by John H Marsh

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 excruciatingly painful.
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 by raft.

Copyright Michael Marsh(2020)

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