DECEMBER 3, the fourth day after the wreck, dawned to
find the "soo-oop-wa" still sighing across the sand dunes, stirring the
surface until it seemed to be covered by a thin white mist that drove
inland unceasingly. The night had been bitterly cold and heavy dew
had again fallen. The survivors awoke wet through, weak, and sore.
The trying conditions under which they had existed during those four
days were having their effect. Even with the most careful rationing
they had almost finished the small quantity of ship's biscuits, bully
beef, onions, tinned milk and butter, and the few gallons of water,
that they had salved from the lifeboat. Hunger and thirst were all
the time gnawing within them. The extremes of cold at night and
heat during the day, and their inability to shelter from either, had
sapped their strength. Sunburn had affected nearly everyone. The
women, with their sensitive skins, had suffered severely. The men,
who had rolled up their trouser legs during their first day on the
beach, the better to help in handling the lifeboat and, later, in rigging
up the breeches buoy, had cause now to regret their carelessness.
Their limbs were red and swollen, and to walk in the heavy sand was
To add to the misery of all, the wind had not ceased to blow
since they came ashore. The sand that it carried with it not only
clogged the eyes, nostrils, ears, and hair of the unfortunates, but the
hard particles of quartz and flint driving constantly against the
exposed parts of their raw bodies seared unceasingly like red hot
knives. Sores were beginning to appear on swollen faces. Discharges
were coming from eyes that were ever screwed-up.
The three babies, despite every care to shield them, suffered most
from the sand. Particles found their way into their eyes in such
quantity that they threatened to ruin the sensitive eyeballs and blind
them. Such tragedy would undoubtedly have befallen them but for
the fortunate presence among the survivors of Dr. Labib, the
Egyptian eye specialist. He filtered sea water through cotton wool
and carefully bathed their eyes periodically. He made rough visors
for them out of gauze taken from the lifeboat's medicine box.
Dr. Burn Wood, the ship's surgeon, also tended the babies with
all his care. He doctored their sunburn with burn jelly from the
medicine box and crushed aspirins onto gauze which he applied to
their swollen feet, and the feet of the adults who most needed it, to
ease the pain.
This Dr. Burn Wood was a most remarkable character. He was
the oldest person in the party, not far off his allotted three-score-years-and-ten,
yet he was also one of the most useful and, certainly, the
most loved, of all. He himself had two great loves - adventure, and
the sea. Three times he had given up his practice to go to wars -
the Anglo-Boer War, the Zululand native rebellion, and the Great
War. In between he had voyaged to most parts of the world as a
ship's surgeon. A few years before the World War II he once more
gave up his lucrative practice at Sea Point, the Cape Town suburb,
and left his family behind there to do another spell at sea. When
war broke out his family, feeling that he should not be risking
torpedoes and lifeboat voyages at his age, pleaded with him to come
ashore. He agreed to settle down ashore for good - but not one day
before the war should end. Thus it was that, as surgeon of the
ill-fated liner, he was looking forward to a temporary reunion with
his family after an absence of several years, when he became a
castaway upon the shores of his own land.
The Nerine did not wait long after daybreak before she hoisted
her anchor and carefully approached the beach in preparation for her
attempt to float food and water to the survivors. Her crew had
spent part of the night constructing rough rafts on which to put the
supplies. Using her lead constantly, she felt her way to within 700
yards of the beach, where shoaling water warned Van Rensburg
that nearer approach would risk the mine-sweeper sharing the fate
of the liner.
Van Rensburg closed the beach a mile south of the survivors'
camp, to allow for the effect of the current, sweeping up the coast,
upon the rafts. Two rafts were prepared, and upon each were placed
a case of biscuits, a case of bully beef, a bottle of brandy, and
containers filled with fresh water. All were wrapped in oil-cloth
and canvas and made watertight, and then lashed securely to the
rafts to prevent them coming adrift in the breakers.
When the rafts were cast loose they drifted rapidly away from
the ship. But they did not drift shoreward. Instead the current
carried them at a steady pace northward, past the camp, and on up
the coast. As the Nerine backed into deep water her crew could see
them, tiny black objects against the background of broken water,
rising every now and then upon the top of a wave, then hidden
again in the trough. Some of the survivors tried to keep pace with
them along the beach, but they were in no condition to walk far,
and eventually they turned and came back. The rafts were lost to
sight at last, in the distance.
Undaunted by the failure of this attempt, Van Rensburg
determined to try again. He had no more rafts on board his ship,
but he signalled to the Manchester Division, asking her for one of
her large life-saving rafts, and to load it with food and water as well
as some canvas from which the survivors might be able to make
shelters for themselves.
The master of the freighter agreed to supply these, and early in
the afternoon the raft was dropped into the water and cast loose from
the cargo vessel. The Nerine made fast to it and towed it down
the coast to approximately the position from where she had released
the two in the morning. This time, however, Van Rensburg took
his little vessel even closer in, until there was only 30 feet of water
beneath her. She dared not go a ship's length further, for as she
rose and fell on the swells, almost on the fringe of the breakers,
she was in great danger of striking hidden reefs and, being smashed
open at one blow as if she were just a tin can. Her crew knew they
were taking their lives in their hands, but they knew also that the
lives of those sixty-odd people on the beach might depend upon the
success of their efforts.They were willing to take the maximum
risks to help them.
But it was no use. The third raft shared the fate of the others.
It was carried away up the coast, far beyond the camp, until it, too,
was lost to sight to the north.
Van Rensburg now decided to make a thorough survey of the
coast in the neighbourhood on the chance that there might be some
little inlet or bay protected from the full fury of the surf, where
lifeboats might be able to get through to the beach and take the
stranded people off.
Accordingly he took the Nerine slowly southward down the
coast, keeping as close in as he dared, and examining the shore
through glasses as he went. About five miles south of the wreck
there was a spot marked on the chart as Fria Cove, and he had some
hope that there might be shelter of a sort there. But the broken and
discoloured state of the water told him plainly that danger lurked
there. There was not the slightest sign anywhere to encourage his
hope that succour from the sea might be given to end the sufferings
of those on the beach. As the castaways were obviously not in a
condition to walk further along the beach, even if a suitable place
for embarking them could be found, he turned about and returned
to the wreck.
The swell was still too heavy for the Manchester Division to
water the Nerine. As there was no sign of it moderating and there
seemed nothing further that he could do to help, the master of the
freighter early in the afternoon signalled to the minesweeper that
he was proceeding on his voyage. The 40 survivors that he had
taken aboard had made his ship uncomfortably crowded, there were
all these extra mouths to feed, and there was a shortage of clothing
and blankets. He was therefore anxious to put them ashore as soon
as possible. In addition he did not want to remain in that place any
longer than was absolutely necessary. U-Boats were about, and there
was every likelihood that they would have heard all the talking,
that had been going on over the air, and would come to see what it
was all about. Lying at anchor there, the Manchester Division would
have been a sitting pigeon for a submarine's torpedo.
Before getting under way, however, the freighter sent another
message to Walvis Bay advising the authorities there that there was
no question of rescuing the people by sea and that everything hinged
upon the possibility of their being taken off by air. She reported on
weather and atmospheric conditions at the scene of the wreck, as
well as the failure of the attempts to float supplies to the survivors