22nd April 1838

Leith-built steamship is first to cross the Atlantic

SS Sirius was designed to ply a regular route between Cork and London but, the year after her launch, she went far further than that, becoming the first ship to cross to America entirely under steam power.

She was sailed under charter by the British and American Steam Navigation Company, which clearly understood the value of good publicity, and decided to attempt the crossing when Sirius’ near rival, the Great Western, was primed to make the crossing herself. They had to make some compromises, though, increasing the amount of coal she carried so they could extend her regular operational range of just under 3000 miles.

Significant time saving

The crossing took a little over 18 days, which sounds like a long time when the Atlantic Ocean can be traversed in a matter of hours on a jet plane, but it was a significant reduction on the 40+ days usually taken by the mail packet. This was despite the weather being against her.

Newspapers couldn’t get immediate updates on her progress, so had to wait for other ships to arrive at British ports with news. On 28 April, the St James’s Chronicle reported that news had arrived from a Captain Hare, on the Intrepid, who had passed the Sirius on the 10th when it “had been six days at sea; during that period, in resolute and unflinching defiance of one of the most severe, long-continued, and disastrous westwardly gales, with the fury of which the Atlantic has ever been aroused, the steamer had succeeded in travelling a distance of 800 miles”. The paper projected that, at that rate, she would complete the crossing in the 18 days that it did.

SS Sirius wrecked

Unfortunately, although she may have been a trailblazer, SS Sirius was the perfect embodiment of the moniker, ‘live fast and die young’. Just ten years after her launch, and nine after completing her world-first trans-Atlantic crossing, she was wrecked off Ireland. She had been on a route out of Glasgow, calling at Dublin and Cork when she hit rocks and was holed below the waterline. Twenty lives were lost.

The Perthshire Advertiser of 28 January 1847 carried a report, which detailed how “between three and four o’clock in the morning, the vessel, having made an excellent passage from Dublin to the offing of Cork harbour, struck, in a dense fog, on a reef of rocks in Ballycotton Bay, and instantly a scene of consternation not to be described prevailed among the passengers”. The first lifeboat to be lowered into the water “was not equal to accommodate more than eight, but immediately after she was launched twenty crowded into her… and before she was well clear of the steamer, melancholy to relate, she was swamped and all in her [but one] met a watery grave”.



Other events that occured in April

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