Bob jumps to the rescue

On Saturday night, 12th Nov 1955 a collision in the River Mersey involving three ships saw one ship sink, 9 crewmen struggle for an hour without lifejackets in freezing water and a dramatic rescue which included three young seamen from the village of Cheekpoint Co Waterford.

The Cheekpoint men were my father, Bob Doherty, my uncle John and Jimmy (O’Dea) Doherty. They were departing Liverpool as seamen aboard the MV Ocean Coast in dense fog.  The ship was carrying general cargo and bound for Falmouth.  The three were just out of their teens, but already seasoned sailors.

My father Bob on right with unidentified shipmates

The first official communication on the night was at 22:10 when the Ocean Coast sent out the following message “Queens Channel, Q15 Buoy, River Mersey. There has been a collision between two unknown ships. I am anchored and sending a lifeboat over. Strong ebb tide running. One of the ships in the collision has sunk”

My father’s ship, MV Ocean Coast, was a twin-screw motor cargo vessel 250 ft in length and a 38ft beam and 1,790 tons dead weight. She was built for short sea route trips by Leith shipyard for the Coast Lines shipping company and was launched on 31st July 1935.  During the war years, she had served as a supply vessel to Gibraltar and North Africa.  She also played her part in the D Day landings servicing Omaha beach carrying petrol. My father was in short pants at that stage, snaring rabbits to supplement the meager supplies at home in the village, and dreaming of going to sea like his father.

The collision, it would subsequently emerge, was between a fully laden Swedish motor oil tanker SS Juno and the SS Bannprince which was operated by S William Coe of Liverpool.  The Bannprince was crewed by Northern Ireland men. Like the Ocean Coast, the Bannprince had served with a volunteer crew during the war, helping to evacuate some of the 337,130 Allied troops from Dunkirk between May and June 1940. Following this, she was taken over for “Unspecified special government services” and was one of the first ships to land at Sword beach during the D Day landings with much needed medical supplies.

The Bannprince was outward bound that fateful night, fully laden with coal for Colerain. The first the crew knew of difficulties was when the ship’s horn sounded three shrill blasts moments before there was an almighty crash and the ship heeled over.  She would sink in ten minutes and most of the crew of 9 had no time to get a life jacket.  Her lifeboats were submerged. In the freezing Mersey, the crew did what they could to stay together and help those that couldn’t swim.

It was almost an hour between collision and the calls from the lifeboat of the Ocean Coast were heard in the water.  At this point, most of the sailors were close to exhaustion and had drifted apart.  My fathers lifeboat rescued six and a lifeboat from a sister ship Southern Coast picked up the remaining 3 men including the captain and the only crew man to lose his life, second engineer James Ferris of Limavady, Derry.

They put the six survivors aboard the New Brighton lifeboat and returned to the Ocean Coast to continue their voyage.  On the 3rd April 1957 my father along with 5 other crew men (including Jimmy) received a certificate from the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society in recognition of their efforts.  The Captain received a silver cigarette box and the chief officer a parchment.  

My father went to sea as a teenager like so many other men of his generation.  Himself, Jimmy and Uncle John are now gone to their rest, and with them their best stories.  He never actually spoke at home of this rescue and it took a bit of time to actually research it. But then again, it was just after the horrors of the second world war, and events like this were trivial in comparison. Jimmy O’Dea did have a yarn about it, however.   According to his telling when they approached the men in the water my father, who was an excellent swimmer, had to jump overboard to help some of the weakened men out of the water. Jimmy O Dea and the other rescuers were returning to their ship when they noticed my father wasn’t aboard. They turned back, rowing now with a vengeance only to find my father swinging off a buoy shouting “where the hell were ye then shipmates???”  Fact or fiction we’ll never know, but my father would have loved it, the bigger the laugh the better, even at his own expense.

The new book cover which includes the blending of two images, the building of Dunmore East pier and the city dredger, Portlairge from an original image by Jonathan Allen.

This excerpt from the story is only one along with 22 others which feature in my new book about the life and times of so many ships, seafarers, and their families connected to Waterford harbour which is available now from bookshops, online, or directly. More details by email to tidesntales@gmail.com or at this link

New Book Out Now

Returning to sea; My father in 1963

Whilst researching a story recently I happened upon a small snippet in the Passage East Jottings in the Munster Express dated 25th January 1963. It was just a mention of my father who was unmarried at the time, and he had just joined a ship at New Ross after spending a christmas at home.

