The Deck Locker

A blog for sea stories - in this case, my own but I hope those of others in the future. It came about via an idea on the Virtual sailor site - - and a thread started on there. If you have any sea stories you'd like to share, please send them on to me. I reserve the right to edit and / or accept but I hope that doesn't put you off!

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Location: Kidlington, United Kingdom

Ex seaman - over 20 years - with 4 years as a lifeboat crewman. Now a Social Worker

Friday, February 24, 2006

If I look in my Seaman's Discharge book I can give you a date for this story. 16th October 1977. The location? Smerwick harbour in Southern Ireland. My age? I was 20. If you know that coast - with its place names like Dingle, Valentia, The Blasket Islands, Tralee, Loop Head - they sound magical and attractive yet it is not somewhere you want to be caught out in.

The tug I was on - the 'Afon Goch' - had been at sea on salvage station when we were radioed to go and pick up a Panamanian flag coaster - the 'Skyhope' - which had run hard aground at the village jetty whilst attempting to get fresh water. We arrived early the next morning after having bounced through the deep running Atlantic swells until we anchored off in the wide bay at Smerwick Harbour. Whilst VHF messages were made between the ship and ourselves, the duty crew took the tug's workboat and went to have a look at the casualty.

She was a typical East German built short sea trader, a tired looking old hooker that had seen her fair share of the commercial world. She was around 1200 tons deadweight, had goal post masts and two hatches - and looked typically hard worked. Our tug, by comparison, was a sleek, purposeful looking ex Dutch Salvage tug that looked the business. She had good sea kindly lines, and was - in my estimation at least - a beauty.

We surveyed the casualty carefully. Hard aground? Very much so! The skipper had tried to bring her in alongside a low concrete pier that served as a jetty and as he had swung his stern in, the rudder had collided with rocks and broken off. All that remained of the rudder was the stub of the post sticking out from under the stern. The ship was, to put it mildly, going nowhere- at least not without tug assistance.

The plan was for us to tow her into deeper water, set the towing gear up for a coastal tow and - once the weather was good enough - tow her to Verlome Dockyard in Cork for dry docking. By the end of the afternoon we had done exactly that, and settled to our anchor with the coaster on a short nip - that is attached to our tow line and anchored to us. Now all we needed was a good forecast.

Unbeknown to us, the coaster's polyglot crew, decided to go ashore for one last drink at the small pub in the harbour. They used one of their lifeboats as a go ashore and when they came back that night they had decided between them - as drunken men's logic often does - to give us the slip. The first I knew about it was when I was summoned from my bunk in the wee small hours to see the 'Skyhope' under way - and turning, circling, under power. They had thrown the tow off and decided to try and sail drunk where they? Believe me, worse was to come!

She dropped her anchor when they realised they were going nowhere and after we recovered our towing gear, we went aboard and this time - once we had hooked up - we made sure the weight was on the towing bridle at all times to stop the coaster's crew from trying to get it off. With it being slacked away previously, they had unshackled the bridle ends and thrown them over board - this time there was no way they were going to do that.

As we waited for the weather to calm down to insurance levels - ie. the Lloyd's surveyor passing the tow as seaworthy had put a Force 5 limit on it - we also took a trip ashore for a couple of beers and a 'phone call where we met the crew of the coaster - and believe me, they were not a pretty sight. There was an Egyptian, a Greek, two Arabs, a Nigerian, two Brits and three Filipinos. As the coaster skipper got progressively more drunk he revealed that he had been an ex fisherman and had no tickets (certificates of competency). He had been made Master of the coaster a month previously in Hamburg. He even tried to recruit some of us as crew, promising command if we showed any promise. As for her reason for being where she was, the ship had been en route from Hamburg to Galway but had run out of fresh water, hence the call in at Smerwick.

He admitted not looking at the possibility there was no water available under his stern. His attitude was that if he could just hold her there long enough to take water on then that was fine.......

By midnight we had had enough. Whilst the tug's crew were not exactly sober, they were off watch and I - as duty seaman - was in charge of running them back across the dark waters to the tug, and their beds. We left the coaster's crew drinking heavily and arguing loudly amongst themselves.

