As Port Elizabeth is prone to violent south-easter wind storms in the latter half of the year, optimism that there would not be a repeat of the 1902 disaster was profoundly misplaced.
1903’s storm season would test whether the rescue services were adequately prepared when nature would once again do its damnedest. Timeless lessons would once again be learnt and relearnt. Would the authorities once again be assailed by a raft of criticism for their maladroit handling of the situation, be damned with faint praise or receive a chorus of approval?
Only time would tell.
Main picture: Rescuers go out on the line during the gale of November 1903
As the imminent dawn scarred the eastern horizon, incumbent lighthouse keeper on the Hill, was still Conrad Carl Hansen. Friday 13th November 1903 was barely more than a year after the greatest maritime tragedy in South Africa’s history which destroyed 21 ships, numerous lighters and other small craft and claimed 60 lives. The signs were ominous: heavy dark-grey stained the horizon, a sure sign that a storm was brewing. Unlike Hansen’s prevarication during the 1902 Great Gale, this time he would be compelled to act with alacrity as his job was on the line.
Fears of another disaster were well-founded. These concerns were heightened as the easterly wind rose in intensity, compounded by heavy rain. All the ingredients were in the mixing bowl: wind speeds over 80kph, heavy rainfall and stygian darkness. The only question was when the first vessel would be in distress. The wait would not be long. The first signal of distress came at 10:30pm. It also signalled the start of the townsfolks personal reality TV show. They poured from their apartments and houses to view the spectacle from the hill, the best seats in the house. With the events of 1902’s Great Gale still etched in his mind, the Harbour Master Beck took no chances and ordered Hansen to fire the cannon summoning the crews of the Rocket Brigade and the lifeboat. There was no dilatory response this year as the men soon turned out and were ready for any eventuality.
Out at sea, a second distress flare lit up the inky blackness just before midnight. In the gloomy darkness, the spectators on the Hill could discern the shape of a tug putting out to sea to offer assistance by offering additional cables. Pandemonium then broke loose. Several more flares lit the sky. In their ringside standing area on the sodden Donkin, the enraptured residents could discern the shape of a large vessel looming through the darkness heading for the shoreline at the North End Beach. It was the wood and iron barque, the County of Pembroke, captained by J. Perry. En route to its unintended destination opposite the Rocket Brigade shed, it collided with the Russian barque Lütto. The hilltop audience stood mesmerised as the Lütto’s jib boom parted releasing the County of Pembroke from its grip. As it made its way to the seashore, the totally dismasted Lütto had managed at stay at anchor probably due to the quality or the age of the chains.
According to Colin Urquhart, “The Rocket Brigade sprang into action, firing four lines over the beached barque, but could not secure any due to the boisterous weather. During the night, the cabin boy was washed overboard but was rescued by those ashore. At dawn, at Parry’s behest, the crew lowered the lifeboat into the water, and the crew rowed to safety. In early December, tenders were called to salvage the cargo and refloat the ship on a “no cure no pay” basis. She was eventually pulled from the beach, condemned and towed off the Coega River mouth where she was run ashore. The hulk of the dismasted Lütto remained at anchor for over a year until finally being towed to Durban as scrap.”
Near the Explosives Jetty lay the Italian iron barque San Antonio, which came ashore early Saturday morning. Again, there were no casualties as the crew landed safety in their lifeboats. The San Antonio had arrived fully loaded from Marseilles, laden with building materials including bricks, tiles and cement, as well as a little French vermouth. She was still busy discharging her cargo when the storm broke. Also coming ashore near the Explosive’s Jetty, was the barque Elda. The large running seas had scuppered the ten man crew of putting to sea. They now donned life jackets and clung to the railings awaiting rescue. After repeated attempts, the Prince Alfred Guards Brigade brought them all to safety. Amongst the passengers that had to be rescued was a pig that was washed overboard. After several attempts, a line was fastened around it and the animal was safely pulled to shore. It was only once the storm had petered out could they rescue another nine passengers squealing aboard the beached vessel. They were the companions of the first hog. Presumably these non-fare paying passengers paid in another currency for their involuntary passage: their lives as they were probably fresh meat for the voyage.
The rescue attempts were still in progress as the first shards of light pierced open the eastern sky. The first order of business for the day was restocking from their shed. Then the Brigade attempted to assist those aboard the timber-laden barque Two Brothers. It had landed broadside in the surf at about 9:40am. Urquhart recounts that “after failed attempts, they had to reel in their sodden lines. The PAG crew then went into action and managed to get a line across. First off in the breeches buoy was Captain Johannsen’s wife, followed by a sailor clutching the couple’s small baby to his chest. The other twelve aboard, with Johannsen coming off last, then rode the line to safety.”
The exhausted men of the Board’s Brigade were able to rescue all 11 crew from another Norwegian timber-carrying barque, the Wayfarer. She came to rest broadside opposite the slaughter house, near the wreck of the Sayre. The fully-rigged iron barque Arranmore came ashore on the following night, the 14th. Tenders were called for a “no cure no pay” salvage attempt. Five months later she was refloated minus her fore and main masts and towed to the Clyde in Scotland. She later became a hostel for seamen run by the Hamburg Harbour Mission, a submarine depot ship in Heligoland, and finally a floating hostel for seamen in London’s West India Dock.
Shortly after midday on Saturday 14th November 1903, the wind died away making it safe for the Harbour Master, Beck, to stand down the rescue crews. Instead of the acrimony after 1902’s Great Gale, the crews of the lifeboats as well as the two Rocket Brigades came in for high praise. Their hours of regular practice had finally paid off.
Although many more wrecks would still litter the Bay, this would be the last mass stranding. With the phasing out of the sailing ship, the modern steam ships were no longer at the mercy of the weather.
Algoa Bay in the Age of Sail 1488-1917 – A Maritime History by Colin Urquhart (2007, Bluecliff Publishing, Port Elizabeth)