Just before moonset on the starry evening of May 30, 1917, the steam yacht Medea was running about two miles NW of the Harwich lightship when her captain spotted a phosphorescent trail lancing toward the starboard side of his ship. Within seconds her lookout reported the passing of a torpedo across her bow at a distance of four meters. “Under such circumstances,” he mentioned later in his report of the incident, “it is regrettable to sail with a hull that bears a coat of brilliant white paint.” To her crew who were being hunted that evening, it must have seemed as though their vessel lived a charmed life.
She was herself descended from hunters. The word “yacht” derives from the Dutch jacht or “hunting ship.” In the Atlantic world of the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, ownership of a fast, well armed, private vessel signified one’s intention to profit by hunting down and capturing enemy merchantmen during wartime. The practice of “privateering,” licensed by formal letters of marque and reprisal, was endorsed by all maritime nations to magnify naval power and supplied a primary motive for the creation of yachts. By the mid-nineteenth century, concurrence of the monopolization of war as the exclusive prerogative of governments, the advent of steam technology, and the creation of vast industrial-age fortunes, transformed the yacht from a ship designed to seize wealth by force to a ship designed to display it conspicuously for pleasure. In 1856 privateering was outlawed by international treaty, and yachts thereafter became pleasure boats. In her lean lines, clipper bow, and raked vestigial masts, Medea flaunts her predator heritage, but by the time of her birth in 1904 no one would have seriously considered her a potential tool of naval warfare.
That role, it was presumed, had now been entirely preempted by purpose-built warships that were evolving into ever more massive, specialized, and lethal forms. A little more than a year after Medea launched, one of them named HMS Dreadnought revolutionized the development of the capital ship, plunged the world into a naval arms race, and contributed to the outbreak of world war. That war, as most envisioned beforehand, would most likely be settled by a brief but thunderous clash of dreadnought fleets somewhere on the North Sea. No one dreamed that millions of young men would die in trench warfare, that cities would be bombed from the air, poisonous gas be used as a weapon, that merchant shipping could be wiped out by a new form of predator lurking under the sea, or that Medea and her kind might return to a strange and terrifying new world to be hunters once more.
Knowing that it would bring the US into the war, in February of 1917 Germany authorized her U-boats to attack all shipping surrounding Britain, beginning an appalling massacre of merchantmen, and cutting off Britain’s lifeline of supplies. A month before the torpedo narrowly missed Medea, Admiral William Sims, representing the still neutral American Government, was appraised of the situation at sea by British Admiral Jellicoe, First Sea Lord, revealing losses that were three and four times as large as those which were then being published in the press.
“It is expressing it mildly to say that I was surprised by this disclosure. I was fairly astounded; for I had never imagined anything so terrible. I expressed my consternation to Admiral Jellicoe.
‘Yes,’ he said, as quietly as though he were discussing the weather and not the future of the British Empire. ‘It is impossible for us to go on with the war if losses like this continue…’
‘It looks as though the Germans were winning the war,’ I remarked.
‘They will win, unless we can stop these losses – and stop them soon,’ the Admiral replied.
‘Is there no solution for the problem?’ I asked.
‘Absolutely none that we can see now,’ Jellicoe announced.”
In fact, there was a solution, attempted after everything else had failed. By arming trawlers and yachts like Medea as anti-submarine patrol vessels, a sufficient number of destroyers could be freed from sector patrols to instead escort convoys of merchant ships. For much of 1917 Britain’s supply of fuel and food reached perilous levels. As the hemorrhage of merchant shipping slowed and then stabilized with the implementation of such convoys, the fate of the world hung in the balance.
Thus, it is that the most unsuspected of actors can be the ones to make the difference. On a distant ocean, in an age now beyond living memory, when great battlefleets proved indecisive, vast armies stalemated in the trenches, terror rained from the sky and stalked under the sea, the world seemed to turn on the actions of a few little vessels that no one intended should fight the first Battle of the Atlantic. But perhaps what is more astonishing, given the significance of events, is that of all the ships of that time, large and small, which contended with one another for the future of the world, to my knowledge only Medea remains, still capable of steaming proudly.
It is for the significance of this small, lovely vessel that we are attempting to have her inscripted on the National Register of Historic Places: one of three Edwardian-era steam yachts still operating under her original power plant, the last operational combatant of the first Battle of the Atlantic, the oldest anti-submarine warship, and the last operational vessel to have fought in both world wars. If we are successful, then not only does Medea gain the international recognition she deserves, but she becomes eligible for significant sources of funding, such as Save America’s Treasures grants, that will help keep her steaming in perpetuity.
But the key word is operational. Medea’s steam plant has rested dormant for several years now and her US Coast Guard COI is out of date. This situation can be remedied, but we do need to act quickly before the degradation from lack of use renders the restoration of her machinery beyond practical means.
Which is why this mid-year appeal is devoted to both Medea’s significance and to your generosity and desire to see this grand piece of history steam proudly again, proving that after more than a century it is not so regrettable after all “to sail with a hull that bears a coat of brilliant white paint.”
Ray Ashley, PhD, KCI
President and CEO, Maritime Museum of San Diego
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