It was just the little snippet to give my mother a lift in these dark weeks after the death of my sister Eileen. She immediatly went to retrieve his discharge book in an effort to identify the ship. Once it was carefully unwrapped from its plastic protector she leafed through the pages unil she came to the year, and lo and behold was delighted to find the entry. According to the book, he had actually joined the ship on Friday the 18th January.

The ship was the MV Amber, a small glasweigan coaster that was launched in 1956 from the Ailsa Shipbuilding Co. Ltd., Troon. She was owned and operated by the
William Robertson Shipowners Company of Glasgow. Unfortunately I couldn’t discover what she was carrying either into or out of Ross. But my father stayed on her for the first few months of the year before moving to a new ship in London. I couldn’t help smile to myself at the Derry entry as Londonderry… He bristled ever time he heard the town described as such.

MV Amber. Of No: 185045

The ships didn’t really hold much interest to my mother, but she did realise that London (Dock Road where the seamen gathered to secure ships to the farthest flung ports in the world) was mentioned a lot that year. She recounted meeting my father that same year in Mary and Bob McDermotts home in Londons east end and how, although they had known each other in Cheekpoint, it was the first time they went out together.

As she leafed through the entries she charted the gaps in his ships in terms of their relationship, such as their wedding of Christmas 1964, my birth and his quick return to sea, an extended period at home when he got a shore job on the construction of the Great Island Power Station and an even longer period ashore when he got a factory job in the 1970’s.

My fathers photo in his discharge book. 19 years of age.

I was concious that although my mother has had tears in her eyes on almost every visit I’ve made these last few weeks as she grieves for her youngest daughter, that this time the tears were of a different nature. Memories perhaps of happy times, missed opportunties or maybe those absences of my father when she was struggling with a young family.

Leaving her she was smiling again, wrapping her precious paper memento away in its protective plastic with her other treasures and I couldn’t help but think how much different we all become in the presence of love. My fathers papers would be a curiosity to a maritime researcher, but they are a biography to a family member, at least one with an interest and an emotional connection, to fill in the gaps of what is not transcribed. And to hold the actual document; to think that he held it, carried it in his pocket and read it from time to time, so much more relevant than any entry located online.

My normal last Friday of the month blog returns next Friday, a story of trying to identify a warship that led to a story of royal navy recruitment in 1900 and 1904.

They welcome a Christmas spent in their homes

On this years Late Late Toy show the television moment of the year was said to have been the unwrapping of Sergeant Graham Burke by his kids. He was, up to hours previously, serving with Irish peacekeepers in Mali, Africa. The host, Ryan Tubridy, became emotional at the scene, a family reunited.  Yet when I heard of it my thoughts turned to my own childhood and how Christmas was marked by an absence; where seafaring men were as likely to eat their turkey dinner in a foreign port or in the middle of the Atlantic or Pacific.
In my father and mothers generation absences at Christmas was just something to be accepted. Emigration was a fact of life and in a seafaring community that absence was probably felt much more as the men were part of a dangerous way of life, and where the monetary return was not very lucrative. Christmas in those days could be marked (if you were lucky) by a package from any part of the world with some hand made gifts and some trinkets with a card of greeting and a bit of news. I suppose that’s why those at home celebrated the holiday so much. In my own generation Christmas morning was as much about the house visits as anything else. One of only two days of the year that the pub closed, there was never as much drink consumed.  And as it flowed so did the yarns.
My father left with Tom Sullivan, they spent Christmas 1958 together in a BP tanker in the Persian Gulf

I recall one of a Christmas in New York and I think it was Charlie Duffin who was met off the ship by his relations and he was entertained all day and then dropped back to his ship the following morning. There were yarns of turkey flying across the table in an Atlantic storm. Of puddings going afire with too much brandy poured over it.  Of the sights, sounds and smells of foreign ports and cities from as diverse as Buenos Aires, Cairo or Tokyo. Tom Sullivan of Coolbunnia told me recently that there was always a special effort made for Christmas on the ships he sailed on. No one was expected to work except on core duties. And there was always plenty to eat and drink with extras for all via the cook and stewards.

