Recalling North Sea dramas

IMPROVEMENTS in technology have reduced drastically the number of collisions and shipwrecks down the decades, but the weather remains an uncontrollable factor and human error can never be eliminated. Recently this column featured the little old steamer Penton, driven on to Gorleston beach in filthy weather and stuck there throughout the summer of 1937.

During my reporting days I covered many a drama involving ships in trouble off the Norfolk coast and the courage of lifeboatmen who went to their aid – stories that usually happened on bitter nights necessitating my presence at the coastguard station on Gorleston Pier from where the emergency response was being co-ordinated.

Not all these casualties wound up on our foreshores: some sank, limped to the safety of a port, or were towed there.

A month into my career in 1955, I was too inexperienced to be involved when senior colleagues went to Waxham where the French trawler St Pierre Eglise was stranded in the breakers. Her crew, rescued by the Winterton breeches buoy brigade, returned on board later...but had to be taken off again when conditions deteriorated.

Eventually she was towed off and taken to Yarmouth.

Waxham was the scene of another trawler mishap, this time the Lowestoft vessel Ira in 1966. The Ira, originally named Bentley Queen, was refloated by the Yarmouth port tug Hector Read.

Malcolm J White, of Lowestoft, author of books about that port, says Waxham seemed to be a popular spot for Lowestoft vessels to run aground - “I know of three – a steam drifter, a side trawler and a beam trawler – that all landed up on the beach there.” But Hopton’s sands, only a brief steam from Lowestoft harbour, also claimed victims, including the trawler Loch Lorgan in 1963.

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For many decades most casualties were fishing boats, particularly in autumn when the herring fishery was in full swing at Yarmouth and Lowestoft.

Four drifters were all suspects when an old rusted boiler made occasional appearances on Yarmouth’s South Beach, uncovered when wind and tide scoured away sands to reveal it. Fishing and port enthusiasts argued for years about which drifter the boiler belonged to, but the friendly dispute is unlikely ever to be settled.

The favourite was the Scottish steam drifter Olive, driven ashore and wrecked in a 1933 gale, but there was plenty of support for Yarmouth’s Tryphena which suffered a broken steam pipe and was being towed back to port by the Oswy in 1929 but twice struck the North Pier in heavy weather and was driven on to the beach. Her crew were rescued by the rocket life-saving brigade; the Tryphena broke her back before she could be salvaged. The Lowestoft drifter Arimathea was another possibility, wrecked in 1937 when the hawser snapped as she was being towed into Yarmouth harbour to be scrapped on Darby’s Hard. And the fourth claimant was the John and Sarah.

When hundreds of holiday caravans were sited at the water’s edge on the South Denes postwar, children derived immense pleasure from clambering on the rusted boiler when it made one of its periodic appearances. But in 1998, when it was accessible again, it was sliced up and removed, probably an early victim of “health and safety”.

Also on these denes near the harbour entrance the Dutch coaster Wegro was the centre of public attention for a week in 1981 when she was blown ashore in a gale so severe that whipped-up beach sand blasted the paintwork off police cars that went to the scene. That sandstorm was of such ferocity that I became alarmingly disorientated in the darkness while seeking a telephone box I knew was near the harbour’s mouth so I could dictate my report to the Eastern Daily Press.

Weather and tide had prevented the Wegro from entering harbour to collect a grain cargo, so she dropped anchor to ride out the storm. But the anchor dragged and even with her engines running on full power, she was relentlessly driven on to the beach and ended up alongside the road.

Two lads on a holiday voyage were rescued by breeches buoy by the Gorleston LSA company. When the gale abated and the tide receded, the crew clambered down to the beach to safety. During efforts to prepare for her refloating, sightseers went on guided tours of the Wegro, their entrance fees going to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. And crowds cheered and drivers tooted their car horns as two tugs slowly hauled the Wegro off the south beach.

Eight years earlier, the coaster Polaris was deliberately run aground there...and never left! She was badly holed in a collision with a tanker in fog 40 miles off Yarmouth and brought here secured to the side of the rig supply ship Titan Service, an unconventional method necessitated because there was a danger she might heel over.

When they reached Yarmouth, the harbour-master refused to allow the Polaris into the port in case she foundered and blocked the river. So the Titan Service and Signal Service headed towards the South Denes Caravan Camp, releasing her lashings before all three grounded: the Polaris ploughed gently into the sand, the two supply ships put their bow thrusters on to full power and went astern into deeper water.

Three days later, the Polaris rolled on to her side, and thus began years of attempts to salvage her or cut her up, all bedevilled by a wrangle over who should pay. The efforts to remove her included use of a DUKW amphibious vehicle and putting an old RAF barrage balloon into her hold and inflating it – but the jagged metal ripped it to shreds.

Presumably some of the Polaris still remains there, unless outer harbour work necessitated its removal.

And from soggy sand to soggy earth. Recently I mentioned the long-gone Pudding Gate in St Nicholas’s Road and quoted from an 1897 book that nobody knew why it was so-called. Local historian Colin Tooke, of Caister, tells me: “The old Civil War moat that ran to the east, now the site of Sainsbury’s, was used by the town’s butchers as a dump for all their waste offal etc. This waste was known as ‘pudding’.”