An unknown from a small town in the country

Text & Illustration: Anders Jälmsjö – Underwater Photography: Torbjörn Gylleus

When I moved back to Sweden after a decade and a half in the sun, I ended up in Västervik to start my project VÄSTERVIK DYKPARK. I set up shop in the Småland town of the Tjusts archipelago with an unbeatable concept of good wreck diving surrounded by rich maritime history and brackish water. In these waters, uncountable boats have sunk over the years without the threat of time or shipworms to ruin wooden wrecks. One of the wrecks I’ve come to dive the most is the schooner Prosper and it puzzled me how little of the history there was to find of the ship. I give my divers detailed briefings with good illustrations of dive sites general and particularly of wrecks, so naturally I wanted to have a truthful story tell about Prosper. I set out to look for more information and what came out of dusty archives was out of of several viewpoints of a extraordinary history.

prosper map info

The advantage of the well-known wrecks is that there is much information to find which, if you are interested in history, makes the dive on the wreck far more interesting. The information about Prosper has long been, albeit easy to find, quite sparse and in several cases inconsistent. For example, there were different dates circulated regarding the sinking. The dates given in dive site descriptions on websites by diving clubs and diving centres that arranges trips to the wreck. These mostly consisted of passages from the local newspaper from the time of the sinking.  What has been missing has been facts a such as information about when and where the ship was built and her activities until the fateful day of 25 November 1865, when she sank in the strait just outside Västervik.

Inquiries at Lloyd’s in London did not give much. The only thing that came up there was a report on a visit to South Shields which is a coastal city at the mouth of the River Tyne in England, about 8 kilometres downstream of Newcastle upon Tyne. “This was a report in Lloyd’s List of October 3 1865 stating that the Prosper, under Captain Hagblom had arrived in Shields on October 2 from Westerwik.” But as Valerie Hart at the Archives of Guildhall Library writes “It is not unusual at this date to find no entry for foreign vessels in Lloyd’s records from this period.” However, this date and place is interesting because it is conceivable that this location may have been a part of the vessel’s last trip according to data passed from Newcastle.

Mats Hemström, Archivist at the Swedish National Archives, had a little more to offer. He sent photocopies of original documents that offered partly registration of construction of the ship, registration of reworking, and approval the name change. Now of course this is written with elaborate 1800’s language, so to ensure I had an accurate translation, I took the help of Håkan “Tappe” Karlsson at Klub Maritim in Västervik who is proficient in the subject.

According to the Royal Majesty and the Empire Commerce Collegium, Prosper was built for Pehr Alongsen at Lotsholmen in Börskils parish north of Stockholm. The construction was carried out on Slatön located in maritime and commercial city Osthammar of farmers Mats Waltersson and Olof Waltersson in pine on oak according to the method of clinker. She was named Carolina Charlotta and launched March 27 1844. She was officially measured up to 74 44/100 severe loads. Severe loads, or “skeppsläster” as it is also called, were based on the ship’s capacity. Capacity of cargo and passenger comprised the load. Tonnage, which relates to goods based on the ship’s total enclosed volume in cubic meters, refers to the total net tonnage capacity where passenger capacity were counted. Until 1865 “skeppsläster” was also used to describe the weight required to “push down” a ship from “drop the waterline” to “load waterline.” The measurement system was changed in 1865 to nyläster which was the year that Prosper sank and which is why she never got to enjoy a measurement under the new system. A shipload corresponded to 2448 kg.

According to vested No. 141 1853 at the Royal Majesty’s Commerce Collegium the nobleman Jonas James “John” Tillberg in Falsterbo gains ownership of the schooner Carolina Charlotta July 26, 1853, when it’s also registered at Westerwiks Hall Law on 3 April 1854. It is now the history of this ship starts to get really interesting. Apparently Tillberg, not satisfied with either with name, size, or even the construction method of his newly acquired schooner decides to make some drastic changes. In the summer of 1857, he tells shipbuilder CF Berglund to extend hull with 15.8 feet as she gets measured 83 97/100 skeppsläster. In addition, she converted from clink to cravell, something which may be considered a huge project. When all this was done, and the schooner basically was a brand new boat, she – with the Commerce Collegium – also gets her new name Prosper.

The skippers have come and gone since she was built, but he who would steer Prosper towards Västervik on the fateful day of her sinking was captain of the second class Carl Anders Högbom. Papers issued by Westerwiks Town Hall shows he takes over the position as captain on April 20, 1863.

Last Voyage

In October, Prosper arrives with Captain Carl Anders Hagbom at the helm, according to Lloyd’s report at Shields upon Tyne. This fits well with her 25 November 1865 sinking, as she should have left Newcastle with ballast, towards the destination of Utö where she would take on a load iron ore. The family Tillberg owned and ran the Falsterbo Iron Mill 27 km southwest of Västervik 1842. The mill was in the family for three generations – Johan, Herman and Knut – until in the 1930s when it was sold to the state. In addition to the iron industry, they ran one distillery, one flour mill and one saw mill so it does not seem inconceivable to assume that they were going to bring the iron ore from Utö for their own use.

