by John H Marsh

WHILE the Natalia was floating supplies to the party ashore and trying to get her engines into working order again, drama was being played out at the wreck of the tug, 60 miles to the south.
The third night on the wreck had passed much as the previous two. The 13 men were wet, bitterly cold, hungry and suffering tortures from thirst. The water position on board had become acute. Everyone knew that there was no likelihood of supplies being replenished, even from the air. No airman, no matter how skilful, could drop water containers intact on such a tiny target. On the other hand it seemed that aircraft were now being employed to keep the shipwrecked parties supplied from the air, and although they had not yet succeeded in delivering water to the party on the beach, they might at any moment manage it.

Three of the natives on the tug, desperate from thirst and fear that the wreck would break up beneath them, made up their minds during that third night that they would make a bid to reach the beach by swimming next morning. One of the men was Mathias, who two days previously had barely escaped with his life when the dinghy pitched him and his four companions into the water. Comparative stranger to the sea though he was, the Hottentot was not daunted. His intrepidity communicated itself to two of his compatriots, Samuel and Martin, who resolved to accompany him.
When Brewin heard of the men's intention he did his utmost to discourage them. He could not very well forbid them to make the attempt, for the whole party was in such peril that it must be a case of every man for himself. Nor could he promise them eventual rescue if they stayed.
He could not deny the truth of their assertion that whether they stayed or whether they swam they might drown, whereas if they survived the swim their extra help might enable the lifeboat to be launched and their companions thereby to be saved.
The men were determined, whether with the consent of their captain or not, to attempt the swim, and shortly after half-past nine they plunged overboard. Each was wearing a life jacket.
In a moment they were swallowed by the surf. While men on the wreck and ashore prayed silently for their safety, they were tossed hither and thither by the breakers. Periodically their heads appeared above the surface, each time further away from the wreck. They were being carried northward by the current. They were struggling against a powerful backwash, but foot by foot they were making progress. The beach party moved up the coast abreast of them as they swam. Half-a-mile north of the wreck the men on the shore formed a human chain that reached well out beyond the first lines of breakers. There, half-an-hour after they had watched them plunge into the sea, those on the tug saw the three men being helped out of the water. They were utterly exhausted. Mathias seemed to be in the worst condition, and he lapsed into unconsciousness as soon as he touched the sand. He had swallowed much water and appeaned to be almost drowned. Cox applied artificial respiration and after some minutes the Hottentot revived. With the others he was helped along the beach to the fire and sat down to warm his shivering body. After a few moments he suddenly fell backwards, without warning, unconscious again. Cox once more applied artificial respiration. He was unable to restore life to the exhausted frame, however. Blood and foam appeared on his lips, and he expired without regaining consciousness half-an-hour after reaching the beach.

Samuel and Martin quickly revived in the warmth of the fire. They were given a dipperful each of the precious water taken from the lifeboat's supply.
A message announcing Mathias' death was signalled to the tug, and the body was carried some distance away and laid on the sand under a piece of canvas frorn the lifeboat, until it should be decided what to do with it.
The ten men remaining on the wreck now made another attempt to float a line shore with the aid of the empty lifebelt box. It was no more successful than the previous ones, however. The box merely floated out abeam of the wreck.
As high tide was approaching early in the afternoon, the eight men ashore prepared for another attempt to launch the lifeboat. The two extra men provided just that additional help that was needed to keep the boat more or less under control as the waves periodically lifted it afloat. Cox, who as surviving mate took charge, planned to work the boat down the shore to the south of the wreck and there await low water when it would be least dangerous to negotiate the surf. By starting off below the Wreck, allowance would be made for the current.
It was exhausting work man-handling the heavy craft along the shore. The men were up to their waists in water most of the time, and when they were not pushing the boat seaward for all they were worth to prevent it being thrown up on the beach by the waves, they were holding on with all their strength to prevent it being carried away by the backwash. All the time they were struggling to keep it under control and prevent it being swamped.
They had reached the position from which Cox judged it might be possible to make the tug at low water, when Robbs' plane arrived on its way to the northernmost wreck. It circled down, apparently preparing to make another attempt to drop supplies. Leaving the others to hang on to the lifeboat, Scott ran along the beach to signal to the plane where to drop its load. In the excitement of the moment he forgot to take with him the flags with which to signal directions to the supply planes. Cox ran after him with them. They were in time to see motor tubes attached to what appeared to be small home-made parachutes, drop from the aircraft, followed by packages containing food. The parachutes were unable to check sufficiently the fall of the loaded tubes, and as each struck the ground it burst and spilled its water into the sand. Most of the food packages, however, landed safely. The beach party now had sufficient bully beef, biscuits and canned fruit to keep them all alive for several days. The canned fruit had been specially included when the packages were made up at Walvis Bay, because there was a plentiful supply of liquid in each tin which might serve as a substitute for water if the supplies of the latter failed to reach the marooned people.