It was shortly after that it took a real turn for the worse.

This is the bit I shall never forget. Ever. At 3am, I was woken by the on watch AB. having got to bed just after 1 am, after stowing the inflatable and fuelling her up. I was therefore less than pleased with being disturbed. As I dressed and made my way to the galley for a mug of tea, the story began to unfold. Firstly, the coaster's VHF radio had been used to broadcast music and then, shortly afterwards, to scream out that someone was being murdered aboard her. As I drank my tea and grimaced at the liklihood of that, distress flares began being shot off by the coaster.

Our Mate (Chief Officer) ordered us to ready the workboat and I was tasked with this with a younger seaman. The boat's crew was then formed and consisted of the Chief Officer (who was in charge), the Second Engineer ( whose job it was to man the engine), the Ship's Electrician (as First Aider) and two seaman - myself and the younger man. It was blowing a bit and as we started to swing the boat out, I was handed a parka coat by the Donkey man off the tug. I had been the only one aboard not dressed for the cold of the evening - in my rush to get the boat ready I had forgotten to put a coat on. I was glad he gave me that coat.

We were then ordered NOT to go to the aid of the coaster by our Master who was convinced they were 'fooling about' and obviously drunk. Both he and the Mate argued over this, with the Mate saying that at least we should go over to check as if there were casualties, it was our responsibility. The Skipper reluctantly agreed and we made our way over.

The weather conditions - it being October - were frigid. There was a light, cold wind blowing in from the North and the sea was running quite briskly, with occasional white caps. It was 3.40 by the time we secured alongside the 'Skyhope's pilot ladder under which a half submerged ship's lifeboat lay forlornly. The Mate asked me to go aboard with him and the Electrician and as we made the main deck, we were greeted by a confused, drunken mob. None of them spoke English and we were hurried in to the after housing - and to a horror I shall never forget.

It looked like a butcher's shop, with blood splattered all over the bulkheads and tables, Beer bottles littered the deck and a bloodied fire axe lay across a table. The coaster Skipper began to tell us what happened but he was slurring badly and there was a lot of shouting and confusion. Two men were sitting down, one with his jaw broken and bleeding badly and the other holding a towel, red with blood, across his head. The story began to unfold.

The man whit the towel over his head - let us call him Nicos - was the ship's Chief Officer and was sober. He had remained aboard whilst the crew went ashore to get drunk. When they had returned, the man with the broken jaw - let's call him Yasser - had decided he did not like the Mate and had come up behind him and hit him over the head with the ship's fire axe. He would have done so again but someone got a crowbar from somewhere and smashed it into Yasser's face - in fact, puncturing the mouth and breaking the jaw. The blood they had both shed was everywhere - it was, as I said earlier, like a butcher's shop.

The Mate attended to his counterpart first - and removed the towel carefully. The Electrician - our First Aider - threw up. There was a deep cut to the centre of the skull that was easily an inch and a half deep - but Nicos was talking quietly, complaining of no more than a severe headache. We had to act. The Mate requested, by VHF, that the tug call for immediate assistance and that we were going to go into the harbour with the two men. Both Ambulance and Police were needed. He stressed how urgent it was and how quickly assistance was required.

We then assisted Nicos and Yasser out of the mess room and out to the deck where we carefully guided both down by tying a heaving line to them as they negotiated the pilot ladder. There was no other way to do it. Then myself, the Mate and Electrician went to the boat - and then the trouble started.

Yasser again went for Nicos and this time we struggled with him. The Mate shouted for a stretcher to be thrown down and, after a huge scrum, we managed to get Yasser secured into it. More crew from the coaster began to come aboard, despite our protestations, wailing and moaning and generally behaving like fools. I think that at least half of them came, still drunk and still obviously irritated. The rest would have joined had we not started the engine and cast off.

