SS Principessa Jolanda: Italy’s shortest-lived ocean liner

Perhaps one of the most unfortunate luxury ship launches of all time, the Italian SS Principessa Jolanda never sailed beyond the lapping waters of Cantiere Navale di Riva Trigoso’s shipyard.

As the clock juddered towards 12.25 pm on September 22, 1907, a large crowd of spectators, government officials, and foreign journalists gathered around Italy’s new transatlantic flagship. With the country’s ocean-bound masterpiece resting upon the slipway, sparkling in the midday sun, national pride and excitement were the order of the day.

The air felt electric.

Weighing in at 9,210 tonnes, and stretching to 463 ft (141 metres) in length, the new vessel was the largest passenger ship ever to fly the Bandiera d'Italia. It was a good day for Italian honour.

The renowned Cantiere Navale di Riva Trigoso shipyard had spent two years dedicated to construction of the state-of-the-art SS Principessa Jolanda, the namesake of which was King Victor Emmanuel III’s eldest daughter (Princess Yolanda of Savoy).

And the Princess was no doubt impressed with such an association, let alone the design from celebrated entrepreneur Erasmo Piaggio. The freshly built ship had cost six million lire to construct, was among the first transatlantic ships fitted with Marconi Wireless technology (later to be made famous by the RMS Titanic), boasted electric lighting across all decks, and featured telephones in each cabin. It was the MSC Seascape of its day.

Although, the Princess would have been less enthused by what happened next.

The SS Principessa Jolanda prior to her disastrous launch. [Credit: Picryl]

Humiliation strikes

Thundering down the slipway on a crest of congregated cheering, SS Principessa Jolanda hit the water with impressive gusto and then – as the crowd fell silent – toppled over.

Leering across on her port side, desperate efforts were scrambled in a feverish bid to save the vessel from herself. Yet, despite attempts from tugboat crews, it took only 20 minutes before water breached Jolanda's upper decks and the nation’s expensive new flagship capsized.

As subsequent hours ticked by, she slowly settled on the Mediterranean sediment until her funnels became enveloped by radiant blue waters, with only a few starboard portholes visible above the surface. The cherished technology, onboard fixtures, and desirable fittings were ruined.

Brand new, ruinously expensive, and now waterlogged beyond salvage, the ship was eventually scrapped on site. Years of work had imploded before the eyes and lenses of the world’s media.

Despite the chaos, there was one upside to the situation. All VIP guests, company employees, and the captain, managed to escape before it was too late. Even though the nation’s dignity had taken a substantial knock, the event was considered a divine miracle – in that, no casualties were suffered.

So, what went wrong?

Less than 20 minutes after launch, Italy's SS Principessa Jolanda decides her own fate. [Credit: Picryl}

SS Principessa Jolanda verses physics

There is a reason why shipbuilders normally launch a vessel before it’s fully kitted out.

When first taking to the water, weight distribution is paramount for a smooth and sturdy transition from the slipway. Should the coal bunkers, cargo hold, storage rooms and lower decks remain empty, yet the upper decks are weighed with furniture and equipment, the high centre of gravity and low draft ensures a lack of stability within moments.

That’s exactly what happened to SS Principessa Jolanda. And it’s not the first high-profile case of such an error.

Vasa, an early 17th-century Swedish battleship, infamously set sail with 64 bronze cannons atop her decks – creating a top-heavy structure upon a very shallow draft. Less than 1300 meters into her career, Vasa toppled over and sank in full view of the public.

Historians theorise that King Henry VIII’s pride and joy – the Mary Rose – suffered from a similar fate. From these learnings, battleships were eventually launched without main armaments in place.

Although SS Principessa Jolanda didn’t exactly stock doomsday weaponry, her top-heavy structure guaranteed that stability problems were only moments away.

Watching Jolanda’s sharp and immediate list, harbourmasters dispatched tugboats in an effort to prevent total loss. The Captain lowered anchors to starboard in an anguished bid to counteract the ship’s increasing tilt, but it was all in vain.

As moveable furnishings and equipment gathered on the listing side for maximum effect, the ship's fate was sealed. The order to abandon ship came swiftly. Management could only watch as their investment keeled over.

While filled with joy only moments before, the atmosphere was now dripping with anger and confusion.

The SS Principessa Jolanda's career was cut short. [Credit: Picryl]

Design: learning the hard way

Once again, there is a reason why ships are floated without the superstructure fully installed. And, once again, it’s all about physical forces during the launch process.

With her structure fully installed, possibly for both aesthetic and time-saving purposes, SS Principessa Jolanda defied every rule in the book. But there were lessons taken from the calamity.

Across the construction yard rested another vessel; Jolanda’s sister ship – SS Principessa Mafalda, which was already near completion. When launched in 1908, most of her superstructure remained uninstalled until afloat, with several design tweaks also implemented, to prevent a repeat of Jolanda’s misfortune.

Not that SS Principessa Mafalda was blessed with a comfortable retirement. She now rests upon the seabed off the coast of Brazil. But that is another story entirely.

Italy's new flagship was mismanaged at launch, claimed official reports. [Credit: Picryl]

A mismanaged launch

Naturally, an investigation was quickly launched to determine the cause of such humiliation. The finger of blame rapidly pointed towards the shipyard technicians, who counteracted this regimented buck-passing by concluding that launching Jolanda when fully furnished (but without coal or low-placed ballast) created a centre of gravity that was too high.

Further claims emerged around a series of miscalculations regarding the ship’s descent along the launch ramp, which caused the bow to grind against the chute once the stern slapped the water – potentially causing a crack in the keel and allowing an influx of fluid that aided the ship’s expiration.

Regardless of the accusations back and forth between parties, it was eventually the shipyard’s technical errors that were identified as the largest contributing factor in SS Principessa Jolanda’s ignoble demise.

Full responsibility was placed upon Cantiere Navale di Riva Trigoso’s doorstep, rather than with the designers. The sour twang of these findings hung over the yard while Jolanda was taken apart and scrapped, where only the ship’s engines could be salvaged – believed to have been installed as the power plant for the ill-fated SS Milazzo; torpedoed by a German U-boat during the First World War, of which the SS Principessa Mafalda also served.

The ship’s owners – Navigazione Generale Italiana (NGI) – may be long since defunct, but the shipyard is still going strong. However, this is one saga they’d rather forget.

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About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.