French minesweepers Inkerman and Cerisoles

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Name: Inkerman and Cerisoles
Owner: French Navy
Operator: French Navy
Port of registry:

French Navy Ensign

Ordered: 1917
Builder: Canadian Car and Foundry of Fort William, Ontario
Laid down: 1918
Launched: 1918
Christened: November 11, 1918
Maiden voyage: November 13, 1918
Nickname(s): "Holy Grail"
Fate: Disappeared in a storm in November 1918 with all 78 crewmembers
Notes: Location: Unknown

The Inkerman and Cerisoles were two French minesweepers named after major battles fought during the Crimean War and Italian war, and which vanished on their maiden voyage in a storm on Lake Superior in mid-November 1918. No traces of the two vessels have ever been found. 76 French sailors and two Canadian captains disappeared along with the minesweepers. The Inkerman and Cerisoles are the last warships to disappear on the Great Lakes, and their sinkings caused the largest loss of life of any Lake Superior shipwreck.

Vessel specifications[edit]

The Inkerman and Cerisoles were Navarin class minesweepers, designed to clear naval mines in the English Channel. Built at the Canada Car and Foundry Company in what was then known as Fort William, Ontario, the vessels were 140 feet long, and displaced 630 tons. Their steel-framed wooden hulls were divided into four water-tight compartments. Each ship was fitted with twin screws and a single funnel, and had a top speed of about twelve knots. Two 100mm deck guns, with a range of about 20 kilometres, were located forward and aft. It was rumored that because of the end of World War I, construction funds were cut short and wooden plugs took the place of metal rivets in the minesweepers, which could have led to their demise. A sister ship called the Sebastopol was built alongside the Inkerman and Cerisoles, and almost sank during its maiden voyage.

French naval documents refer to the ships as "chalutiers" not "drageurs de mines." This is because the ships were designed to function as fishing trawlers after the war.

Maiden voyage and loss[edit]

In the middle of November 1918, the three minesweepers Inkerman, Cerisoles, and Sebastopol left the harbour of Fort William, Ontario, on the northern shore of Lake Superior, headed for the Atlantic Ocean via the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. 76 French sailors made up the crews of the Inkerman and Cerisoles, with the addition of two veteran Canadian captains, Capt. R. Wilson and W.J. Murphy. As the ships steamed further into Lake Superior, they encountered a blizzard with recorded winds of 50 mph and waves 30 ft high. All three ships soon lost sight of each other through the snow and waves. The storm was so bad that a sailor from the Sebastopol said "We had to get out the life boats and put on lifebelts ... the boat almost sank – and it was nearly 'goodbye' to anyone hearing from us again ... You can believe me, I will always remember that day. I can tell you that I had already given myself up to God." Water poured into the Sebastopol, flooding part of her engine room and nearly putting out the coal fires in her boilers. The storm pounded the Sebastopol for two days but the vessel managed to reach Sault Ste. Marie, at the eastern end of Lake Superior. What soon became apparent was that the Inkerman and Cerisoles were nowhere to be found. As days passed, rumours spread that the warships sailed through the locks unnoticed all the way to the St. Lawrence River, but it was assumed the ships were lost. On December 3, 1918, ten days after the three ships left Fort William, a search effort was launched, but because of wartime censorship it was small and the public was left out of the search. The public knew nothing of the loss of the Inkerman and Cerisoles until wartime censorship in Canada ended in 1918. No wreckage of the Inkerman or Cerisoles was ever found, and their exact whereabouts and fate remain unknown.

Search for the wrecks[edit]

In what is being called the "Holy Grail" of the Great Lakes, a search for the Inkerman and Cerisoles is under way, led by the famous shipwreck hunter Tom Farnquist, known for removing the bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald. The search has been ongoing but no strong finds to date.

List and fate of the French minesweepers built by Canadian Car and Foundry[edit]

Hull # Original name Original owner Vessel type Built Disposition
1 Narvarin French Navy Trawler September 1918 Deleted 1965
2 Mantoue French Navy Trawler September 1918 sold 1949
3 St. Georges French Navy Trawler November 1918 Deleted 1952
4 Leoben French Navy Trawler November 1918 Deleted 1933
5 Palestro French Navy Trawler October 1918 Deleted 1936
6 Lutzen French Navy Trawler November 1918 Wrecked on Cape Cod 1939
7 Bautzen French Navy Trawler November 1918 Foundered 1961
8 Inkerman French Navy Trawler November 1918 Unknown
9 Cerisoles French Navy Trawler November 1918 Unknown
10 Sebastopol French Navy Trawler November 1918 Wrecked in 1933 off Cape St Francis
11 Malakoff French Navy Trawler November 1918 Foundered Bay Roberts 1974
12 Seneff French Navy Trawler November 1918 Wrecked near Canso 1955


Diane Robnik, "New Light on 1918 Minesweepers Mystery," Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society, Papers and Records, XLII (2014), 3-15. ISBN 978-0-920119-63-1. Robnik's study makes use of newly translated documents from the French naval archives in Paris.

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