Monday, 13 October 2014

Remembering the Osprey

Not so long ago, someone started posting pictures on of the after effects of Typhoon Ellen in 1983. Out of this interesting discussion came the mention of a boat that became an unfortunate victim of the typhoon when it sank several miles south of the territory. A barquentine called the 'Osprey'.

A link to a photograph of the vessel on FLICKR led me to a rather interesting tidbit of information because something about the vessel looked familiar. It turns out that repeated viewings of Jackie Chan's Project A (I had it on VHS tape circa 1988 and watched it almost every week for a loooong time) had burned the image of this ship into my brain because the Osprey made a brief cameo appearance. The Osprey was the sailing ship conveying some rather pompous Colonial types as they are suddenly attacked by some marauding pirates.

The scene lasts about 5 mins in total and we get to see various camera angles taken both on-board and also from a distance – it gives you a pretty good overall view of the Osprey. Here are a selected bunch of screen grabs from the film that feature the various parts of the boat.

 Note the ship’s name in this shot

Looks are deceiving because what appears (to a numpty non-sailor like me, at least) to be a fully-fledged wooden sailing boat was actually a sail-training ship made of steel/iron with an engine.

An attractive boat I think you’ll agree and it seems as though this was to be its swan song because this film was made in 1983 – just a few months before the fateful September when the ship was lost in the southern waters of Hong Kong.

So what actually happened? The problem is no one really knows for certain – hearings were held into the incident but due to the fact that the sole survivor of the incident – a Japanese crew member surnamed Ogura – was asleep for the 3 hours preceding the disaster and only awoke just as the ship was beginning to sink, means that there is no facts available and the inquiries conducted had to rely almost entirely on supposition based on various probabilities (although the later discovery of the wreck filled in some of the blanks or at least led to better conclusions).

Here is what is believed to have happened: the ship was anchored in Repulse bay on the morning of the 9th September 1983 and the strong winds of typhoon Ellen meant the boat was already dragging its anchor and a decision was taken by the captain (Gary) to steer the boat into open sea – perhaps to face the winds away from nearby rocks and reefs? So, at 1 a.m the ship set out on a course that would take it down past Lamma Island via its southern coastline. It’s thought this manoeuvre took about 2 hours and the ship would have been clear of Lamma by around 3 – 3.30am.

At this point Ogura was asleep, but sometime around 6 a.m something happened that caused the boat to founder and take on water. Ogura ended up in the sea with 3 other crew – Fortner, Franklin and Ulland and Ogura later testified at the hearing that by the time he realised what was happening the ship was already partially capsized with its bow stick upright out of the water and it was swiftly drifting away from the group.

At some point in the afternoon of the 10th (after being in the water for something like 30 hours), Ogura became separated from his companions and was eventually rescued but the fate of his co-survivors doesn’t seem to have been established and I suspect they, plus the other members of the crew are part of the official statistics of those who went missing in HK during the typhoon (12 missing in total including the Osprey crew).

The actual wreck of the boat wasn’t discovered until the following year when reports from fishermen about an obstruction in the water, tangling their nets and trawling equipment, was investigated and found to be the Osprey sitting upright in 30 metres of water several miles away from where the supposed sinking occurred. The only damage noted was two of the masts were broken (probably after capsizing and they had struck the seabed) and it was completely festooned with snagged fishing nets.

Here’s a quick Google view of some key locations. HK Island is the land mass in the top centre right of the photo with Lantau Island to its left and Lamma Island just off its southwest coast. The thin strip of islands to the south include the Lema Islands (the uppermost part) and are in fact under Zhuhai administration (the area of China immediately over the border from Macau).

Here is the key to the numbers:

1 – the supposed site of the ship’s initial foundering (this was a guess by the inquiry based on the assumed speed of travel and the assumed time of the disaster – 6 a.m thanks to Ulland’s watch stopping at the time when she entered the water with Ogura). The actual position was thought to be within a 4 or 5 mile radius of this position.

2 – the location of the Osprey’s dinghy on the small island of Yat Chau (Yi Zhou) – 8 miles south of the Soko Islands. Found a few days later by a member of the public helping in the search.

3 – the final confirmed location of the Osprey wreck. What is significant is the distance it had drifted from its supposed foundering position indicating it didn’t completely sink initially and floated, fully or partially submerged, for a considerable distance (something in the region of 20 – 25 miles) before finally hitting the seabed.

As far as I am aware the wreck has never been salvaged (officially at least) and I have no idea if further investigation was carried out on it by divers. I’m quite a fan of shipwrecks in general and was pondering the possibility of getting there – nigh on impossible I suspect. The local water visibility and amount of shipping and fishing traffic around this area would make it fairly unreachable. Anyway, if anyone has any information they would like to share, please leave a comment. It would be nice to add some extra information – however trivial – for everyone to see.

