The night Nimrod went down off the coast of Great Yarmouth

The Nimrod when she had reverted to her fatal role as a collier.

The Nimrod when she had reverted to her fatal role as a collier. - Credit: Archant

She was no stranger to fearsome weather, having once sailed in the unpredictable Antarctic waters carrying explorers hoping to reach the South Pole.

But our North Sea proved its might by sinking her, a century ago this month. It resulted in the death of most of the crew of a ship whose fame lives on in the annals of Polar exploration.

A decade before her loss off Norfolk, the Nimrod had borne Sir Ernest Shackleton and his fellow explorers.

But she had put that illustrious past behind her and become a humble collier when she succumbed to the North Sea’s might off Norfolk in January 1919 while carrying 330 tons of coal from Blyth in Northumberland to the French port of Calais.

In darkness and a howling gale, she was dashed to pieces on the dreaded Barber Sands, off Caister.

Ten of her crew of 12 perished.

Against all odds, two were washed ashore on Caister beach, still clinging to an upturned lifeboat. Those two survivors were first mate James Truelsen, a Dane, and boatswain Russell Gregory.

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The 54-year-old Nimrod was expecting a crew numbering unlucky 13, but one seaman failed to join her before she sailed from Blyth.

She was not unfamiliar with the hazards off our coast and, indeed, a few months earlier was berthed in Yarmouth harbour.

Conditions worsened as the Nimrod passed the Cockle lightship on her final fateful voyage and Captain William Doran - whose brother was in her crew - decided to proceed to the St Nicholas lightship.

But that point was never reached because suddenly the vessel ploughed into those Barber Sands.

Immediately Captain Doran ordered “full astern”, but to no avail.

Water gushed in and quickly put her engines out of action. Worse, she had sustained considerable damage below her water-line, and quickly began settling.

Flares were burnt and rockets fired but no help was forthcoming.

The starboard lifeboat was washed away, tantalisingly remaining upright as if ready to be manned, but beyond the survivors’ reach.

They heard the report of a gun from the Cockle lightship, but still no help arrived.

The Nimrod’s other lifeboat could not be launched because of the ship’s severe list, and the survivors huddled in the lee of the bridge for hours, clinging on and fearing they might be swept overboard.

Eventually the tide rose and although their last lifeboat had overturned, it did stay afloat.

Somehow, despite freezing water and relentless battering by waves, the surviving trio clung precariously to its upturned keel, Truelsen helping Gregory to get a hold.

But as hours passed cruelly slowly, one of the trio succumbed through exhaustion and cold.

That victim was the cook, Charles Watson, weakened after hanging on for what seemed an eternity and losing his precarious grip through cold and tiredness, well aware that death was inevitable.

The capsized lifeboat was swept near to the Cockle lightship but the two survivors’ feeble shouts for help went unheard because of the howling gale and roaring sea.

Miraculously, after six hours, the two survivors were washed ashore about dawn on Caister beach, alive but bitterly cold and exhausted.

There, by chance, they were seen by a surprised Mr Woolston, of Walpole Road, Yarmouth, whose dog spotted the seamen and barked excitedly.

He took them to his home, did his best for them - but did not want to be late for work at 7am.

Somehow, they went to the Shipwrecked Sailors’ Home on Marine Parade (today the tourism HQ) where they “received a hot bath and dry clothes, and had every consideration and kindness shown them.”

I believe one of them died two days later.

Two tugs and Caister lifeboat searched unsuccessfully for more survivors, but nine bodies were washed ashore between California and Lowestoft.

The North Sea had proved itself to be more deadly for Nimrod than the perilous Antarctic Ocean and its uncharted icebergs had been.