When I left you at the end of the last post, I’d also left the LE Orla, setting out for the water under Doneraile Head and park where I could see the local RNLI and Tramore Inshore RIBs on weekly training exercises.
A couple of weeks before the bicentennial, I’d been at another memorial, the annual swim around Sandycove island to remember our friend Paraic Casey, tragically lost in the English channel. That evening I’d also finally collected my long-overdue Sandycove Island Swim Club “C” cap, for those who have completed more than 150 laps. It’s not a huge achievement when the original Sandycove swimmers of Finbarr Hedderman, Mike Harris, Stephen Black and Mags Buckley have over 2000 laps each. But it’s the highest number for someone who doesn’t live in Cork and I’m still better than Finbarr at the notorious second corner of the island anyway, even when he’s had 2000 more practice sessions. The 150+ lap cap is a lurid neon snot-coloured yellow-green and in a break from the orange caps I’ve worn exclusively since the English Channel (such that people assume if it’s a swimmer in an orange cap in Tramore Bay it must be me) I was wearing the “C” cap the day of the Seahorse bicentennial.
As the LE Orla dropped away, at slow swimming speeds, behind me, I was suddenly shocked to have a RIB pass close at high speed. Shock, I stopped and popped up, watching the boats reach the LE Orla as they swung around. They came back to me, and, familiar with each other from years of often being the only ones sharing the bay, the crew told me it was the cap. They couldn’t see me, the lurid C cap was invisible against the surface, lacking the visibility of my orange or even normal yellow caps. SISC C cap; permanently retired.
One of the most interesting things to me about open water swimming, one of the things that keeps me doing it when I’ve given up on other pursuits, is that I never stop learning, I never stop having new experiences. I would have bet that the SISC neon yellow cap was as visible as the normal SISC orange-yellow cap.
Captain Gibbs bore for Kinsale further west along the south coast, past Cork Harbour in the now howling gale. He was hoping to see and be guided by the Kinsale Lights but after two hours was unable to see them in the fading afternoon light. Still well offshore, he reefed the top sail and hauled close to the wind, attempting to mitigate the effects of the storm, but was blown back to a south-east bearing. Abeam to the prevailing wind for the Celtic Sea he was quickly blown northwards and toward the coast.
Early the next morning, well before dawn, they’d passed Cork harbour, passed Ballycotton Island and the shallow wide Ardmore Bay, home of the oldest monastic settlement in the country, even passed Dungarvan Bay, this time on the leeward side. Then once again onto the Copper Coast, which they had passed going the opposite direction only so recently. The Master set the main sail again, hoping to make Waterford harbour and the shelter of the triple estuary of the Suir, Nore and Barrow rivers. But at mid-morning the foretop map and sail went over, taking a sailor’s life in the process, followed quickly by the shredding of the main sail.
The Sea Horse couldn’t make sail past Brownstown Head, the eastern side of Tramore Bay, and in desperation hoping for a modicum of shelter, the Master dropped anchor trying to ride the storm out under Brownstown Head. The depth was about 7 fathoms, or 13 metres and the sea was breaching her from stem to stern. But then the anchors dragged and she was struck in Tramore Bay. The seas were mountainous and the tide was low in the shallow sand-floored bay. The mizen and main masts split, then the rudder. Most of the boats were already gone.
Can you imagine her keel catching the bottom, and tilting over? Dark, no sleep through the night, driving rain, howling wind, and not even a level deck under her. Terrified passengers, soldiers useless at sea, their children screaming, their wives desperate, hoping against hope for some miracle, the wind to die, the waters to clam, rescuers to appear, the lights on the shore to be suddenly near.
By now hundreds of spectators lined the shore in the town unable to provide aid except to watch the unfolding tragedy. The primary report says the Sea Horse lay a mile offshore, but my feeling is that she hit that sandbank and was instead at least a mile and half from the beach. In a big storm Tramore Bay, due to the shallow inclined sandy bottom and irregular shifting sandbars is a mass of white water and waves breaking offshore much further out than anywhere else.
Sometime in the early winter morning, before the daylight, they began to die.
At its utter mercy, no control and no ability to head the ship up into the wind, the sea washed people overboard, taking children first.
The remaining two boats were loaded with about 50 people, contrary to orders and warnings against the dangers, and all were lost.
“Never can I recollect without horror,” said a local man, Mr Hunt, who was to be the saviour of most of the survivors, “the awful moment when the only remaining mast rocked from side to side, while to every rope hung numbers of my fellow creatures. Could a boat have been procured, I would have gladly flown to their relief, though certain death must have awaited the attempt. I was forced to look on, with sensations bordering on distraction, until the catastrophe was completed, and the fall of the mast launched hundreds into eternity.”
