steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Destruction of the St Cuthbert, Part 2: Stowaways and Storms

In yesterday's episode, we saw my grandfather, Percy Bowman, preparing to sail into the stormy winter Atlantic of 1908 in a ship carrying a cargo of fusel oil, benzine, rags, flamingos and matches. What could possibly go wrong...?

At this time Mr White, 3rd Officer, was put on the gangway and myself with Brophy and three sailors were sent to batten down the hatches. One of the sailors was an Irishman named Murphy, who had been in the ship before and was quite a good sailor, but just joining the ship he was a bit tipsy. He told me in quite a nice way what he thought of the ship and the sailors who sailed in her, but told me just to give orders and he would see everything was all right. The other two sailors were foreigners and I could see they also had been celebrating.

We had got the main girders on No.5 Hold slung and the centre beam, when I said to Murphy, “Let me go out on the girder to fix that beam.” He said, “I wouldn’t let an officer do that while I stood here.” So the beam was hove up. Murphy got over the combings and the next thing Murphy and the beam disappeared down the hold. He couldn’t go to the bottom of the ship because of the cargo, but going down with the beam he could be severely hurt, so I went to say a few words to the fool on the winch, when Murphy came up the ladder and said these something squareheads can’t stand their liquor and try to kill good sailormen.

We went to sea next day all very busy going down the river, and I found that Brophy and myself had to work four hours on and four hours off and look after the birds; also there was a lot of “watch on deck stay on deck”, which means that you work on after you have done your four hours and lose the next watch below. The Captain was right: she was a tough ship. Then I found that these birds were a bigger job than I thought. It was very dark where they were, so I fixed up two electric clusters and when the light came on I was surprised to find so many dead and injured. I didn’t think birds were so cruel to each other. The pigeons were the worst. If one became sick the others pecked it until it died. I had to start making fresh pens for the sick and pick out the dead, which were considerable each day.

I was down there the second morning out. We had dropped the pilot and were well into the Channel, but first of all I must describe where the birds were kept. The ship had a flush deck straight from the bow to the stern. The main deck, that is the next deck below, was also open from bow to stern, that is you could walk from one end to the other without coming on the top deck, but there were a few obstructions where the engine room was in the middle of the ship (or amidships). At this particular spot one had to keep to the side of the ship where there was a gangway each side. Abaft the engine room the birds were kept. I had occasion to go to the side of the ship and I happened to look forward. I knew I was the only one officially on this deck, because all the top deck hatches were battened down except the one I came down, and I had to secure that each time I went up. We were in a trade where you had to be prepared for the worst of weather. I thought I saw a shadow pass a ventilator cowl which threw down a circle of faint light. It brought to mind the upper deck ghost the sailors spoke of, making himself comfortable down here, and I could hear nothing, and was hurrying to get finished and get on deck amongst human beings, but couldn’t resist having another look and saw it again.

Then I shouted, “What’s that?” and rather to my relief a voice answered “A stowaway!” I said, “Come here.” He was a Yank and told me he had his papers. In fact he was very frightened and was holding them in his hand. Then he frightened me by saying there were four more, and he went for them. I told them what they were up against with the Captain, and they said anything was better than what they had gone through since they had been on board. They had hidden themselves amongst the baskets, and I had walked over them when I searched the ship. They had only once managed to get water and had nothing to eat. Did I think they could manage to get a meal? They were willing to work hard and had their American papers. I told them to wait there and not to expect a good reception. I first went to the Chief Officer. He went mad. I had got him the sack and we would all probably be thrown overboard. I kept telling him they had their American papers (my only defence). At last he said “I will report them to the Captain and you bring them along.”

The Captain that morning had seemed in a good humour. He had called all hands and gave them grog and he looked like a Sunday school superintendent smiling over his pupils. I didn’t know until afterwards that he always did this the first day and dosed the grog with gallop to clear them out of the drink they had had in port. Of course, the crew didn’t know either (that is until the next day). As they approached the bridge they all touched their caps, and I believe they thought it was the Captain’s good deed each day.

