Bent masts and bridge strikes were part of life on the river

The bent mast on Manxman.
The bent mast on Manxman.
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By the time the present Wearmouth Bridge opened in 1929, the problem of sailing vessels fouling their masts had all but disappeared.

Instead, it was the air draught of some steamers and later motor ships which caused uneasiness as they passed beneath the bridge with sometimes only inches to spare.

Tight squeeze  Vigrafjord passing beneath Wearmouth Bridge in 1955.

Tight squeeze  Vigrafjord passing beneath Wearmouth Bridge in 1955.

The new bridge had been built with 85ft 6in clear headroom above the complete width of the navigable channel, instead of the maximum feet allowed by the previous structure at the centre of the arch.

As ships grew larger, installation of funnels and topmasts often had to be completed downriver to avoid contact with the bridge deck.

Sometimes, ships had to navigate at minimum water depth to allow sufficient headroom - running the risk of grounding in the event of a miscalculation.

Yet, in spite of the greatest care being taken, mishaps continued to occur.

In July 1932, the Norwegian steamer Kapana was being towed upriver to Hetton Drops, when the top of her mainmast struck Wearmouth Bridge.

This caused the winches to pull down her rigging and a large section of the mast, which fell into the river.

Seamen and trimmers on deck preparing for loading had lucky escapes.

On August 24, 1936, the French steamer Saint Palais lost the top of a mast while passing beneath the bridge, while in January 1938, the steamship Cap Blanc had to remain at the Lower Buoys for removal of her topmasts to allow her to proceed to Southwick for new boilers at George Clark’s engineworks.

Painters working beneath Wearmouth Bridge during April and May 1939 must have been uneasy, at times as their staging reduced ships’ clearances by 5ft.

Fortunately work was finished by June that year, when the collier Sydfold’s aft mast caught the bridge while being towed stern-first upriver to Lambton Drops.

Luckily, the ship stopped in time to allow her foremast to be lowered.

A steamer became stuck under the adjacent railway bridge for two hours in October that year, when one mast snapped and another jammed beneath the span.

A 14-year-old boy was hospitalised with head injuries in 1946, when a recently-launched tanker’s mast scraped the underside of Wearmouth Bridge, causing it to fall onto the deck.

With the closure of riverside coal staiths during the 1960s and fewer but larger vessels being built upriver, bridge strikes became extremely rare.

Amazingly though, the last one took place as recently as 1997, when the turbine passenger steamer Manxman was being towed to Pallion Shipyard to await her destiny.

Many onlookers did not see what happened, but drew their own conclusions when they saw the ship being towed back downriver with foremast bent at 45 degrees!