On November 6, 1876, an iron-hulled cargo ship, the Circassian, having just returned to her home port from a long voyage to Bombay set sail from Liverpool, England bound across the wintry Atlantic for the Port of New York.
All cargo, consisting of 1,400 tons of industrial freight, was consigned to Snow & Burgess of 66 South Street, New York, and insured in the amount of $90,000 by companies in that port. At departure the ship's bill of lading read as follows:
44 tons of dyowood
She was a large vessel, 1,741 tons, 280 feet long, 39 feet wide at her widest point, with a 193/4 foot draft. She had three masts, all iron, and carried full sail. Including the Captain and three apprentices, she had a crew of thirty-five men. The ship's command on this voyage was assigned to an able young Welshman, Captain Richard Williams. Though not much experienced on this 3,200 mile route across the Atlantic, Williams anticipated no problems. Though the North Atlantic could be stormy and unpleasant, especially in the autumn and winter months, he was confident in his ability to handle the assignment. He planned to follow the established seasonal sea lanes and he had a seaworthy ship and an adequate crew. Sailing against the prevailing winds and also against the eastward flowing Gulf Stream, he still hoped to reach New York in a little over three weeks. If the weather held, it should be just a routine voyage.
Although extensively renovated, the Circassian was far from being a new vessel. Originally built in 1856 in Belfast, Ireland, she had been a twin-screw steamer with double beam engines, of only moderate speed but dependable. Like many steamships of her day, she carried auxiliary sail and was bark-rigged. Over the years the Circassian, always a workhorse, had seen many forms of service. First a passenger and cargo ship on the Irish Sea, she was modified to become a blockade-runner during the American Civil War. After capture and confiscation by federal forces, the now U.S.S. Circassian was refitted as a Union troop and supply ship for use along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Following the war, the ship was sold as surplus to private American concerns. Despite much use as a coastal and trans-Atlantic merchantman, the ship became victim of bitter international litigation over ownership and lay at dock idle for long periods. She was eventually and permanently returned to Great Britain, where her current owners, S. S. DeWolfe & Co. of Liverpool, appraised her condition and had the solid-iron vessel overhauled and converted totally to sail. Her engines and smokestack were removed, a new deck added, and all her rigging was completely altered.
The reasons for conversion to full sail were economic. She had been one of the early, experimental screw propeller ships. Her twenty-year old engines, poorly maintained and outdated, needed replacement; wind power was cheap. Removing her engines and converting the boiler and fuel areas into cargo space increased the carrying capacity and profit potential of the ship. By all reports, the renovated Circassian was now very sound and in excellent condition. The Liver pool Maritime Exchange rated her as A-1, a first-class ship; and Liverpool companies insured her for $100,000 on this present voyage to New York.
This, then, was the Circassian s first trans-Atlantic voyage since renovation. Early en route, the November weather proved mostly favorable and progress was good. The only problem on board had been the unexpected finding of a stowaway, a young man named John McDermott. Apparently eager to reach the New World, he was put to work with the crew to earn his passage. There were now thirty-six men on board.
Only five days out of Liverpool, on November 11, the Circassian was spotted by a passing ship at the coordinates of latitude 51 degrees and longitude 20 degrees, or about 900 miles due south of Mt. Kekla on the south central coast of Iceland. She was well at sea, on course, and experiencing no difficulty.
If information was relayed, as was the custom, between the two passing ships in regard to weather and other sailing conditions, Captain Williams would have known of the storm heading his way. Shortly thereafter, those storms became a savage reality.