by John H Marsh

NEXT morning the tug was still upright in the surf but the battering she had received during the past 24 hours had obviously weakened her structure, and Captain Brewin feared that she would not hold together much longer. A new worry had arisen, too. The fresh water in the domestic tank had become contaminated with sea water. It tasted brackish and was no longer thirst-quenching. There was no other fresh water available.

The only means by which the crew could be taken off the tug seemed to be the lifeboat. That, however, was on the beach. The three natives there could not get it back into the water, and through the breakers to the tug, without help. By some means more men must be got ashore to help them.
The swell had moderated somewhat and the tug's master decided to take the chance to play his last card. He still had the little dinghy. It was low tide and the water was only seven feet deep under the tug's bow. The surf was not continuous and there seemed a fair chance of the dinghy being able to negotiate it in safety. It seemed probable that for at least half the distance between the tug and the shore the water must be shallow enough for a man to stand.
Brewin asked for volunteers to take the dinghy to the beach. There was no lack of them. Eventually the first mate, McIntyre, the second mate, Cox, and the second engineer, Scott, were chosen, together with a Hottentot deckhand, Mathias, and a native deck-hand whose courage was aptly symbolised in his name, John Bull. All the men assured the tugmaster that they could swim.
A few minutes after eight o'clock all five men took their places in the dinghy. Each was wearing a life jacket. The dinghy was hanging from the davits. Preparations were being made to lower it carefully into the water when suddenly there was a crack. The foreward hook in the dinghy tore out of the wood, the boat up-ended, and the next moment all five men were pitched into the sea. A second later a big wave reached up, tore out the after hook and carried off the waterlogged dinghy, minus its crew, towards the beach.
The men on the wreck at once threw lines to those in the water. Mathias was able to grab hold of the side of the tug and scramble back on board. The other four, however, found themselves in the grip of the current and were swept round the bow. Cox was semi-conscious through McIntyre having landed with both feet on his head when they were thrown out of the boat. The instinct of self-preservation, however, helped him, with the others, to grab hold of the thin rocket line and to hang on tightly.
As the men were struggling, with the aid of the line, to regain the wreck, those on it could see that the current and the backwash. pulling upon the line, were carrying them seaward. Any moment, too, the line was likely to break. It would not bear the strain of those on the wreck trying to pull the struggling men to the tug's side. Brewin therefore shouted to the men to let go and try to swim to the beach. Two of them, Scott and Cox, did so and struck out for the shore. Scott succeeded in getting through the breakers and reaching shallow water, where the three natives who had come ashore the previous day were waiting to drag him to safety. He sank, exhausted, on the sand.

Cox became entangled with a rope and had some difficulty in freeing himself. Halfway to the beach his legs again became entangled with a line. He had discarded all his clothes except his pyjamas, and his socks, before climbing into the dinghy. Now he shook off his pyjama trousers and eventually found himself free again. A few moments later willing hands helped him to the beach, where he found Scott lying.
McIntyre and John Bull continued to hang on to the line while being rapidly swept seawards. The men on the wreck shouted together to them to let go, but they either did not hear or were too frightened to do so. When it became obvious that the longer they hung on the less their chances of survival would be, orders were given for the line to be cast off from the tug. The men were then about 30 yards from the wreck. John Bull, after splashing wildly for a bit, seemed to get out of the cross current. He was bowled over and over by the breakers, but at last his three compatriots were seen helping him out of the water on the beach. Only later did he let out that he had not swum before in his life.
McIntyre appeared to be unable to swim and those on the tug had to watch helplessly as he struggled desperately in the water. John Bull, a moment before a breaker crashed over his head and carried him shoreward, heard the first mate exclaim: "God help me!" The men on the wreck saw him carried northward by the current until he was lost to sight in the surf.
When Scott, Cox and John Bull had warmed themselves and restored their circulations around the fire that the three natives had lit on the beach, they set out in parties to search the coast in the hope that McIntyre might have struggled asbore further along. They were looking also for Mathias, whom none of them had seen after the boat up-ended. Their search, however, was fruitless, and shortly before noon they returned and signalled to the tug that neither of the two men had come ashore. In reply Brewin informed the beach party that Mathias was safe on board the tug.

McIntyre's body was never found. With him went the secret of how the Sir Charles Elliott came to be wrecked.
The 13 men who were left on the wreck spent another dreadful day. They had seen one of their number drowned before their eyes, and they had been deprived of their dinghy, their last hope, together with its small stock of provisions and water. The only fresh water remaining in the ship was that in the main boiler. At the risk of drowning a few desperate men entered the waterlogged stokehold and worked away for hours with wrenches to open the manhole door of the boiler. Late in the afternoon they succeeded. They now had a fair supply of drinkable water. It was brackish and tasted of chemicals, but it was better than nothing.
All this time waves were constantly breaking over the ship and deluging the decks with spray. The tug was bumping and lurching heavily.
The men on the beach were hardly in better plight. They no longer had the discomfort of a lurching platform and the uncertainty of whether or not they might any moment find themselves struggling for their lives in the sea. But where the men on the wreck could at least get down below decks, if they cared to take the risk, to get relief from the blazing sun and the unceasing wind, those on the beach had no shelter but that provided by the lifeboat. Nor could they by any means escape the sand that the wind whipped from the beach into their faces and against their bodies. They had practically no food and very little water. The supplies in the dinghy had been lost when it was capsized, and the dinghy itself had been smashed to matchwood in the surf. All had lived on the coast long enough to know that the perpetual surf would provide little opportunity of their being rescued from the sea; that sand dunes and desert stretched away far into the interior, providing no roads along which help could come to them overland; and there were no emergency landing fields within hundreds of miles, where aircraft could land to pick them up.

Copyright Michael Marsh(2020)

Return to main page