The tale of drifter’s brave sole survivor

SEVENTY-FIVE years ago today, a fisherman was clinging for his life to the mast of his stricken drifter, fearing that he too would soon succumb to the huge waves that had already swept his nine shipmates overboard to their doom.

Samuel Brady’s ordeal so close to the shore endured for long hours during which the immense power of the sea tore him from the mizzen mast of the Gorleston-owned Girl Norah three times...but he doggedly persevered and managed to clamber back up the rigging again in his desperate struggle to survive until he was finally rescued by a courageous French fisherman.

This was the second disaster to strike the herring fleet within a month in the autumn of 1936, three-quarters of a century ago. In the first tragedy, the Scottish drifter Olive Branch capsized when hit by a mighty sea in broad daylight near the Corton lightship, drowning her crew of nine; that same dreadful day, two Lowestoft driftermen perished when they were washed overboard, and another man also died.

And in this column recently I also related that a century ago, in 1911, four driftermen from the Great Yarmouth-based Montrose were drowned in a North Sea storm although five of their colleagues were saved by the Piscatorial. Yes, men were rescued, but lives were lost, too, making it a tragic trilogy.

The steam drifter Girl Norah, built in 1911, was Lowestoft-registered but belonged to Mr F L Strowger, of Pier Road, Gorleston, whose brother was her mate and one of the victims.

She had completed her participation in the autumn home fishing from Great Yarmouth and was following the pattern of heading for French waters to seek herring shoals before Christmas. But approaching the shelter of Calais harbour, she ploughed on to rocks in the darkness.

Because they were close to the shore, the crew lit flares and sounded the Girl Norah’s siren hoping to attract the attention of French villagers, but without success, and the rising tide and towering waves sweeping across her decks made the drifter’s plight precarious.

Most Read

According to the Mercury report: “Six of her crew, despairing of help reaching them, tried to get ashore with the aid of lifebelts. They were all drowned. Four others clung to the vessel, which was rapidly being pounded to pieces, hoping against hope that they would be noticed.

“When dawn broke, however, only Brady still clung to the wreck. His companions had been swept away. Brady was saved through the courage of a French fisherman from a nearby village, Auguste Brunot, who was about to take in his own nets when he became aware of the stricken Girl Norah, so he waded waist-high into the seething sea with total disregard for his own safety and, after many desperate attempts, managed to cast a line to the exhausted mariner.

“Brady was brought ashore more dead than alive and taken to the fisherman’s home where he slept for some hours.”

That sole survivor, a Lowestoft resident, told the Mercury that the acting skipper, James Harris, of Pier Walk, Gorleston, headed for what he thought in the darkness was one of the Goodwin (Sands) lights, but the Girl Norah lost ground as heavy waves broke over her.

The crew fired all their rockets, and even dragged their mattresses on deck and set them alight, but none of the signals was spotted. As the drifter keeled over, her crew clung to rigging in despair and prayed that they could somehow survive.

Brady described how he watched in helpless agony as his shipmates were washed overboard one by one and drowned. “I seemed to be all alone but suddenly I saw the cabin boy on the deck. A huge wave broke over him and he was forced to release his hold on a rope.

“As he went over the side,he shouted, ‘Cheerio and good luck!’ Those were his last words.

“When everything seemed hopeless, I threw my lifebelt away so that I should not have to suffer for too long before I drowned if I was washed off. For hours afterwards I was sure I was going to die. The sea dashed me down to the deck three times – and each time I clambered back into the rigging, shouting for help all the time.”

Then, when Brady had abandoned all hope of rescue, along came the courageous Auguste Brunot, and his life was spared.

The crew of the Girl Norah who died that night were: Acting skipper James Harris, eldest son of the late coxswain of Gorleston lifeboat; mate H Strowger, of Walpole Road, Great Yarmouth; S J Emmerson (22), of Council Houses, Winterton; Walter Brown (45), a single man living with his aged mother in Barrack Road, Winterton; S Medlar (25), of Broad Cottages, Fleggburgh; Frederick Fuller (about 30), the drifter’s cook, a bachelor living with his mother in Clippesby; W Kerrison (62), of Mill Lane, Bradwell; L E Brett, of Manby Road, Gorleston; and Arthur Leggett, (about 53), fireman on the boat, of Springfield Road, Gorleston.

James Harris had just ended the home fishing as skipper of a Scottish drifter and accepted the temporary post of skipper of the ill-fated vessel while her skipper-owner stayed at home to nurse his gravely-ill wife.

Mr Harris had served with distinction in the 1914-18 war, being Mentioned in Despatches for distinguished service.

Arthur Leggett’s death compounded his aged father’s grief, for he was the fifth of his sons to have died within a decade, four of them by drowning. Arthur had been supporting his parent financially.

The dead man’s sister, Mrs B H Beavers, of Upper Cliff Road, Gorleston, told a Mercury reporter that brother William was lost in a gale in the North Sea, Alfred was drowned at Plymouth, Ernest drowned in a Canadian lake, and George died the previous year, 1935.

Eighty-nine-year-old Mrs Kerrison, a Bradwell widow, had already lost a son only other son in a tragedy in the Scottish fishing port of Lerwick 26 years earlier.