But ships could also be docked in foreign ports and of course this created the best tall tales. Walter Whitty told me once of a session he went on in the Philippines. One of the crew was an ex WWII British Commando who described to an incredulous crew how they used to dispatch guard dogs during a commando raid, by wrenching the dogs front paws apart. According to Walter when his word was questioned the commando went out into the street and started chasing dogs around with a wild eyed frenzy. By the time the police had stopped him, several hounds lay dead in the street. When the ship sailed for Australia their crew mate was still in jail.
My father had one of a spree in a Spanish port, although I’m not sure if it was Christmas or not. It started with a session in the harbour area, where you would not be sure of your life and you stuck close to your crew mates.  Next morning he woke in a cell, and was dragged before the courts.
“Will the prisoner state his name?” says the judge.
“Bob Doherty your honour” says me father.
“Anything to the Dohertys of Cheekpoint?”
“One in the same yer honour”
“I had a fine pint of stout in the Suir Inn a few years back Bob, is their Guinness still as cool and creamy”
“Still the same yer honour”
“Well Bob, stand a round on my behalf the next time you’re home – case dismissed”
Being away from family can never be easy however, especially at Christmas, and probably felt all the more when youngsters were involved. The following extract comes from the Irish Times of December 23rd 1955.
“While people all over the world make arrangements to get home for Christmas by air, rail and sea, and worry about the time on Christmas Eve that they will arrive, they may be inclined to forget those whose job it is to get them to their destinations, and in particular the seamen. Few seamen ever count of a Christmas at home, for, as it often happens, they may get a few days with their families before Christmas and then on Christmas Eve they have to leave for Persia, South America or some place even further away.
 
When the ESSO tanker Avonmouth  leaves Dublin port this morning for the Persian Gulf she will have several Irishmen in her crew. Two of these, who joined the ship for the first time yesterday, were Thomas Murphy, aged 20, of Victoria road, Clontarf, who has been at sea for three years, and Andrew Doherty of Cheekpoint, Co Waterford, who has been at sea for 27 years. Since going to sea, Mr. Murphy has not had a Christmas with his family, to whom he said goodbye once again yesterday. Mr. Doherty has not spent a Christmas with his family in seven years, and most of the other twenty he has spent in all parts of the world, mainly at sea.
Andy’s ship ESSO Avonmouth accessed from http://www.aukevisser.nl/uk/id155.htm

Mr. Doherty arrived in Dublin last Saturday and went to Cheekpoint to spend a few days with his five children.  His wife died 18 months ago and the children are now looked after by their aunt…”  The Andy Doherty mentioned here of course was a neighbour of ours here in the Russianside, and was known to everyone as “Lannen”

Looking through my fathers discharge book  recently I discovered that he first went to sea at 19 years of age in May 1951. His first Christmas was aboard a US tanker the Missionary Ridge. He was at sea or in a foreign port for most Christmases over the next fifteen years. Some of the ships I had not heard of before such as the Andes of London, the Esso Glasgow or the MV Arklow.  One of course which I wrote of before was the MV Ocean Coast, on which he was awarded a scroll for bravery following a Mersey river rescue.

Another he served Christmas aboard was the MV Devon Coast, which Tom Sullivan had the following yarn about.  My father and another chap were aboard over Christmas, all the other crew had gone to their homes. They were tasked with minding the ship but got fed up with their own company and went shoreside on a session. Staggering back to the ship they discovered a dog howling having fallen over the side of the quay by their ship which was stuck on a ledge. The howls were unmerciful and realising they would get no sleep, they grabbed a rope and my father straddled the gunwale and quayside while his mate slide down to grab the dog. Next moment my father gets a tap on the shoulder from the dock police asking what he thought he was up to.  “Mercy Mission Mate” came the reply from Bob. Next day they were on the front cover of the Liverpool Echo, the dog in their arms and they both got a bonus from the company, as no mention was made of their “condition” in the article.

My parents were married on Stephens Day 1964, one Christmas that he was home! I was born the following November and two weeks later he shipped out on the SS British Star not returning home until March. His last Christmas on a ship was aboard the MV Seriality for FT Everard and Sons of London. He signed on in New Ross on December 10th 1968 (my younger brother Roberts 2nd Birthday) and signed off the ship at Ellesmere Port (Liverpool) in January 1969.  He went on to take a shore job with the paper mills in Kilmacow where he stayed until the lockout of 1978.

MV Seriality alongside her sister ship. Accessed from http://www.shipsnostalgia.com 20/12/2017.
Photo: P Downsby Collection.

So that Tubridy scene some weeks back touched a nerve on so many levels. Because behind all the drink, yarns and laughter at Christmas growing up, there was also a sadness. Young boys left home to join ships where they were thrown together with mixed crews of all nationalities and temperaments and  told to get along. Pay was poor, conditions were relatively harsh (but improved considerably by my fathers era) and drink was the only means of escape. Men could be away for months and sometimes years and the longer that went on, the harder I think it became, to fit back in on their return. And needless to say it was the women who held everything together. Wasn’t it ever thus!

Thanks to Tomás and Tom Sullivan for helping me with this piece.

My book on growing up in a fishing village is now published.
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