I’m not aware of the crews’ full names but the re-hearing document lists the following surnames: Gary (captain), Ogura (bo’sun and sole survivor), Hae, Chan, Biron (these two seem to be the only other bodies recovered), Fortner, Franklin and Ulland (Susan Ulland was the only female member of the crew).

Actually, since I first posted this entry back in January 2013, several people who had direct contact or involvement with the Osprey had been kind enough to leave comments and so I have included them below, so many thanks to everyone who shared their memories. I also noticed that a staff writer for HK Time Out had included this little snippet of Project A information in a back page article on typhoons back in September 2013 - it's nice to know people do actually read my blog and get something useful from it. Anyway, on with the comments.

Chris Sledge:
Thanks for this. I was a crew member on the Osprey earlier in 1983. I only found out that the ship had sunk earlier this year and have been looking for some more info on it.Ogura San was ex-Japanese Defence Force and very proud of it, an immensely capable seaman who taught me how to sail square riggers.
When I left, the Captain was replaced at the same time and the ship was being run by the first officer - a guy named Bo, ex-US Navy.
The only Gary that I remember on board (and this may not be the same guy) was an Australian electrician who was the ships engineer.
Matthew Lechtzier:
In late January, 1976, an instant piecemeal crew of young Brits, Americans, a Dutchman and myself, then 20, sailed The Osprey from the Canary Islands to the West Indies, The Bahamas and eventually Port Canaveral. The ship was “owned” then by one Arthur Erikson, an American with a fanciful dream to create a school ship but with nothing but the gift of gab to build it. Its maiden voyage to America (with new rigging outfitted in Denmark) was no doubt more bizarre and certainly more adventurous than the Jackie Chan movie. The following month, having briefly landed in the Turks & Caicos Islands and Grand Bahama we tied up in Florida and were told to vanish for a whole variety of sordid reasons and none of us ever saw the ship again. Notwithstanding all that we had the trip of a life time and I will never forget that adventure across the Atlantic.
Richard Dodds:
I was on the Osprey from Tenerife to Pt.Canaveral in 1976. Our Dutch skipper, a man of 60 who had spent his life in sail, had spoken with the designer of Osprey’s refit in Denmark who had expressed concern as to her maximum safe angle of heel due to the rig not being ideal for the hull form. Baltic traders are by nature shallow draught vessels more often than not fore and aft rigged with shorter masts therefore less tophamper than that of the barquentine rig.
On our Atlantic passage the owner was on watch and reveling in the increasing wind and subsequent angle of heel, water coming over the rail etc. The skipper, whose bunk was athwartships, was apparently woken by the angle of heel and was very anxious to get all hands on deck to shorten sail.
It was once the panic was over and we were all sitting in the deckhouse skipper told us of his concerns.
Had Osprey been hit by excessive wind on the beam and been knocked flat, or beyond her angle of recovery, it is possible she might have foundered.
Alberto Rodriguez:
I am completely blown out by learning about the demise of Osprey and her crew. I just came across this sad news, I feel completely overwhelmed. I sailed onboard her in 1981, if I remember well, from Tokyo to Hong Kong, with a call in Keelung (Taiwan) due to bad weather, typhoon approaching. I remained as a crew member onboard, anchored in Hong Kong harbour for another 6 months, but due to very limited sailing and lack of business I finally departed in another sailing boat to Singapore. 
I remember I was the only westerner onboard (Uruguayan), the rest of the crew was Japanese, and later some Chinese came onboard for daily works. From what I know, and I am pretty sure about it, her owner was the Japanese millionaire Mako Yamawaki. He found her sunk in Bahamanian waters and towed her to Tokyo where she underwent repairs (i worked aboard for the last 3 months before sailing to Hong Kong). I would love to receive some reply from any of you guys that posted info here.. Regards to all of you..
I worked in Denmark building Osprey with Dominique, Jim, Bill , Clive, Paul, Glenn, David, Garry, Wayne, Harland, and Peter. I needle-gunned and painted Osprey. I built the deck with some others, I pushed the concrete in the bottom of the hull to ballast her….etc. I sailed Osprey with my friends and Richard, Peter, Harriet to the Kiel canal, Lisbon,and Tenerife. Great time.
Paul Onions:
I worked on there in 82 so I must of just missed you...but I was around after I left (boozing with Bo etc.) with the likes of Sarg, Ross, Capt. Berry, Eng. Chris and Ace the bartender...and the total [beep] Chris Scott who was the mate who then and became the skipper edging out old Capt Berry! Gary was Bo Gary - a total cool gent from Hawaii, 6’4″, negro – a rare sight in HK early 80′s, especially when we were in Sai can imagine! I’d love to hook up with any souls from that golden age before it went went totally pear shaped . Paul
For some reason today I was thinking about the loss of the Osprey off Hong Kong in the Typhoon and the sad loss of the people on board. I was living in HK at the time and remember Bo well – a lovely guy and drinking companion. Osprey was a beautiful sight when driving over HK island you suddenly saw her ahead of you off Repulse Bay. Such a shock after the typhoon to hear what happened to her and the crew. I was so pleased to find this information on the web – I didn’t know the wreck had been found as I had left HK by then.


