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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or at this link