Egypt Red Sea Shipwrecks - The Carnatic

The Carnatic

By Ned Middleton

Note: Ned Middleton is a professional Underwater Photo-Journalist who has published a number of articles in recent years about Red Sea Wrecks. Please send corrections to Ned Middleton here.

Day Boat

Safari Boat

Shore Dive


Diving Grade







27 34 53" N, 33 55 32"E. North side of Shaab Abu Nuhas Reef


Day or Safari boat normally from Hurghada occasionally from Sharm El Sheikh

Minimum Depth to Wreck

17m (Starboard side)

Maximum Depth to Seabed:

27m (along Mast)

Average Visibility:


Shab Abu Nuhas is a prime example of a Coral Reef that barely reaches the surface and, from a distance is not easily seen at all. The Reef is located right on the edge of the busy shipping lane called the Straits of Gobal. This is the extreme northwest corner of the Red Sea - where it begins to narrow before becoming the Gulf of Suez. Even today, these are hazardous waters - so it is easy to imagine what they must have been like over 100 years ago.

The Carnatic

The Peninsula & Oriental Passenger Steamer "Carnatic" was built by Samuda Bros of London and classified as an "iron framed planked passenger steamer of 1776 tons." Her dimensions were 89.8m x 11.6m with a draught of 7.8m. In addition to square-rigged sails, she was powered by a single 4 cylinder compound inverted engine which produced a very handsome 2,442 hp - also built in London, by Humphrys and Tennant.

The Carnatic was launched in December 1862 and registered by P & O (although that abbreviation was not used in those days) in March 1863. She then sailed for Calcutta on June 27th whereupon she was employed between Suez, Bombay and China. In 1867 the Carnatic became the proud command of Captain P. B. Jones - one of the ablest officers of the company.

By September 1869, the Suez Canal was nearing completion and would be opened within three months. For the moment, however, passengers and cargoes were unloaded at Alexandria - from where they would travel 200 miles overland to Suez, before joining another vessel and resuming their voyage. In this way, the longer and more perilous route around the Cape of Good Hope was avoided.

It was during the second week of September that Captain Jones was found supervising the arrival and stowage of both passengers and cargo for yet another trip. Some of that cargo was very valuable and he had to make sure every single item was thoroughly checked and secured. Finally, he had taken charge of 34 passengers, 176 crew and a cargo of cotton bales, copper sheeting, Royal Mail, and 40,000 in specie - destined for the Indian Mint.

At 10am on the morning of Sunday 12th September 1869, Captain Jones ordered the mooring lines slipped and the Carnatic sailed for Bombay. She was a sleek vessel with proud lines and, unlike many of the hybrid "sail and steam" ships of the period, this vessel responded well to either form of power - thus giving her a definite advantage when other ships were becalmed. Captain Jones personally negotiated the long narrow confines of the hazardous Gulf of Suez and remained on the bridge to give his personal attention to every detail of navigating his vessel safely.

Not trusting his more junior officers, Captain Jones remained on the bridge, supplementing this continual lack of sleep with copious amounts of coffee - just to stay awake. Maintaining a steady speed of 11 knots, the light at Ashrafi was sighted at 11:40pm and by the time the Second Officer came on duty just after midnight, it was already 5 or 6 miles astern - though no bearing was ever taken.

The night was clear, with a slight following breeze and a little land haze - common in these parts. More importantly, the headlands and islands through which the Carnatic plotted her course, were all visible. At 1am Shadwan Island was sighted by the Second Officer - dead ahead. The Master altered course to S. 46 true and gradually to S. 51 true.

Eighteen minutes later, however, breakers were seen on the starboard bow. The helm was instantly put hard-a-starboard and the engines at full speed astern. Too late, the Carnatic struck Shaab Abu Nuhas Reef where she became firmly fixed.

Not a man to overreact, Jones was most thorough in checking every single aspect of the ships condition and was quite satisfied that the pumps could handle the amount of water being taken on. Judging the passengers and crew to be as safe as could be expected, he decided everyone would remain on board.

At daybreak on the 13th, Jones assessed the situation once again. The ship was stuck fast on a large Coral Reef and, although she was leaking, she was still in pretty good shape and the pumps were coping. Jones then ordered a large amount of the cotton dumped overboard in order to lighten the vessel in the forlorn hope that she would float off with the tide. There was no panic amongst the passengers although some did ask the Captain for permission to make for Shadwan Island. Jones refused.