  1. The Osprey was originally a steel hulled Baltic schooner built in Sweden in the early 1900s. She had been cut down to a motor vessel and I think was named “Sonya”. Art Erickson had crewed on the Joseph Conrad with Alan Villiers, I think as a cook, but had the dream of operating his own square rigged sailing vessel and he sold the idea of a $10,000 trip around the world to 30 or so young people in the US. This provided the capital for the project. I was one of the riggers that converted the motor vessel Sonya to the 3 mast barkentine Osprey from 1974 to 1976 in Korsor, Denmark. When we were done she had steel lower masts, larch upper masts and yards, steel standing rigging, tarred hemp running rigging and she ended up with Dacron sails. I recall many arguments between the head rigger and Art about the rig design and I know there were some major compromises. The ship had a double bottom for water ballast, but Art had it filled with concrete as water would not have been enough to counterbalance the top hamper. We left Korsor in January of 1976 and ended up in the Canary Islands. The Osprey seemed fairly stable but we had reasonable weather. After about a month, just as we were to leave for the West Indies, there was a major disagreement between the Captain and Art, resulting in the firing of the entire crew and captain. I returned to San Francisco and that was the last time I saw the Osprey. My understanding was that Art went broke by the time they reached the West Indies and the Osprey was sold. I’ve thought about it a lot over the years. I’m not surprised the Osprey sank in a typhoon, as many sailing vessels have been lost in hurricanes and typhoons over the centuries. Although I had issues with Art, he lost everything, while the rest of just went on with our lives. I was saddened to find out about ten years ago that he had passed away, I think from multiple sclerosis. Art had a great vision but he just couldn’t quite hold it together long enough for his vision to succeed.

    1. Hi anon
      Many thanks for leaving a comment, it's always nice to hear history from those involved.
      Many thanks

  2. Steve Curry
    I worked on the Osprey right up to a week before she disappeared. I went looking for her the next day after the typhoon and reported that she was missing. I visited the morgue to try to identifying the bodies that were found at the sea.
    I remember the making of the above movie, we had lots of fun doing it. We all loved working on the boat, swimming in Repulse Bay, they were a great group of friends.
    It knocked me for a six and I spent some time wondering in cycles after that experience, I was twenty two at the time. I loved sleeping on her decks under the starry/city lights with the smell of sea on the breeze.

    1. Hi Steve, many thanks for stopping by and leaving some of your memories. Many thanks, Phil

    2. Hi Steve, I just wonder if at that time there was a Japanese guy called Yoshijima among the crew, very nice man in his twenties, good guitar player.. We sailed together on her maiden voyage from Tokyo to Hong KOng, after she underwent full overhaul for a couple of years.. We became very close friends, but after reaching H.K. he went back to Tokyo. After a year or so He wrtote to me saying he was going back to join Osprey in Repulse Bay, in 1982 or 1983, and never heard again from him.. any clue ?? Many thanks to all of you for sharing your memories on this tragic story of the seas...
      PD: I sailed with Ogura san on that first voyage and we worked togethar for about 6 months onboard where Osprey was anchores in H.K. Bay before her mooring at Repulse Bay, year 1982....

    3. I posted earlier as Alberto Rodríguez, you all can reach me easier at

      Big hugs to all of you, and life goes on... haver smooth winds...

  3. What do we know about 'Mr. Drummond', who by all accounts appears to have been the 'Director of Marine' at the time of the sinking? Reading through the Re-Hearing at the Marine Court, it is more than clearly presented that he had been attempting to cover up his role as the key person who could have saved lives, should he had performed his job properly. It seems that the cover up required a great deal of misinformation about the potential speed of movement of the Osprey.

    1. You are absolutely correct. Had he been doing his job rather than trying to cover up the facts, maybe those who were lost would have been found alive.

