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John Hevelius - the greatest maritime tragedy of post-war Poland

On January 14, 1993, at 00.05 hours, the Polish ferry Jan Heweliusz left the port of Świnoujście with a two-hour delay and set sail for Ystad. Thus began the greatest maritime tragedy of post-war Poland… The weather was terrible. The wind blowing at 180 km/h, waves 6 m high and water dust formed by the
Published: January 14, 2011 - 08:00
Updated: July 22, 2023 - 17:35
John Hevelius – the greatest maritime tragedy of post-war Poland

On January 14, 1993, at 00.05 hours, the Polish ferry Jan Heweliusz left the port of Świnoujście with a two-hour delay and set sail for Ystad. Thus began the greatest maritime tragedy of post-war Poland…

The weather was terrible. The wind blowing at 180 km/h, waves 6 m high and water dust formed by the gale breaking the wave crests limited visibility to only a few meters. On the twin vessel “Copernicus”, the wind strength measuring instruments ran out of scale! Despite this, due to the crowding in the port and the ever-increasing number of trucks waiting to cross to Sweden, all vessels, including the ferry Jan Heweliusz, went to sea that night.

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At around 4:10 in the morning, a powerful hurricane hit the side of the Hevelius. The ferry began to tilt. As the situation became very serious, Captain Andrzej Ulasiewicz was woken up and steered the vessel barefoot! At 4.36 the tilt increased significantly. The fixings did not hold and began to break off, and the trucks and cargo moved across the decks, which ultimately sealed the fate of the ferry. Moments after 5 a.m., the Jan Hevelius turned upside down and began to sink. Thirty-five passengers and 20 crew members, including the captain, died that day.

Unlucky ferry

Before leaving on its last voyage Hevelius was involved in as many as 28 accidents! Among them were collisions with boats, engine failures, it overturned twice in the harbour and in 1986 a fire broke out on it. It was after this event that the shipowner, Polskie Linie Oceaniczne, carried out an illegal repair of the vessel. The concrete filling of the burnt deck caused the ferry to be overloaded by 115 tonnes, drastically increasing the already considerable stability problems. Problems that affected the vessel from the very first voyage. All because the ferry’s superstructure and ballast system were defectively designed.

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Wreck

Today the wreck of the ferry Jan Heweliusz lies 20 miles north-east of the coast of Rügen, at a depth of 27 metres. It is a grim testimony to the tragedy that took place here years ago. The site is marked by an orange and black buoy with a miniature lighthouse and radio antenna. Despite all the tragic events that took place here, the wreck is a frequent destination for diving expeditions. Dark and mysterious, with a collapsed superstructure and trucks hanging from the decks, it lies on the port side creating a very special atmosphere. Completely different from the one prevailing on the other wrecks.

The vessel measured 125 metres long and 17 metres wide and could develop a speed of 14 knots. On its decks the Hevelius had room for 36 freight cars, 18 trucks and 30 trailers. It did not offer passenger transport. The only passengers of the ferry were the truck drivers and their accompanying persons.

wreck of the ferry John Hevelius

Diving

From the very beginning, the location was a diving destination for many teams from Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and the Scandinavian countries. Certainly, the shallow depth and relatively good visibility from autumn to spring were an incentive for further diving groups.

Without doubt, the damage suffered by the ferry makes it much easier for experienced divers to explore it. The wreck was also searched after the disaster by marine rescue divers and navy divers. No bodies of the victims of the tragedy that took place here in January 1993 were found inside.

It is worth mentioning that divers who regularly visit the wreck question the official versions regarding the reasons for the sinking and the subsequent exploration of Hevelius.

In 2018, the tragedy that took place on the Hevelius and its wreck became the subject of one of the episodes of the documentary series “Mysteries of the Baltic Wrecks”.

Photo: kronikaportowa.pl


Diving is also about discovering wrecks and their unusual stories. You can learn about one of them in an article written by Michal Ogłoza. You will find it in the 20th issue DIVERS24 quarterly! The digital version of the magazine is available free of charge, while you can purchase the printed version in our online store.

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About author

Tomasz Andrukajtis
Editor-in-chief of the DIVERS24 portal and magazine. Responsible for obtaining, translating and developing content. He also supervises all publications. Achived his first diving certification – P1 CMAS, in 2000. Has a degree in journalism and social communication. In the diving industry since 2008.
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