The power and fury of the sea

THOSE “who go down to the sea in ships and do business in the great waters”, as Psalm 107 puts it, never underestimate the oceans’ potential to unleash power and fury.

And the driftermen seeking the herring shoals off Norfolk in the autumn of 1936, threequarters of a century ago, admitted they had never before experienced anything like the storm they encountered that year.

Their sentiments were echoed unreservedly by fellow seafarers, including Gorleston lifeboatmen who put their own safety at risk as they fought to rescue mariners. Indeed, the lifeboat came perilously close to meeting a fate as awesome as that to befall Caister’s Beauchamp which capsized on launching into wild breakers in 1901, with the loss of nine of her crew of 12.

Multiple headlines encapsulated the 1936 drama: “Gale’s train of death and disaster. Scots drifter capsized. Gorleston lifeboatmen’s narrow escape; two overboard; drifter ashore at Gorleston.”

According to the Mercury: “The worst East Coast gale for 35 years invested the Norfolk coast with a foaming border of peril throughout Wednesday. Ship after ship was wrecked, and from Yarmouth nine Scottish fishermen lost their lives.”

This newspaper catalogued “the gale’s train of disaster” thus:

5am - Glasgow steamer Yewbank driven ashore at Horsey Gap, crew of ten rescued by breeches buoy.

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7am - London barge Lady Gwynfred driven ashore at East Runton.

9.30am - Gorleston RNLI lifeboat almost capsized; two of the crew (George Manthorpe, 54, of England’s Lane, and Ellery Harris, 31, of Lower Cliff Road) were overboard for 20 minutes before being rescued; lifeboat crippled.

1pm - Peterhead motor drifter Olive Branch capsized by terrific waves, crew of nine drowned.

7.30pm - Banff driver Pitgavenney piled up on Gorleston beach, crew rescued by Gorleston lifeboatmen.

The following day produced two minor lifeboat calls, bringing the total number of trips made by the Gorleston lifeboatmen to five in just over 24 hours, continued the Mercury.

“As their own boat was virtually disabled, they had to use the Cromer lifeboat which had arrived at Yarmouth at 8am on Wednesday with her petrol tanks almost empty after standing by the Norwegian steamer Nesttun which went aground on Haisbro’ Sands.”

Charlie Johnson, coxswain of the lifeboat John and Mary Meiklam of Gladswood, told the Mercury: “I have never seen anything like it in all my experience.”

The lifeboat battled up the coast through mountainous seas to answer a summons from coastguards to try to help the beached Yewbank and came within 400 yards of her when she was swamped by a wave some of the would-be rescuers estimated to be at least 100ft high.

The two lifeboatmen were swept into the foaming waters. The John and Mary Meiklam was damaged, but luckily the engines kept running and – steering her in a series of circles while negotiating wave crests and troughs - Cox’n Johnson’s magnificent seamanship enabled the lifeboat to get close enough to be able to throw a rope to his two crewmen struggling in the furious seas.

Ellery Harris, a strong swimmer supported by his cork lifejacket, had succeeded in clinging on to his older companion despite the strength of the swirling waters. George Manthorpe’s plight was aggravated by the fact his struggles had caused one of his heavy seaboots to come off; this loss of weight upset his buoyancy so his lifejacketed body changed from upright to more horizontal and, as his feet neared the surface, his head kept submerging.

For an agonisingly long 20 minutes the two men were tossed about in the icy waves, and Manthorpe was only semi-conscious when Harris managed to snatch the rope thrown from the lifeboat and to cling on to his shipmate with numbed fingers as the crew slowly hauled them to safety.

As for the Olive Branch, she was half a mile from the Corton lightship in broad daylight and within hailing distance of another Peterhead drifter, the Young Dawn, when a heavy sea pounded her, throwing her on to her beam ends. Before she could right herself, another wave hit her, causing her to capsize.

Men on the Young Dawn could see her propeller still turning when she was upside down in badly shoaling water in which no survivor could have lived despite their search.

The news was conveyed to the wives and families of the skipper and his crew. His wife and some of the crewmen’s wives were spending the herring season in Yarmouth and, ironically, the two-year-old Olive Branch was shortly to return to her home port in Scotland after a good autumn fishing had earned her �900.

Wreckage was washed up near Pakefield, the body of her mate still inside her.

Immediately a relief fund for the crew’s dependants was organised by mayor of Yarmouth Harry Greenacre launching it with a five guinea donation (�5.25p today). Businesses and individuals quickly followed and within a couple of days it had reached a considerable �132. The Mercury listed donations and donors, and I was struck by two shillings (10p) from four children, and sixpence (2�p) from “anonymous.”

Today we would scoff, but seven decades ago some folk had to scrimp to be able to afford even a pittance in 2011 terms.

It reminded me that despite my drifterman father earning only low wages in the summer of 1939, my mother sent a half-crown postal order (12�p) in my name to a fund following the loss of the British submarine Thetis, one of the greatest peacetime submarine disasters. I was only four at the time.

With war imminent, HMS Thetis - with 103 men inside her - was on her first trial dive in Liverpool Bay, her crew complemented by workers from builder, Cammell Laird. Her torpedo officer opened the test cocks on the torpedo tubes, but paint blocked one so no water seeped in. The tube’s rear door was opened, but as the tube’s bow cap remained open, sea cascaded in, causing her to sink to the seabed 150ft below the surface. Only four men succeeded in escaping from Thetis.