Brophy put his coat on over his pyjamas, but I told him to get properly dressed, having in mind the bunker fires of the Saint Jerome. I opened the door when we were both ready, because we would have to jump for it with the seas coming over, and to my surprise the fire was shooting out of every ventilator fore and aft and the bridge was a mass of flames. I believe the ship had been on fire quite a while, and when she shipped that first big sea was when the quartermaster had to leave the wheel. We being on the weather side had been late in being called, but I learnt afterwards that the fire was so sudden and fierce that ten men were too late to get aft. Two of them, both stowaways, got to the fore mast and climbed to the jumper stay which ran to the funnel. One swarmed along this although he was terribly burnt, but the other failed and fell into No.2 Hold, which by this time was like a furnace. The other eight sat on the anchor for thirteen hours (outside the ship).
Brophy and I got on the boat deck, the order being to man the after lifeboats. We couldn’t see where to go for thick smoke, but I could hear them trying to get out the starboard lifeboat. As the smoke cleared I could see the two bridge boats were burnt, in fact disappeared, and the two forrid lifeboats which were between us and the bridge were on fire, so they were endeavouring to save the last two. To hoist these boats clear of the chocks men have to go outside the boat. Three were outside and when Mr Twohy saw me he said “Jump in the boat and give a pull.” I no sooner got there than I heard Mr White, 3rd Officer, who was outside the boat, say, “She is high enough – make fast.” Then what happened we don’t really know. The ship was rolling very heavily and the boat was banging against the davits, but either the davit-guys broke or somebody let them go. The boat took charge, knocked the 3rd Officer and the two men overboard (we never saw them again) and was hanging perpendicular by one fall. They apparently had not had time to fasten the other before the boat caught them. Luckily my side had held, and I held on also, but the boat was banging herself to pieces with every roll against the ship’s side. The 2nd Officer immediately got the davits guyed and tried to lower the boat to an even keel, by making fast the loose fall and slacking the one she had been hanging by, but found it was foul by over-riding. He told me to jerk it whilst a sailor held on with a loose turn around the belay pin. I pulled at it for quite a while, then they gave me more slack rope. Of course it went when they were not ready, and the boat fell perpendicular on the other fall and I went into the sea.
This looked like the end for me, but I was a good swimmer and although I had my sea boots and heavy coat on I didn’t intend to give in. I felt that I was being washed under the ship and then lifted near the rail. I saw a lifeline which hangs from the davit. I grabbed it and held on. Now one minute I was swinging in mid-air whilst the next I was dipped in the sea. Then the boat came nearer to me – they must be getting her to an even keel. I saw my chance, let go the lifeline and caught a thwart and held until the boat reached the water.
I had a job to let go the falls. They had a releasing gear which worked by pulling a ring amidships. I think it was made for a calm sea, because it wouldn’t release if the least weight was on one fall. They were getting annoyed with me on deck and they couldn’t hear me trying to explain my trouble. I tried to unweave the falls, but the ends were made fast. At last several came into the boat down the falls and lifelines. This steadied her with the weight and the releasing gear clipped the falls and we were riding to the painter alongside. An order came from the deck: “Don’t leave the ship, but stand by alongside.”
I could see we had the 2nd Officer, the Lamptrimmer (which is a petty officer rank) and seven firemen. As we rode alongside the ship there were terrible explosions coming from the forrid part. We thought they were the oil drums getting hot and then exploding. They were shooting high up into the air and bursting into thousands of stars like super sky rockets. This would draw the attention of any ship in the vicinity. After one of the explosions the foremast began to fall towards the port side away from us, and it lifted the whole of the upper deck. We were having great difficulty in keeping the boat from being smashed against the ship’s side, and the strain on the painter on which we were riding was terrific. After a while it broke, and we were adrift.
There were only three oars in the boat, no food nor water – all had been lost when she was hanging perpendicular. We manned two oars with two men on each, myself and the Lamptrimmer with a fireman each to assist, and the 2nd Officer at the tiller. We endeavoured to keep near the ship, but with the heavy seas we found we were getting further away, and when the thick snow squalls came we lost sight of the ship, to find as they cleared that we had lost considerable distance. The men began to get exhausted. Some went to lie down in the bow, and before daylight three died.
I found myself wanting to go to sleep when resting from the oar, and knew it was best not to give way to it, and kept pulling an oar as much as possible. During the night we thought we saw ship’s lights. Whether this was imagination, stars, or sparks from the Saint Cuthbert we never found out, but they looked real, and buoyed our hopes up, which made us pull for all we were worth in their direction, only to find that they disappeared. The sea was running high and we could only catch a glimpse of these lights when the boat rose on the crest of a wave.
When dawn began to break we were a forlorn lot. Most of us had been seasick. I must say the 2nd Officer kept everybody hopeful of rescue, and as fresh firemen went to the bow to sleep he would find something for them to do and warned them of the danger of giving in. For example there were the three dead men in the bow. Someone suggested they should be thrown overboard, but this we couldn’t do as it might lead to a censure should we be saved.
We had a mast and sail in the boat, which had been lashed to the thwarts, and Mr Twohy thought we might try it at daylight. It gave us fresh hopes. We managed to step the mast and hoist the lug. It steadied the boat and she began to make headway, but we had a sudden gust. The mast broke and we had to cut the sail adrift before it capsized the boat. Then we resorted to the oars again, and about 9am we sighted the Saint Cuthbert approximately 5 miles away. We all felt much happier as we were afraid she must have sunk, not having seen her for so long. We had a small jib in the boat which we hadn’t trusted with the lugsail. Mr Twohy told us to fix it to the stump of the broken mast from the bow, and it steadied the boat considerably and we put as many on the oars as we possibly could and headed for the Cuthbert.
We made good progress, and when we got nearer we were alarmed to see what a sight she was. Her bows were level with the water and her stern in the air, with the propellers just awash. About 11am we hailed them and found there were still people aboard. They threw us a line, but we couldn’t keep in position for the suction of the ship, and she drew us into the side and battered us about. We tried to save her with the butt end of our oars, and then we fouled the rigging and mast which were over the side. When we cleared this the boat went adrift again, without a rudder which had broken off, all the oars gone except one and a very bad leak. We drifted past the bows of the ship, and saw the men sitting on the anchor. Some wanted to jump and swim to us but we shouted that our boat looked like sinking and they had a better chance of getting aft where they were as the fire was burning itself out. We all felt very miserable in the boat. It started to drift away from the ship and we had no means of counteracting it without oars. The wind began to abate, and we sat there helpless with the dead men still in the boat. About 2pm we felt that we at least had another night in the boat, and knew that if any assistance came to the Cuthbert we would not be seen in the dark as we had no indication signals.
Next Time: The End of the Saint Cuthbert