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Rescuers help crews battling for survival after ships collide in fog off Hemsby Gap

PUBLISHED: 15:47 21 July 2017 | UPDATED: 15:47 21 July 2017

The steamer Harfry aground just off Hemsby beach in 1955. PictureL Mercury Library

The steamer Harfry aground just off Hemsby beach in 1955. PictureL Mercury Library

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Did you have a nice time? What was the place like? How was your accommodation?

Another vessel falls foul of Great Yarmouth's Haven Bridge - the Gotha in 1969. Picture: Mercury Library Another vessel falls foul of Great Yarmouth's Haven Bridge - the Gotha in 1969. Picture: Mercury Library

Those are among the usual questions that greet holidaymakers on their return home, and the answers are usually routine and predictable. But for some visitors to the east Norfolk coast in May 1955, their responses were unexpected, animated and exciting.

Those who took that early break to Hemsby and Winterton had a sensational tale to tell, along the lines of: “Well, there was a collision between two ships in fog, one was beached and they tried to refloat her, a lifeboat stood by, and we were busy for hours boiling kettles to make tea for the rescue brigades.”

Definitely, a conversation stopper.

In thick midnight fog the Aberdeen-bound London collier Harfry, laden with cement and carrying a crew of 16, collided with the coaster Firmity but managed plough at full speed on to the beach near Hemsby Gap because she was holed, taking in water fast and wanted to avoid sinking.

The 411-ton Firmity, one of the large F T Everard fleet of coasters, succeeded in reaching Yarmouth for repairs despite a gaping hole in her bows.

Caister lifeboat was launched and Winterton’s rocket lifesaving brigade mobilised. The Harfry fired a flare to guide the lifeboat which was alongside her as she beached 150 yards from the water’s edge.

Winterton lifesavers under Station Officer S Halfnight shot a line-carrying rocket over the Harfry, ready for a possible crew evacuation by breeches buoy. Three Harfry crewmen came ashore by boat, hauling themselves painstakingly hand over hand along a rope…to telephone families that they were safe.

Searchlights gave the many visitors from seafront bungalows a first-class view of the operation. Holidaymakers had been awakened by the noise of the collier grating on to the sand.

In Yarmouth the Firmity, with a crew of eight, was repaired at Fellows Dock in Southtown and able to resume her interrupted voyage from King’s Lynn to Swansea with wheat. Her master, Tom Farnes, said: “We’d seen each other 20 minutes earlier and were looking for each other when the collision occurred. The fog came down all at once.”

The Harfry was hauled free of the sand’s grip by the Yarmouth port tug Richard Lee Barber and towed into the harbour, the gaping hole in her port side packed with planks and cement.

Returning to the recent topic of vessels becoming wedged against the Haven Bridge, another was the 300-ton Danish motor ship Gotha laden with timber from Finland, swept in darkness by a fierce tide as she was berthing in 1969. The incident worsened the bridge damage caused nine weeks earlier by the Belgian trawler Styn Streuvels.

The longshore boat I’ll Try, owned by Joe Batley, of West Road, Maygrove, was crushed and disintegrated at her moorings in the Gotha incident. Other longshore boats, cut off upriver, were unable to go to sea until the Gotha had been hauled clear.

The Gotha lay wedged between bridge and quayside for five hours before the port tug Hector Read, skippered by Eddie Harris, succeeded in towing her free.

As first attempts to free the Gotha failed, news spread and hundreds of sightseers arrived to watch the drama unfold. Police restricted traffic to the landward side of the bridge, and banned all traffic at times during the later attempts to tow the Gotha clear.

Ironically, it was the Gotha’s last voyage before being delivered to new owners in Norway. She was swinging to make for her berth when the tide swept her on. The force of the inrushing tide kept the ship hard against the bridge structure but nobody was hurt.

That was the sixth time in seven years that a merchant ship or fishing boat had collided with, or been jammed under, the Haven Bridge. The others were the Styn Streuvels, the coasters Ellen M (twice) and Sultan, and the barge Josh Francis.

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