Elafonissi Island on the extreme west coast of Crete is known world wide for the fine pink sands on its eastern, landward, side and every day during the summer thousands of holidaymakers flock to enjoy it.
However, the less visited west side of the island is a totally different scene: 40 metre high sheer cliffs falling into a rock-strewn sea. It was on these rocks that the Austro Hungarian Lloyds Steam Ship “Imperatrix” was driven during a severe storm on the night of 21/22 February 1907.
The ship, at over 4000 tons one of the two largest ships in the Austro Lloyd fleet at that time, was en route from Trieste, her homeport, to Bombay with a mixed cargo, 20 passengers and a crew of 120. A modern, steel built, vessel, she had been laid down in 1888 and specially designed for high speed service on the route from Trieste to India via the Suez Canal, a journey she had made many times.
On her final voyage, the Imperatrix, under Captain G Ghezzo, had been experiencing difficulties rounding the west of Crete due to the severe weather and, owing to what were later deemed to be navigational errors, was some 60 miles off course. As a result, at about 03.00 she ploughed into the rocks on the western side of Elafonissi, bow first.
The initial order to passengers and crew was to stand fast and not to attempt to evacuate, it being considered that the seas were too rough and she was too near the shore to attempt to launch the lifeboats safely. Unfortunately it appears that this order either did not reach, or was ignored by, a number of the crew. They launched one of the lifeboats and attempted to make for the shore. The boat capsized in the rough seas and all within, 39 or 40 depending on the account read, were lost.
Those remaining on board the Imperatrix mustered on the bow section as the stern started to break away from the vessel. By now a crowd had gathered on the shore, seemingly in response to emergency rockets being launched from the ship, and attempts were made to get a line to the vessel. Eventually one of the ships officers and 11 others managed to get ashore and a messenger was sent off to Chania to report the wreck and request assistance.
The news reached Chania some 15 hours later, after what must have been a very uncomfortable journey over the mountains, and a number Russian, French and Italian warships, stationed in Chania as part of the international force guaranteeing the status of Crete, were despatched to the rescue. The Austro Hungarian Lloyd steamer Castore was also immediately diverted to the scene.
Those remaining on the Imperatrix now were crowded onto the bow of the vessel and in spite of the valiant efforts of the locals it proved impossible to get them ashore for a further 24 hours because of the severity of the storm and the state of the sea. By early morning on 23 February though, a local villager managed to get a line and a makeshift raft out to the vessel. A bridge of sorts was constructed from wreckage and all managed to get to the shore over it.
The aid and comfort of the survivors of the Imperatrix was organised by the Abbot and monks of the monastery at Chrysocalatissa and later that day rescue ships started to arrive from Chania led by a gunboat from the Imperial Russian Navy. Over the next two days the survivors were collected and transported initially to Chania and then back to Trieste. The Imperatrix herself rolled on her side and sank shortly afterwards.
Currently the only monument to the Imperatrix is the lighthouse on Elafonissi. Following the wreck of the Imperatrix, and that of an Italian ship a year or so previously, it became clear that some warning device was required to advise ships of the danger of the island and as a result, a lighthouse was constructed. The original lighthouse was destroyed in 1945 but was replaced shortly after the war by the current light.
However, in spite of the existence of the lighthouse and the advent of modern navigational aids, the rocks on the west of Elafonissi continue to take their toll of shipping. The most recent incident being the wrecking of an unnamed, 12 metre long, wooden ship carrying about 120 illegal immigrants. The ship ran aground in the early hours of the morning during a severe storm on 1 Sept 2006 not far from the site of the wreck of the Imperatrix 99 years earlier. One person is known to have lost his life on this occasion.
Of the Imperatrix herself, after 100 years in an exposed position, little is left other than some metal plates, ribs and a few scattered remains. None of her is visible above the water and the few identifiable parts of the ship, though in relatively shallow water at approx 15 metres deep, are only accessible by boat and then only when there are favourable winds; another reminder of the danger that lies not far behind the deceptive beauty of Elafonissi.
Further details about Imperatrix can be found at: www.imperatrix.co.uk
Article by By Mick McTiernan