The Mate warned our extra passengers to be calm. Rounding the coaster's stern, we hit the swell and she was lively, making lots of spray over the bows as we motored along. The shore was lit by the outside lights of the pub, no more, and it was this the Mate made for as the workboat rolled and bucked her way towards the land.

Then, with no warning, two of the coaster crew began fighting. A third joined in and then a fourth. I heard the Mate scream at them to sit still, be calm - I also became aware that water was rising up my legs. I shouted at the Engineer and we checked the plugs - both in. As I sat up and prepared to bail, the boat scended, turning to port as she did so and depositing everyone in the water.

It was so slow! She seemed to take ages to go over, tipping unstoppable, over to her port side and just going. I was thrown into a very cold Atlantic Ocean but was soon scrambling onto the upturned keel, helping others aboard. The Mate made a headcount - the Engineer was missing. I was 20. I still don't know why I did what I did but I went back over the side and under th boat - and found him shivering, shaking with fear and cold, in an air pocket. It took me a good few minutes to persuade him to come out and I had to hold on to him as we went under and then surfaced - but we made it. As I settled back on the keel, starting to feel the cold seep in, the Mate scolded me but then grinned and said, simply 'good man!'. The Engineer huddled into himself, shivering.

I was asked by the Mate to tend to Nicos, who was at this stage, shivering violently and unable to keep his grip. I held him in my arms and we sat on the upturned keel like that, with me asking him questions about where he came from - I only ever discerned Thessaloniki - the rest of the time he was unable to speak clearly. he was in a very bad way, what with his wound and the shock of cold water immersion..

We took stock. No flares, no radio. A hand torch. That was the situation we were in. The Mate tried to contact the tug by using Morse on the torch - but it appeared as if no-one could see us. Yasser was cut free of the stretcher as he kept sliding under inside it and he shivered and moaned right forward, staying as far as he could from us all.

I don't know how long we drifted. It felt like hours. I could see the sea breaking white in the darkness at the base of the headland, a high and seemingly impossible cliff face that - from where we were sat - seemed to scrape the sky itself. A big sky, a rich deep velvet black, studded with stars like so many diamonds.

In my arms, Nicos struggled less and less and I shook him and prodded him. I was getting ever decreasing results. The Mate looked at him and mumbled something through chattering teeth. Then he looked at me and shook his head.

Nicos died in my arms shortly afterwards. I felt the life go from him in a shudder and that was it. I think I sat with him for ages until the Mate gently told me that he was gone and that we had to push the body over to make more room for the living. I was appalled and said so but he told me he would use the tiller painter to attach to the body for recovery later on. We did this sombre task, the Chief Officer and the 20 year old boy sailor - and I shall always recall the way the body bumped and floated just astern of us, separated from us in death but still with us like an accusation. I knew he was at peace now. At least he did not have the agony of waiting.

So we drifted and the dark looming cliffs came nearer and nearer. It began to dawn on us that no-one had worked out we were lost - and on the shore road we saw blue flashing lights as they made their way to the harbour - but no sign of anyone coming for us. Back in those days, the only communication between ship and shore was via the coastal radio stations. That mean delay as the messages were transferred between the tug, the coast radio station, the telephone to the Police HQ and them relaying by radio - and back again. Precious time.

As dawn broke, grey and moody, we saw our inflatable breasting the swell in the far distance. We shouted ourselves hoarse and she eventually turned and closed with us. I saw that the Towing Master was on the tiller with one of the AB's. We were told he could not take us all, only four at a time. However, he didn't get the chance. Yasser leapt from our boat to the inflatable, struggling like the crazy man he was, and flooding their engine. The last we saw of them was as they struggled with Yasser, and drifted away.......

God knows how much longer we drifted. The mood now resigned, seeing the base of the cliffs gloomy in the dawn with the heavy seas breaking white at the base. I knew that if we got in amongst that lot we were all doomed. Someone started to cry. I huddled in the borrowed Parka coat and thought about my Mum and Dad at home, my sister and brothers. How would they take it? I hoped they would be fine, knowing I had died doing what I loved. I thought about girls I had known and saw their faces again..I apologised to those people I had hurt and I thought about those I loved. I wasn't scared, believe me. If anything, I was resigned to it. I wondered whether it would hurt or take long........