Jones was well aware of the dangers involved in moving 210 people to a remote island on the far side of a dangerous coral reef in small boats and of the deprivations they would suffer until rescued. For the moment at least, his vessel was relatively sound, they had power and considerable comfort. He also knew that the P & O Liner - Sumatra, was due to pass by at any time, inbound for Suez and he fully expected to be rescued later that day.

Meals were served, people strolled the decks and, up aloft, a constant lookout was kept for a passing ship. But none came and, as evening fell, a second deputation of passengers approached the Captain with a plea to be allowed to reach Shadwan Island by lifeboat. Again he refused. Totally underestimating the power of a Coral Reef to inflict damage on a steel-hulled vessel, Jones decided all would spend another night on board. Accepting his authority, some of the passengers even dressed for dinner and the waiters served drinks before they all enjoyed a sumptuous evening meal. For some, it would be their last.

As the Carnatic continued to pivot on top of the Coral head that held her so firmly in place, the leaks got worse. What went undetected, however, was the slow, irreversible process that was weakening the keel itself as it steadily rocked to and fro in the gentle sea. By now it was only a matter of time.

At 2am on the morning of the 14th, the level of water within the ship finally engulfed the boilers and suddenly they were without power and light. Now even more passengers wanted to leave - but still Jones placed his faith in the timely arrival of the Sumatra. By daybreak, however, the sea state had begun to increase and water was rapidly filling the ship. Finally realizing his ship was lost, Jones ordered the lifeboats be made ready.

It was not until 11am that he allowed the first passengers to begin to disembark. Tragically, at that very moment it became too late for some. In the time-honoured tradition of women and children first, the three ladies and one child on board had just taken their seats in one of the lifeboats when the Carnatic suddenly and without warning broke in half. Thirty four hours on top of a Coral outcrop had proved too much for the gallant little ship and, with her back broken, the aft section sank quickly - taking 5 passengers and 26 crew with it.

Instantly, much lighter, the fore section fell over onto its port side as it also began to slip off the Reef - spilling almost everyone into the sea as it did so. With passengers and crew fighting for their very lives amongst masts, spars, rigging and all manner of debris, they were then suddenly engulfed by the returning wave caused by the sinking stern. As freed lifeboats floated off, there were many instances of bravery and brute strength as people forgot their respective positions and worked together for the common purpose of saving themselves and each other.

One by one the survivors were firstly hauled to safety and then taken to a rallying point where other lifeboats congregated together in the shallow water above the Reef. Then it was a matter of collecting anything that might be needed and, with a final scan for survivors, it was time to leave.

Shadwan Island, however, was three miles from the far side of the very wide Shab Abu Nuhas Reef. To shorten this journey, each of the seven lifeboats was pulled across the top of the Reef by the men taking it in turns - until, finally, this small, pitiful flotilla was able to row the remaining distance. It was after sunset when they arrived and, once again, they had to negotiate yet more coral reefs before they were safely on dry land.

Fortunately, several jettisoned bales of cotton had washed onto the island and being so tightly packed, were still very dry inside. They were actually calico - a form of course muslin material, and provided rudimentary clothing and warmth for the cold night ahead. In fact there was so much dry cotton that a large amount was carried to a high point and set alight. At last the Sumatra was sighted and she quickly responded to the only signal rocket fired. On his return to Suez, Captain Jones was recalled to England to face an official Board of Enquiry.

Stern of the Carnatic

Recovering the Specie

With a cargo of such great value (the equivalent of several million pounds by todays standards), Lloyds immediately dispatched Captain Henry Grant to take charge of a recovery operation. On arrival in Suez, Grant was informed that the Carnatic had sunk in over 40 fathoms (over 70m!) and almost turned back. Then having second thoughts, he decided the least he could do was take a look. He arrived on the scene on 29th September and immediately chased away some Arab boats. Grant was heartened to find the Carnatic in quite shallow water at the bottom of a Reef with some of her features still visible above the surface.

Working from the Salvage vessel "Tor," Grant had only one diver at his disposal - one Stephen Saffrey from Whitstable and adverse weather conditions delayed the first descent until 15th October. The search began in the Mail Room where a body was first recovered. Mail bags were sent to the surface and pocket watches removed from the safe, but no specie.