It was not an abandonment of the crew and passengers but some few officers attempted to swim for the shore, swimming being a skill not fostered or favoured then or now by sailors. You and I, as swimmers, know we would have tried this. One or two of the officers were noted as strong swimmers, swimming being a new pursuit of the upper classes from whom the officer class was usually drawn. Only five years previously George Gordon (Lord) Byron has swam across Hellespont and initiated the sport of open water swimming. Maybe, in the howl of the wind and the thunder of the sea, they though, if they thought at all, that there was some thought they’d make it, and even less likely, somehow provide assistance. Who can know? Maybe their couldn’t wait to have the hope taken, maybe they just needed to try, to fight back against that awful sea.
At 1 pm the hull split.
Some officers, troops and crew, 60 or 70 persons stayed with the forward section and all were taken by a single wave, and all were lost. Some stayed in cabins awaiting their end. Many resigned themselves to their fate such as the wife of Mate John Sullivan, the first victim, who died beside her husband’s body. Some still tried to utilise wreckage as life rafts.
Thomas Redding, an ordinary rating could swim but when asked so by the Captain, said there was little use. But at the Captain’s exhortation, strangely now dressed only in his shirt and night-cap, they decided to try, Redding following the captain into the heaving water. For fifteen minutes they swam, the Captain wanting to make for the rocky shore (which it’s difficult to tell whether the east or west side of the bay), and Redding wishing to head for the beach a mile and half distant. The Captain agreed, but was lost to sight almost immediately. Redding swam for an hour and half, and made little progress, before in almost total exhaustion he found some wreckage where the Captain was already lashed with another seaman, not having been lost after all. Redding joined them but was almost immediately washed off again. He decided “to trust to [his] own strength as the only chance of gaining land”, and eventually he found the sandy bed beneath his feet and stumbled out to be rescued by two locals.
Among the last washed from the wreck were a young officer, Ensign Seward. Ensign Seward was washed from a fallen mast, but grabbed a rope-bound plank and was washed to shore, and was later commended by survivors for his bravery and inspiration by his calm demeanour to the crew and more senior officers.
Some few survived, seemingly by random, carried by wreckage to shore when others in the same situation were lost. But most attributed their survival to the aforementioned Mr. Hunt, who repeatedly plunged himself into the stormy seas to pull bodies ashore. Of the 394 persons onboard, only 30 survived, all men, including the captain. The bodies of many of the children who’d not been on the canted deck were found drowned in sea chests, where parents had placed them in the hope of survival.
The Lord Melville, one the three companion ships, did not survive unscathed. Driven onwards toward the west, the Master, Captain Arman, fearing being driven onto reefs, deliberately beached her in Courtmacsharry. She held up but a boat was launched with mostly women and children to follow a previously and bravely fixed rope to shore but 12 of the 13 aboard drowned. After nine hours they remainder of the ship’s compliment were all safely evacuated at low tide.
The Boudicea, unlike the Lord Melville, rounded the Old Head of Kinsale but was trapped in Courtmacsharry Bay, exposed to the extravagant ferocity of the winter Atlantic storm. The story of the Boudicea is shorter though, but only in the telling, for who can measure the depth of the loss of the victims and the survivors, number alone speak not of tragedy, though our media tells us to measure thus.
She was driven onto the Curlane reefs on the windward westerly side of the Old Head, something I never knew on the calm cold day I recall swimming there with my friend and Channel swimmer Ciaran Byrne, watching the reefs beneath, in very cold water packed with jellyfish.
One hundred people made it onto the reefs, where locals begged them to stay until low tide, but many attempted to cross the apparently easy gap to the shore, and were whelmed, some of the 190 men, women and children who were lost.
The tragedy took 566 souls for the sea’s bottomless and eternal hunger and for four months after bodies were washed ashore.
There are many coasts around the world which carry the terrible nickname of “graveyard of a thousand ships”, an epigram none wish and the south-east coast of Ireland is one of that club of despair. A sign in the Newtown and Guillamene car park marks the many ships and boats which have foundered just in Tramore Bay. Two years ago I took the last photo of a fishing boat and her crew at sea, just two days before she was lost with all three hands at sea.
Lloyd’s Shipping later insisted on a navigational marked being placed to warn of the dangers of Tramore Bay. Three high pillars, almost 20 metres were erected on Great Newtown Head on the west side of the bay, and on one is a metal statue about three metres tall known as The Metal Man, a constant companion on my swims which points across the bay past Brownstown Head (which has two pillars), and onward to safety. We say locally that the Metal Man is heard to cry out in storms “Keep out good ship, keep out from me, for I am the rock of misery“.
Original details for this story came from the Lancashire’s Infantry Regiment’s Online Museum, and Redding’s Reminiscences, a collection of first hand memoirs, correspondences and writings. Any mistakes herein may be entirely attributed to me.