It’s a bleak stormy afternoon as the 1,623-ton German cargo ship Orion steams slowly from the Wear on January 21, 1913.
Laden with 3,000 tons of coal, she is bound for Libau, Latvia in charge of Captain Davidsen. Two tugs assisting have already cast off and returned upriver.
With a howling gale blowing and heavy seas sweeping into the harbour, perhaps Orion’s master has misjudged the conditions. Making little headway, his beleaguered vessel is carried towards submerged rocks near New South Pier, damaging her rudder and propeller.
Now at the mercy of the sea, she drifts helplessly towards the Old North Pier end with seas breaking over her.
Answering Orion’s distress signals, tugs rush to her aid, among these being Stag, Rescue, Anthony Irwing, United, Souter and Lumley. But even the combined power of these Wear workhorses is not enough to tow the stricken steamer to safety.
Sunderland’s North Dock pulling lifeboat RNLB George Woofindin is launched to rescue the 19 crew on board, who are in danger of being swept into the water. Members of the Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade Roker Division are scrambled into action in case rocket lines and breeches buoy gear are required, while the motor lifeboat RNLB J McConnel Hussey remains at her moorings in readiness.
Seamen can be seen clinging to the ship’s rails but initially refuse to abandon ship. With conditions worsening, the lifeboat succeeds in taking off the whole crew. At one time, the lifeboat is almost washed onto the deck of the steamer but all have been saved – apart from the ship’s dog, believed swept overboard. A cat is later found alive on board and rescued.
Eventually, Orion becomes stranded broadside to the sea off the end of Old North Pier, her head towards Roker Pier.
Soon, an alarming crack is seen on her port side – she has broken her back. Submerged by the stern, she projects into the river channel but there is still sufficient room for traffic to pass.
The River Wear Commissioners (RWC) take charge of Orion as preparations are made to salve the cargo of coal.
Thomas Round of Whitby and stevedore Thomas Young of South Docks are appointed to carry out this work, with local shipbreaker JG Potts purchasing the wreck.
As tugs pull the hulk towards the beach, the ship breaks into two parts amidships. But the scrap man’s work is far from complete; the skeletal remains of the fore section are allowed to sink into the sand.
There they stay for years to come, attracting repeated complaints. Finally, contractors remove the remains in 1988.
Orion was built at the Koch shipyard, Lubeck, Germany in 1901, her owners being H Schmidt of Flensburg.