Next to the "Mail" Room, was also a "Post Office" but access involved removing the large bulkhead which separated the two. This took Saffrey several days but finally, he was through and, on the 24th recovered another 16 mail bags. The first box of bullion was then brought to the surface on the 26th and the task completed on November 8th. In the meantime, local Bedouin free Divers had recovered over 700 sheets of fine-grade copper also destined for Indias Mint.

Official reports record the entire cargo of "specie" being recovered and, having been found in a very secure and undisturbed part of the ship, no other outcome was ever likely. That said, stories of "missing treasure" still appear from time to time.

Bows of the Carnatic

Diving the Carnatic

The most incredible part of this entire shipwreck is that, whilst the ship went to the bottom in two separate halves, those two halves then fell together on the seabed - just as they might have done had the ship gone down as one piece.

Today the Carnatic is found at the base of the Reef and lies parallel to it. She is on her port side with the bows facing east. There are three distinct elements to this dive; The fore and aft sections are still largely intact and are joined together by the most damaged area where the ship was broken and the engine room was located.

It is 25-27m to the seabed and 18-20m to the upper (starboard) side throughout the dive. The wooden superstructure and planking has long-since rotted away - leaving a steel hull held together by iron supports and cross-members. With the decking gone, Divers are able to explore down to two deck levels within the wreck itself.

At the Bows is the large copper ring that once held the bowsprit. This lies just behind the curved metal bowsprit support - underneath which was once the figurehead. When viewed from ahead, it is easy to see the Carnatics fine, sleek lines - even today. From the Bows the ship gently widens to the main body where, on both sides, lifeboat davits are found and all swung out. From here the Diver can enter the vessel and swim between the iron supports - a fascinating encounter with a vessel built in 1862!

End of front section of Carnatic

Emerging from the forward section, the Diver then encounters the most severely damaged part of the wreck. Although it is really a pile of scrap metal, it does, provide plenty of scope for investigation - after all, there is a "4 cylinder compound inverted engine" still in there - somewhere.

For most Divers, the stern is the most exciting and interesting part of the entire wreck. Similar to the Bows, lifeboat davits are found on both sides and the Diver is able to swim into the wreck down to two levels. Deep inside there is still some very old barrels and I can only wonder what they once contained that proved to be such a fine "wood preservative" - Brandy perhaps?

To discover the finest aspect of the entire vessel, however, the Diver must exit the wreck and swim round to the stern. This is a finely moulded stern with a single row of seven square windows facing aft. It really is reminiscent of something from Nelsons day - and provides a fascinating insight into how traditional styles of building wooden ships were adapted for steel construction. Below the windows, the stern curves gently downwards and inwards to reveal a magnificent rudder and the one feature that certainly was never a part of that earlier era - a large three-bladed propeller.

Rudder and propellor of the Carnatic

After such a long time underwater, it is fairly safe to assume the Carnatic will remain pretty much as she is for the foreseeable future. She is well colonised by coral, soft corals and her own indigenous population of Reef Fishes which include Grouper and Lionfish. Altogether, this is probably one of the finest examples of a ship of her time to be found underwater anywhere in the world - and for that alone she is well worth the visit.

Should you do so, perhaps you will spare a thought for those who lost their lives.


The resultant Board of Trade enquiry described the Carnatic as a "fully equipped and well found ship" and Captain Jones as "a skilful and experienced officer." With respect to the stranding of the ship, however, they stated "it appears there was every condition as regards ship, weather and light to ensure a safe voyage and there was needed only proper care. This was not done, and hence the disaster."

With Captain Jones having sought to blame an unusually strong current for moving him from his allotted course, the Court stated that the Master should have taken a bearing from Ashrafi Light to ascertain his precise position. The Courts decision was that the stranding of the Carnatic was "due to a grave default of the Master" and consequently suspended his Masters certificate for 9 months.

When it came to the question of the steps taken by the Master for the protection of the Passengers and Crew subsequent to the stranding, the Members of the Court were entirely of the opinion "that when it was determined to leave the ship the Master and his officers in their exertions to secure the safety of the passengers, did all that experienced and brave men could do."

Captain Philip Buton Jones was born in Liverpool in 1830 and gained his Masters Certificate in London in 1858 - at the relatively early age of 28 years. His previous Commands included Columbian, Mongolia, Surat and Syria during which time he secured a high reputation as a first class Master Mariner. After the loss of the Carnatic, Captain Jones never went to sea again.

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Last Updated: May 29th, 2011