I had the stowaways ready to go on the bridge but was waiting for the Chief Officer and Captain to finish talking in the fore part of the lower bridge quite peacefully, and I thought that we might get off lightly. Mr Hobbs caught my eye and nodded for me to bring them up. I told them to have their papers ready and look as sorry as they possibly could. They went slowly up the accommodation ladder, and first as they got to the top John Lewis looked aft and saw them. It must have been like red to a bull. He gave a charge, hit the first, and it knocked all the others off the ladder. I disappeared, but I could hear him say, “You will have nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep while you are aboard my ship.” I am afraid I was a bit of a coward and kept out of the way until I was sent for. The Captain slated me and told me I would be put in charge of them and must keep them working hard. I found them very nice men and willing to make up for the trouble they had caused. While I did my other duties I put one in charge who had been to sea for a short time and by the time we left the ship the cattledeck had been chipped and painted.

Going down the Channel and making for the Atlantic is never a very happy prospect in January. How different to going the other way! When we were south of Ireland the sea began to show itself and Brophy said “I could jump overboard and swim to the Old Country as I feel I shall never see it again.” I said, “If you jump overboard you won’t.”

The ship was taking the Northern Passage or “Great Circle Track”, which is nearer but a very big risk at this time of year. Most ships in the winter keep south of the “Equatorial Current”, but we were going to cross it and get in the Arctic Current, which runs from East to West. I could tell by this time that there was bad feeling between the Captain and Officers. They tried to persuade him to take the Southern Passage but he said “I will drive this ship to New York or Hell, whichever comes first.” We ran into one gale after another, and how she could roll! Some of her after cattle fittings got washed away, and I used to try and visualize how those fusel oil drums didn’t start bumping each other, but I didn’t have to think about it long. We soon had the order, “All hands on deck to stow cargo,” and it was a dangerous job. You never knew when these drums were taking charge, and Mr Hobbs had difficulty to persuade the Captain to heave to whilst we were stowing. I could understand the Officers not getting along with him. He was pigheaded and they say often drunk in bad weather, the time he should be sober.

Once these drums moved it was a constant job to keep on stowing them. At each fresh blow they started to move again. We went below each watch expecting to be called to stow cargo again. On the fatal night I was on watch with Mr Twohy 2nd Officer, who was also the navigator. I had been under him before in the St Jerome when he had just come from sail. He said, “There is no sense in keeping on this course with the cargo not properly secured.” At the time we were somewhere in the region of Cape Race, Newfoundland. We were taking over green seas which were sweeping the ship fore and aft, with heavy snow, which took away all visibility. When struck with one heavy sea we thought we felt something move. Our lookout was on the bridge, it being impossible for anybody to stay on the forecastle-head when she was shipping such water. The lookout came over to our side and reported that he thought we had struck something. The 2nd Officer sent me into the main deck to see if I could find the trouble. To do this I had to go aft and get through the hatch, which was partly protected by the Engine Room. All the other hatches were being swept by seas. I only had a hurricane lamp, which doesn’t give much light, and I had difficulty in getting forrid where we had been having the trouble. I could hear the usual creaking and straining which one hears in a ship fighting a storm. I watched the drums. They didn’t seem to have a lot of movement, but looked very menacing, as much to say “Come near me and I will show you,” but I had to walk over them to get to No.1 and it was whilst I was picking my way that I could feel what a lot of play was there and knew it was a job for all hands although I should again lose my watch below. I reported to Mr Twohy and he called all hands and hove the ship to without asking the Captain. Of course he would report to him later, but I think Capt. Lewis rather looked up to the 2nd Officer. He was an Irishman the same as Lewis. He was not young, and had not long before been Captain of a sailing ship, and although a quiet man could give a definite order which would be obeyed.

We worked on and secured the cargo, and the ship felt like heaven when hove to. I went below about 2am and Brophy was in his bunk. They had thinned the watches down to give the hands more sleep, because they were being called out so often. When I got into my bunk I could feel the ship go back on her course and start all the pitching and rolling again. Our room was the weather side and we were getting every sea that came along. It always seems that when a ship returns to her course after being hove to she makes the worst of the weather, as if the sea says, “So you defy me, do you? Take that, and that!”, and the Cuthbert took that. It was a very heavy sea which struck one deck house and the lifeboat above our head and swept the boat deck over us. It seemed a long time before we could hear anything but running water, then the boat overhead made a movement as if it were loose. We had the light on, and we agreed that if the boat gave signs that it was adrift we would have to report it to the officer of the watch, but we had difficulty to hear anything regarding the boat, because the ship took over sea after sea. After about 15 minutes we heard somebody struggling down our alleyway and knew it would be all hands on deck, but were surprised to hear him say: “All hands on deck – the ship is on fire!”

Next time: Lifeboat
Tags: family history, st cuthbert
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