final voyage and sinking

Location where Port Nicholson was torpedoed and sunk off Massachusetts, United States.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Port Nicholson remained in service, transporting cargoes around the globe. Her last voyage, in 1942, was to take her from Avonmouth across the Atlantic to Halifax, via Barry. She was at Halifax on 14 June 1942, and departed bound for Wellington, with an intended call at New York City and a transit of the Panama Canal.[9] She formed part of convoy XB 25, one of the coastal convoy routes, that ran between Halifax Harbour and Boston. She was under the command of her master, Harold Charles Jeffrey, and was carrying a cargo of 1,600 tons of automobile parts and 4,000 tons of military stores.[9]

The convoy was tracked by the German submarine U-87, commanded by Joachim Berger. At 4.17 hours on the morning of 16 June 1942 he fired a torpedo at the convoy, which was then 100 miles (160 km) off Portland, Maine. He fired a second torpedo a minute later, but the gale conditions at the time prevented him from observing the results accurately, and he recorded that while one torpedo had hit a ship, the other seemed to have missed.[9] In fact, both torpedoes struck the Port Nicholson, the first in the engine room, the second in the stern. Two men in the engine room were killed immediately, and as the Port Nicholson began to settle by the stern, the remaining crew abandoned ship and were picked up by the Royal Canadian Navy corvette HMCS Nanaimo. The Port Nicholson did not sink immediately, and by dawn was still afloat. Her master returned to the ship, accompanied by the chief engineer, and Lieutenant John Molson Walkley and three ratings from Nanaimo, to see if the ship could be salvaged. While they were aboard, worsening weather caused the ship to suddenly start to sink. The party abandoned her, but their boat was overturned in the suction as Port Nicholson sank stern first, drowning Jeffrey, Walkley, the chief engineer and a rating. The two surviving ratings were rescued by Nanaimo, which landed the survivors from Port Nicholson at Boston.[9]


It was reported that the wreck of the Port Nicholson was discovered in 2008 by Greg Brooks, of the American company Sub Sea Research, but the discovery was kept secret until February 2012.[10] Brooks initially claimed to be investigating an unidentified vessel, codenamed Blue Baron, that lay off the coast of Guyana in South America.[11] This was an attempt to throw fellow treasure seekers off the trail, as Brooks believed that Port Nicholson was carrying a valuable cargo of platinum, gold, and industrial diamonds at the time of her sinking, payment from the Soviet Union for material delivered under lend-lease, which would now be worth around £2 billion. He reported that two Soviet envoys accompanied the ship, and that the Soviet government reimbursed the US government for the lost payment.[10] The salvors have claimed that underwater exploration of the wreck has revealed boxes too heavy to lift, that are supposed to contain the platinum ingots. The British, US and Russian governments may make claims over the cargo should anything of serious value be discovered.[10] Several maritime and Second World War historians have cast doubts over whether the ship was carrying such a precious cargo, citing the lack of documentation, and that if the Port Nicholson had been carrying such a cargo, she may have been partially salvaged already.[12]

It was reported in December 2013 that Brooks had put his vessel Sea Hunter up for sale and laid off most of his staff and crew. He is also being sued by a group of investors who had provided over $8 million in financing, on the grounds of fraud and misrepresentation of the actual existence of any platinum or other valuable cargo. Several leading wreck salvage experts, including Robert Marx, had gone on record questioning Brooks's claim of such cargo and laying out a long list of false claims of success in treasure hunting going back for decades.[11] In April 2015, Brooks rights to the Port Nicholson were dismissed with prejudice, preventing him from pursuing any further salvage of the shipwreck. The order also required him to return six items he recovered. Federal investigators have investigated allegations Brooks defrauded investors.[13]

On December 7, 2018, the FBI has said it is no longer pursuing the case and there is a five-year statute of limitations on federal fraud cases.


  1. "LLOYD'S REGISTER, NAVIRES A VAPEUR ET A MOTEURS" (PDF). Plimsoll Ship Data. Retrieved 21 February 2012.
  2. "tynebuilt ships: Port Nicholson". Retrieved 6 February 2012.
  4. "LLOYD'S REGISTER, STEAMERS & MOTORSHIPS" (PDF). Plimsoll Ship Data. Retrieved 21 February 2012.
  5. "Commonwealth & Dominion Line - Port Line". Retrieved 6 February 2012.
  6. "Port Nicholson Refloated" (43803). The Times. 7 November 1924. p. 21.
  7. "Condition of the Port Nicholson" (43792). The Times. 25 October 1924. p. 19.
  8. . The Times. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  9. Helgason, Guðmundur. "Port Nicholson (British Steam merchant)". German U-boats of WWII - Retrieved 6 February 2012.
  10. Osborn, Andrew (2 February 2012). "£2 billion treasure chest of sunken Second World War British steamer 'discovered'". Retrieved 6 February 2012.
  11. Russell, Eric (30 December 2013). "Key investors lose faith in Gorham treasure hunter's big claims". Portland Press Herald.
  12. "British cast doubt on treasure find". Associated Press. 5 February 2012. Retrieved 6 February 2012.
  13. Fishell, Darren (1 April 2015). "Gorham treasure hunter loses rights to salvage S.S. Port Nicholson". Bangor Daily News. Bangor, Maine. Retrieved 12 May 2015.

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