by John H Marsh


Completed only hours before the last ship left for home and Marion Island was cut off for the winter

ONE OF Crawford's numerous official duties in his capacity as senior civil servant or " Governor" of the Prince Edwards was to act as postmaster. He had brought no stock of stamps, and he had no equipment for the office except a rubber stamp bearing the words: "Marion Island, South Indian Ocean." He had had it made three years previously, along with others for Tristan and Gough, when the proposal to establish meteorological stations on the three islands was being considered, and he anticipated that he might be sent to one of them. Actually he was sent to Tristan, but he kept the stamps for the others in case he might find use for them one day.

I gave him his first official task even before he landed but after he had entered the territorial waters of the Prince Edwards. While we talked he rubber-stamped for me a handful of letters, dating them and signing them "Allan B. Crawford, Acting Postmaster." Before he reached the shore they were on their way to the Union as Marion Island's first official mail, and they were duly posted in Cape Town and delivered through the normal channel. Already they have become philatelic treasures.

While we were aboard the Good Hope it was reported that Crawford's deputy, Triegaardt, was suffering from suspected peritonitis. He had been confined to his bunk for some days past. Major A.J. Snyman, of the South African Medical Corps, who was travelling in the Good Hope to take charge of the medical supervision of the men ashore and afloat during the frigate's stay, decided that it would be wise to send him back with us in the Natal rather than risk an operation and all its complications down there. Thus, after he had prepared

himself for his year's exile and had come all this way, all he saw of the islands was a glimpse from the tossing motor-boat as he was carried over to the Natal and taken down to her sick bay.

As the sea was too rough to allow the landing stage to be used, Dike reached the Good Hope for the conference by again sliding down the rope from the cliff into a boat. Finlayson hurried back to his ship as soon as his presence was no longer essential, for he was not happy away from her in the conditions then prevailing. The Natal's party returned to their ship before lunch, and immediately the anchor was weighed and she started homeward. Not one on board was sorry to bid farewell to the islands. None had ever known such temperamental and unpleasant weather. During one 12-hour check the wind had changed direction no fewer than 16 times. In nearly 18 days at the islands the frigate had been able to lie at anchor in all less than 100 hours, spread over nine occasions.

Despite the unfavourable sea conditions the Gamtoos's men strove throughout the day to get all their cargo ashore before their departure, scheduled for nightfall. They had only hutment sections and timber left to unload, and this they could float ashore without using the landing stage.

By the middle of the afternoon they had everything out except thirty hutment sections, and there seemed hope that they would win the race against time and give the island party every item of much-needed equipment that they had brought down for them.

Then disaster came.

The sea had been gradually working up, and the guano boats were experiencing increasing difficulty in preventing themselves being carried ashore each time they approachcd the beach in order to pass across the towing lines of the slats they had brought in. From the Aqua Fourie saw a member of the crew of one of the boats he had just towed in take a turn of the grass guide rope round the after bollard, apparently to help

hold the craft in position. He knew that this would increase the danger of a capsize and shouted to the boatmen to let go. They did not hear because of the noise of the surf. Others shouted warnings also, and eventually the man in the stern-sheets grabbed the rope and cast it loose. Just at that moment a breaker higher than any yet caught the boat and twisted it round and over. Its crew were thrown out, and it floated bottom up amid a welter of boiling water.

Of the men who had been in it one was already on the beach. He had been in the bows when he realised what was happening. Quick as thought he stepped on to the prow, and even as the boat went over he hurled himself shoreward. The wave carried him on to the rocks, where willing hands grabbed him and hauled him, bruised and frightened, to safety.

Three heads were bobbing in the water, and from them came cries for help. The boatmen were weighted down with their thick clothing, oilskins and sea-boots. The backwash was giving them no chance of making the shore unaided.

Kinsella, the medical orderly, sized up the situation in a flash, seized a rope lying nearby and started into the water. The rope was too short, and in response to the shouts of Bond and others on the shore he came back for a longer one. As he waded out again Bond threw after him a lifebuoy, the only one on the beach, which he had begged from the Good Hope only that morning. Kinsella swam out with the lifebuoy to the man who was furthest out, and helped him to get hold of it. Then he helped the other two likewise to the buoy. All four clung to it as it was hauled shoreward. Though they had been in the water hardly five minutes, all the men were semi-conscious from cold and shock when they were pulled out.

Now there came a shout from Sergeant Boyer, the look-out man on the cliff top, that he could see another man in the water. Up to now nobody had realised that there had been five men in the boat. The fifth

man could now be seen floating a little distance out. Dike went in at once, trailing the rope and the buoy. He reached the man after a struggle through the breakers. He was limp and making no effort to help himself. Dike caught hold of him and tried to hold his head above the water while they were being pulled in. In quick time they were dragged out of reach of the waves. Dike was completely exhausted, but the boatman seemed lifeless. Woeke gave him injections and tried artificial respiration for an hour, but could not revive him. He proved to be Joseph Daniels, the man who had been in the sternsheets and had cast the rope off the bollard just before the wave caught the boat. A large bruise on his forehead suggested that the gunwale had struck him as the craft turned over, possibly killing him instantly.

The other rescued and the two rescuers had meanwhile been carried to the kitchen marquee higher up the beach, where in the warmth of the oil fires their sodden clothing was removed, and they were wrapped in blankets while dry clothes were sought for them. Though the Coloured men by the next morning were little the worse for their experience, the European rescuers still required medical treatment days afterwards. Dike was still having trouble with his back, which the doctors said only a warm climate could cure, when he returned to the Union two months later.

The Aqua retrieved the capsized boat and towed it, still bottom up, to the Gamtoos. It was righted with the aid of the derricks, but before it could be hoisted inboard Powell had to go over the side to remove the sea-cock and let the water out. Although he was in the water for only a few minutes he came up numb and blue with the cold and had to receive treatment before he revived. It seemed clear that nobody could survive long in that water, with a temperature that was only ten degrees above freezing.

All landing operations were suspended when news of the tragedy reached the Gamtoos. She could not now

sail that night, for, apart from still having cargo aboard her boatmen were temporarily marooned ashore. Finlayson was forced to face further delay and a reduced reserve of coal for eventualities on the voyage home.

On the next day the sea was still too rough for boats to use the landing stage. Finlayson could wait no longer, however, and as his boatmen had now recovered and were willing to risk a transfer to their ship by the Dike method they were lowered over the cliff in a bosun's chair into a waiting boat, which put them safely aboard the Gamtoos. Before leaving the island each man was rigged out with a complete new outfit of clothes, including airmen's kapok-lined flying-suits and fur-lined boots, of which they were not a little proud.

As soon as his men were aboard Finlayson weighed anchor and steamed away, ensign at half-mast, for Cape Town. In his holds were still the 30 slats for the island's buildings.

As it was he had a stormy passage home, encountering several gales, one of which, from the south-east, attained a velocity of 100 m.p.h. He crawled into Table Bay with only 30 tons of coal, enough for less than two days' steaming, in his bunkers.

Copyright John H Marsh (1948)

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