The trip went well, but when sailing up the Swedish east coast on 25 November Prosper passed north of Öland in a stiff westerly gale. On the islands of the Tjust archipelago there were plenty of so-called “Sjökrogar” which was the “Road House” of the time where seafarers could drop anchor and seek shelter from the weather so it does not seem completely unreasonable that it is precisely why Captain Hagblom decided to go through the strait of Spårö Sund towards Västervik. The pilot sends out a rowing boat to meet up but has difficulties to get on board because Prosper is still under full sail in the narrow entrance to Strait, despite the strong wind. Västerviks Newspaper reports later “Kustserganten Treutiger together with the coast guard Thorgren and coastal rower Jan Nilsson went out in a small boat out at Lindödjupet to approach an incoming vessels, mentioned schooner; In view of the tough and rugged west wind and the difficulty for the ship to steer, with no pilot on board, without assistance in the boat. The ship at a short distance to Spårösund.”

The crew of the ship are asked to lower the sails but this is ignored for unknown reasons, resulting in the schooner crashing into the steep rocks below the customs station where she tears up a large hole in the hull so thoroughly changed from clink to cravel eight years earlier. After the collision with the rocks the winds turns Prosper 180 degrees and she is now running through the sound stern first. After she bumped into the west side, she then put herself firmly in the northern end of the strait. There, the coast rower Jan Nilsson finally caught up with her in the pilot’s little skiff and positions himself on the windward side of the distressed. The crew succeed, despite the strong wind and waves, to escape from the now hopelessly mangled schooner over to the pilot’s rowboat. The moment that everyone is safe, the wind takes hold of Prosper’s torn sails and capsizes her. The large surge washes both Prosper’s crew and customs officers from the pilot’s boat. In the confusion, they manage to save themselves by clinging onto bramtoppen (mast to the top sail of the rig), some floating cargo and wreckage but when once up on the rocky shore, they notice that coastal rower Jan Nilsson is missing. He is later found lifeless or entangled in the rigging, at the so-called stängvantet, at just one meter depth. This makes Jan Nilsson the only fatality of Prospers sinking which can be considered tragically ironic because he didn’t even belong to her crew, but was there to help.

There is not much information to be found about what happened with the Nobleman Jonas Jacob “John” Tillberg after the crash. He dies of stomach ulcers on the day two years after Prospers sinking. Maybe it was too much perplexity and anxiety in the wake of the sinking.

Another schooner called ”Despatch” built the same time as Prosper and the same rigging.

Another schooner called ”Despatch” built the same time as Prosper and the same rigging.

Diving Prosper

Due to location so close to the inlet to Spårösund, Prosper must be dived with extreme caution. Summer boat traffic is intense, so surfacing from the wreck must be done with this in mind. Early spring and late autumn is the best time to avoid boat traffic, but due to bad visibility is better not to dive her during the summer months all together. It is possible to dive from shore but then you have to cross the channel, either by navigating underwater or with surface swim which cannot be considered as appropriate. Boat dives work much better, starting in the scenic bay on the eastern side of the north end of the strait, which making descents and ascents easy to navigate along the rock formations.

The wreck lies on an almost exactly north / south axis with a slight list to starboard. She rests at 18 meters on a flat clay bottom with a sloping rock wall on the port side. Tire which is at about 13 meters depth is relatively intact even if some planks loose. Hatch covers and stairs allows for easy penetration. Though, one must be careful not to silt up the sediment which fills the space in no time. You can even swim in and out through the hole in the hull, which was smashed open by the contact with the rocks at the customs station. Overall Prosper is a very photogenic wreck with a stern that breaks the sunbeams with its dramatic silhouette. In the bow the bowsprit reaches straight out inviting to  classic photos while railing along the sides of the wreck is adding depth to the image.

Prosper was measured in 1989 by a group of divers from Karlstad Sportdykarklubb with Per Helsing in pole position. They also took the opportunity to salvage a plank and a clay-jug from wreckage. They measured the length of the hull to be 30.5 meters and the bowsprit protrudes another 5 meters. The width of the wreck was measured at the loading hatch to 7.8 meters.

Around the wreck is a varied underwater landscape with interesting marine life. The brackish water not only kept the old wooden wreck well preserved but also allows fish in the sea that would otherwise only be found in lakes and rivers. Here flatfish and pipefish socialize with perch and pike. Ishavsgråsuggan (Saduria entomon) gets up to 7 centimeters and preys on small animals and can be found among the swaying seaweed at the bottom of the shallow bay. It is in turn eaten by eel and flatfish such as flounder, but also cod and other predatory fish. Ishavsgråsuggan immigrated to the Swedish east coast at the end of the last ice age and is a fun little creature often found during safety stops under the boat.

Prosper is an easy wreck suitable for divers at all levels although the exposed location near the fairway suggests one should have good control of buoyancy, which in of course applies to all diving. You should also keep an eye on navigation since you have to swim back to the boat. Also keep in mind that the narrow strait sometimes offers a current, which means it is appropriate to bring a surface marker buoy. If you feel that it would be more relaxing to not have to navigate yourself or keep track of the currents you can tag along with a diving club or diving centre and ask to get to dive with a guide. VÄSTERVIK DIVECENTRE arranges diving excursions to Prosper and other wrecks in the area.

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the Prosper, VÄSTERVIK DYKPARK arranged a Dive Fest. Anyone who wanted was welcome come and dive the wreck. A platform was anchored above the wreck and transportation shuttling was provided from a nearby jetty. A memorial plaque for coastal rower Jan Nilsson, who lost his life the sinking, was installed on the wreck.