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Sindia Aground

Wrecked Sindia Lies Buried At Ocean City

By James Donahue

It was on December 15, 1901 that the four-mast sailing ship Sindia, nearing the end of a five month, 10,000-mile voyage from the orient, was caught in a violent winter gale and driven aground at Ocean City, New Jersey.

The wreck remains at that same spot to this day, the 329-foot steel hull cracked, and completely buried in the shifting sand no more than 150 yards from the beach. Buried with it remains most of the ship’s cargo of silk. Porcelain, camphor, fine china and other fine items for sale at Christmas, 1,200 tons of manganese stone ballast.

Because of the high value placed on the estimated 1,300 cases of Christmas cargo, the Sindia is considered a treasure wreck. Numerous attempts have been made to recover it, but because of the constantly shifting sand, all have ended in failure.

The Sindia, among the last of the great commercial sailing ships to travel the high seas, was launched in 1887 at Belfast, Ireland. It was classed as a barque because of its configuration of sails. She had been purchased by John D. Rockefeller’s Anglo-American Oil Company in 1900, just one year before it was lost.

The ship’s final voyage, under the command of Captain Allan MacKinzie, took it south around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, then west across the Pacific Ocean to Shanghai and then Kobe, Japan. There the Sindia delivered a cargo of kerosene before taking on the cargo bound for New York.

On the last leg of the trip back, when off Cape May, New Jersey, the Sindia was hit by a howling winter gale and high seas that continued for four days. The storm ripped the ship’s sails and rigging and drove it broadside into the sandy beach. As the storm raged on, the powerful surf and shifting sand caused the steel hull to burrow deeper and deeper into the sand. The 33-man crew was safely removed by the Ocean City Life Saving Station.

There were rumors that the ship was lost because the crew was drunk, something that is difficult to believe if they were battling a severe storm at sea for four consecutive days. Nevertheless, a British naval court, after conducting six days of hearings, found Captain MacKenzie guilty of failing to exercise proper and seamanlike care and precaution" and suspended his license for six months. MacKenzie returned to his native Scotland where he died before the suspension ended. He never mastered a vessel again.

There was an early excavation of some of the cargo but it was interrupted when the steel hull cracked and the vessel filled with water and sand. Later efforts were attempted by treasure hunters because of a rumor that the ship’s lower hold contained some rare and valuable items looted from Buddhist temples during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. These items supposedly included gold, jade, porcelain, jade dogs and a golden Buddha among other items smuggled aboard.

The truth of what lies buried in that cargo may never be told. The last surviving member of the crew, David Jackson, died in Philadelphia in 1970. He was 90 years old.

The story was supported by the fact that the ship’s manifest claimed that the lower hull contained crates filled with rocks of manganese ore for ship’s ballast. Since manganese ore is in plentiful supply in the United States, some suspected the crates were secretly filled with stolen art smuggled out of China. To date, no one has ever figured out a way to find out what secrets really lie buried in the sand off the New Jersey coast.

The wreck did not disappear overnight. It sank slowly over the years as storms tore it apart. Then when the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted a beach replenishment project, the entire hull was buried under an estimated 20 feet of sand.

The State of New Jersey designated the wreck as an official historical site in 1969.