The Golden Gate, a three-mile long by one-mile wide strait that connects San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean, is known for many things - its namesake bridge, beautiful views and the most importantly (at least for seamen), a notoriously heavy fog layer that often encompasses the area. Though foghorns have now been installed to guide ships to the ports of San Francisco, Oakland and Richmond, such was not the case a century ago. It is therefore not surprising to hear that hundreds of ships have veered off course and sunk, whilst trying to cross the area. Amongst the most poignant loss was that of the SS City of Rio de Janeiro, a tragedy that is often referred to as "The Golden Gate Titanic".
The final voyage of the iron-hulled steam-powered passenger ship began in China. After brief stops in Japan and Hawaii, it arrived in the area on the night of February 21st, 1901. Aboard were 210 passengers and crew. Many, were Chinese immigrants hoping to start a new life in the beautiful city of San Francisco.
A thick fog over the Golden Gate strait forced the ship's Captain William Ward to anchor it just outside the bay for the night. At 5.30am just before dawn, the fog lifted. Believing it was safe, Ward set sail towards the port of San Francisco, that lay just an hour away.
However, before the ship could pass through the treacherous area, the fog rolled in again causing the 345-foot steamer to veer from its course and run into the sharp rocks near Fort Point, at the strait's southern end.
Soon after, the ship lost power resulting in total confusion and chaos. According to survivors, while the captain did give the order to sound the fire alarm and lower the lifeboats, the rafts never made it into the water.
Even if they had, the passengers most of whom were still in their berths, would have probably never made it out given that the ship sank within ten minutes.
The wreck was so sudden that the rescue team at the Fort Point Lifesaving Station, only a short distance away, remained unaware of the tragedy for two hours. It was only when a lifeboat emerging from a fog bank was sighted that they realized what was going on and dispatched rescue boats. As a result, only 81 passengers most of whom were rescued by Italian fishing boats heading out to sea, survived.
Since then, scientists and treasure hunters, who believed the SS Rio carried silver and gold, have been searching for the wreckage. In 1987 a group of bounty hunters claimed to have discovered it, but could never direct the experts to the area.
Hence, the search continued until November 2014, when the scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), were finally able to verify that a wreck found in the main ship channel, was that of the SS Rio. The researchers who announced the news along with a sonar profile of the ship on December 10th, say that while the ship may now be a "crumpled, scarcely recognizable iron hulk encased in more than a century worth of mud and sediment,” its stern, bow and point where the hull broke, were easily visible on the sonar image.
The discovery was made with the help of a 3D sonar device called Echoscope. The brainchild of UK-based Coda Octopus, the instrument, which is housed inside a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) the size of a refrigerator, provides detailed leveled images that allows researchers to document wrecks without moving them from their watery homes.
While this mystery has been solved, the office of the Maritime Heritage division of NOAA plans to continue the project to find and document the 200 vessels the area has claimed over the years. According to James Delgado, the director of Maritime Heritage, the purpose of the two year long project is not just to obtain historical data about the disasters. It also helps his marine biology colleagues accurately ascertain the time it takes for wrecks to become habitable, given that they know the starting date (the day the vessel sank).
But most of all, Delgado hopes that discoveries like these will help spark the interest of young people in ocean science and instill in them an appreciation for exploration. After all, there are all kinds of exciting underwater secrets and maybe even treasures, that are just waiting to be discovered - as for the purported gold and silver in the SS Rio? Experts that have looked at the ship's manifest confirm that it was merely a rumor!
Resources: washingtonpost.com, wired.com, sfgate.com,maritimeheritage.org.