I think I also knew then that I was not going to die. That it was not my time. I stared out at the grey green Atlantic breaking dawn, at the black-blue tinged with pink dying night and at the way the sky was colouring pale and wan, but strengthening too as the dawn started to break. II can't explain it but I knew then that I was not for the taking this time. I had mumbled some half forgotten prayers and I had taken stock - but I never gave up any hope. I can't explain that - it was just a strength in me that said 'You're not for the taking this day'

We were rescued by an Irish Schoolteacher and a local fisherman who had used his boat to search for us, having seen the police and ambulance on the shore. The local man's knowledge saved us - and we were unceremoniously hauled aboard the boat were we laughed and cried and bummed cigarettes. The last job we had was recovering Nicos, which I assisted with. He lay on the deck of the bucking boat as she powered for the harbour, covered in a blanket, his body moving to his last dance of the sea beneath him.

What happened next? Hospital, hot and cold baths, a good meal paid for by the Irish Police (Sergeant Tim Collins of the Garda - I recall his name) and a bed in a police cell as the local inns in Dingle were full. A trip back to the tug, a pay off and a ticket home. Headlines in the local paper 'Six Hour Sea Rescue Drama for local Tug Crew'. My three minutes of fame.

Eventually, Yasser was imprisoned. It transpired he was an Ex Egyptian soldier who had fought in the Six Day War and been shell shocked. He had come to sea hoping to escape his demons but the madness had simply remained dormant. He was later tried and found guilty of murder, extradited to Egypt and sentenced to death.

Nicos's body was never taken back to Greece. The post mortem found that he had suffered extreme trauma to the brain and all that had kept him going was his 'fight or flight' responses. The Pathologist said later that he would have died anyway. He lies in a simple grave in Ireland, far away from his home in Thessaloniki.

The 'Skyhope' Master was never seen once the ship got to Cork. He did a runner, along with a few of the crew. Those who stayed were surplus to requirements as she was put up for sale once she had arrived at Cork. The towing Company I worked for were never paid for the job.

Our tug Master was severely reprimanded, for not alerting the rescue services in time. Valentia lifeboat and the Irish Air Force did not have night search capability - this was the late '70's we are talking about - and had said they would begin a search at dawn.

The Electrician hit the bottle afterwards, when we got home. I believed he was later sectioned under the Mental Health Act. I never saw him again.

The Mate, Alan, resigned from the tug company and went to the North Sea. A year later he was beheaded in an anchor handling operation when a wire pennant snapped and took his head clean off. He was just 34 years of age.

The Second Engineer and his wife and child came to see me and to say thank you. He said - he still says - that I saved his life. I don't recall that. I recall going under the boat for a shipmate, not for kudos. He runs a post office nowadays.

I still spend time and have a beer with Sam, the AB in the inflatable. He told me that he had 'punched the mad man's lights out' when he started to struggle, tying him up with the painter and some cord to keep him from struggling - but that the engine was useless, waterlogged. Sam is still at sea.

And me? I was 20. I witnessed carnage that night, the result of no discipline and drink. I stayed with a man I did not know and I held him in my arms as he died. I went beneath an upturned lifeboat and I talked a man into coming out. I showed no courage because I did what I thought was right. I did not ask God for help because I have never believed in him. I still don't - but whatever it was that spoke to me that long night, almost thirty years ago, made me trust my own intuitive 'gut' feeling. I always have done, it is almost always right.

Did it put me off going to sea? No. The sea remains my one enduring love, although nowadays I am no longer at sea for medical reasons. Have I been back there to Smerwick Harbour to recall old ghosts? No - but one day I will.

If any of them read this, I remember and say thanks to each of you for all that you did. My ex shipmates, the Garda and the nuns who took us in to warm us up and offer sympathy and support. It was a time of change and it was, I know, my rite of passage.

It was, as the experiences at sea often were in the years I remained with it, the sort of adventure no author could dream up.