When the aircraft had dropped her last package and flown away northward, the two Europeans started back towards the spot where they had left the six natives with the lifeboat. They were astonished to see only three natives on the beach and no lifeboat. Looking seaward, they saw the lifeboat bobbing alongside the tug, and men jumping into it from the deck.
In the absence of the officers, the three natives, Otto, Daniel and William, who had been washed ashore in the lifeboat on the first day of the wreck, had persuaded the others to help them get the boat away from the beach. The three were determined to try alone, even at the risk of their lives, to save their shipmates. Watching their opportunity when there was a momentary lull between the breakers. they pulled out. Their progress, with only three oars, was painfully slow. They displayed no mean skill in handling their heavy craft, however. They kept her head all the time towards the incoming waves, and breasted each one in succession in fine style, shipping only a minimum of water. Fortunately the almost complete absence of rocks along this coast allowed them to concentrate on the task of beating the surf, and this they succeeded so well in doing that before very long they were able to grasp a line thrown to them from the tug, and to haul the lifeboat close enough for the men on the wreck to jump into it, one after the other. The wind and swell had moderated sufficiently since the previous day to enable the three natives to keep the lifeboat under control while this operation was going on. When all but the master had safely been taken aboard, the lifeboat was fairly crowded with its load of 12 people.

Despite the urging of his crew, Brewin refused to get into the lifeboat. He realised that some considerable time might yet elapse before they were all rescued. The 18 men on the beach would need food and shelter while they waited. It would be foolish to rely upon supplies dropped haphazardly from the air. He determined therefore to get together all the food, clothing, blankets and medical supplies that he could find on the wreck, and to risk the chance that the lifeboat might not be able to make a second trip to fetch him and them to the shore. He feared, too, to risk overloading the boat on its dangerous passage through the breakers back to the beach. He therefore ordered the boat away.
With more hands to man the oars, the lifeboat made a safe and quicker journey back to the beach. Not being as light as on its outward trip, it shipped more water, but while some men rowed others baled and kept the water down in the bottom of the boat. Nobody worried about being drenched, for nearly all of them had been wet through for more than three days now.
The five men ashore were waiting, waist deep in the water, to help the rescued men to the beach. The latter stepped on to firm ground with thankful hearts. They had almost abandoned hope of ever reaching land alive.
The three courageous oarsmen would not hear of giving up their places to others for the second trip to rescue their captain, nor would they stop to rest. Nelson, a Kroo boy, one of the only two of the tug's native crew with sea experience, volunteered to go with them as coxswain.
The four men successfully negotiated the surf and reached the tug. Brewin threw into the boat everything he had collected, and then jumped in himself. He took leave of his ship with regret. She had proved herself in many an operation in her 40 years. It was tragic that she should end her career like this. But she had served well to the very last When her captain had expected her to break up under the battering of the elements, as many a newer craft would have done, she had stood together long enough for all who had survived the fury of the sea, to be rescued. Now, her bottom a sieve and her hull waterlogged, she would slowly disintegrate with the passage of time.

The natives brought their captain safely to the beach, and by half-past four that afternoon the whole crew, with the exception of the two who had lost their lives, were re-united. They celebrated with a dipperful of water and a ration of food from the supplies dropped by the aircraft, for each man. Then Brewin and Cox set off northward along the beach to look for any signs of Mcintyre. They clung to the faint hope that he might have reached the shore further up the coast, in which case he would be urgently in need of help. Cox had made a similar search each day since the tragedy.
It was getting dark when the two men returned after a six-mile walk. They had found no trace of the missing mate.
After rigging up rough shelters with the aid of the lifeboat's mast, oars and sails, and the small parachutes dropped from the plane, the tug's crew turned in for the night in more cheerful mind than they had been since disaster came upon them.

Copyright Michael Marsh(2020)

Return to main page