  4. Amazing to have come across this. I knew Susan Ulland quite well. My parents were missionaries at the Hong Kong Adventist Hospital compound at 40 Stubbs Road. Susan worked at the Hospital and lived in the same 12 story building adjacent to the hospital that we lived in. I was 17 at the time and her loss had a big impact. I still have some CD's she had loaned me before she was lost. I recall getting onto the elevator with her distraught parents who had come from Norway in an effort to figure out what had happened. The story of the disappearance was a lead story on the news for quite some time. The only survivor of the accident was treated at our Hospital for exposure etc. The last time I saw Susan was at a McDonalds in Kowloon. She was having an absolute blast working on the Osprey and was really excited about it. I have not read the details of the legal proceedings following the sinking, but I clearly remember well founded suspicion of an insurance payout being a motivator for sending the ship out to Sea during the brunt of the storm. Susan was a really great person and her sudden loss really affected the community of the Hospital.

  5. Wowww so many nice memories after so many years.. despite the huge losses indeed..

  6. I was Captain of the 132 ft LOA Brigantine Ji Fung when Osprey was lost. I only boarded Osprey on one occasion when I visited her with Joe Kong the builder of the Ji Fung and his team to get details of the design of their pin rails, but somewhere I must still have the photographs I took during that visit
    We were moored on a Typhoon mooring buoy in Port Shelter North of Sai Kung. We were well prepared with sails secured by double gaskets, but we still had to work hard to reduce the chafing of our mooring lines and anchor chain by freshening the nip every 20 minutes during the height of the storm, (At one stage I had to try to secure the upper staysail which looked like it might break free but in hurricane force winds the sail cloth was like steel and impossible to handle - fortunately the other gaskets held). When the TRS was off Pratas Reef, 100 miles south of HK the sea conditions were described as Phenomenal - it was the only time in my 51 years at sea that I heard the expression used except in the book "In Hazard".
    One must not forget that after the Storm abated there was total chaos in HK with yachts thrown high up hill sides and if I recall correctly 23 Ocean going vessels running aground. Also the Aberdeen Eastern stone breakwater was leveled by the waves and a lot of damage ashore by flooding and high winds. There was talk that the Met Office had not given sufficient warning but as I wrote down all the weather reports as the typhoon approached I felt this was unfair criticism.
    If I recall correctly winds of 145kts were recorded at Wanglan Lighthouse 10 miles South of our position (and to the East of Repulse Bay where Osprey was last sighted.) It was very sad time but amazing that there was one survivor to tell part of the story of the disaster. Peter Gasson

    1. Hi Peter, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Sorry I neglected to respond earlier. Cheers, Phil

  7. Hi, my brother was the Australian on the osprey. His name was Bruce Franklin Sheppard and he was the engineer. He was living his dream working his way around the world. I don't have any details of what happened so this site was good for me. His body was never found.

    1. Hi Lyn, many thanks for leaving a comment but very sorry to hear how close this tragedy is to you. Many condolences, Phil

  8. andrew schofield6 November 2018 at 04:02

    Hi Phil many thanks for your post, I came across it randomly tonight after a friend posted a picture of a Barquentine and it got me thinking about my time aboard the Osprey.
    I spent about 4months or so as a crew member in the year of 1983 as the youngest and only Englishman aboard. My name is Andy Schofield and I joined the ship after hearing about her from someone I met in Manila who told me that he had randomly met the then Captain Jeff Berry on a plane flight. I asked him for the Captains name and phone number. I called Capt berry from Manila and he said that if I could make my way to Hong Kong he may be able to give me a job. Excited by the prospect I took a punt and paid for my flight. Anyhow, the interview went well and i became the last of that crew .
    I remember being paid $50 per week and all food and lodgings thrown in. Joining a crew of seamen and adventurers aged 22 years old was an exciting time. The prospect of sailing the High Seas enthralled me but sadly never transpired. I remember hours of chipping away rust and painting red lead paint on the baremetal.
    The names I remember from that time are Sarg ( Sargent Shute 3rd) Philo, Jesse Wingate, 2 Marks ( 1 from the Florida Keys ) and I think Richard as well as Jeff Berry and the Japanese 1st Mate who survived the fateful capsizing .

    All of us survived.
    The promised trans ocean voyages never happened. Instead the Osprey became a day trip experience motoring around Hong Kong Harbour loaded with loaded expats. Bit by bit the whole crew dispersed except Ogura the Japanese chap who stayed with the Osprey and survived the sinking.

    Reading this blog has given me the the chance to reflect on my time aboard the Osprey which if memory serves (35 years ago) I was fortunate to leave some 3 months or so prior to the sinking, unlike the poor souls who perished on that fateful night.
    I remember my time aboard the Barquentine Osprey with immense fondness and sadness.
    If this reaches anyone who was a shipmate of mine please contact me

    1. Hi Andy, I appreciate you taking the time to comment and share your memories. I hope some of your old friends also read this and manage to get in touch. Many thanks, Phil