The fog rolled down Cliff Lane and turned the familiar drive to the Seabird Centre into an adventure. The road ahead became invisible and trees and hedges were erased from the landscape. It was the perfect scene setter for an evening talk on shipwrecks.
Volunteer Tony Mayman has spent months researching the 50,000 wrecks that litter the coast from Spurn Point up to Whitby and turned up some riveting tales of dramatic rescues and terrible tragedies.
Many of these lost ships were little more than 'floating coffins', according to the 1866 Lifeboat Journal, being colliers that took coal from the Northern pits southwards from the Tyne. High seas soon swamped these often overloaded vessels that were also in a poor state of repair. One such ship, The Laura, came to grief on sands below Speeton Cliffs in 1897. Some say that the decimation of the seabird colony by tourists shooting birds, the cries of which had acted like a natural fog horn, increased the danger to ships in these treacherous waters.
The Skegness, which sank in 1935, was carrying a different cargo. She was a trawler on her way back from the Faroes to Hull. She ran aground on rocks after experiencing engine trouble. The day was fine and the Captain made the decision to wait for a high tide a refloat her. Sadly a change in the weather put paid to his plan. The wind changed and whipped up into a full gale and the sea soon screamed and roared. While visible from the cliff tops, lifeboats failed to find her and she went down with all her crew on board. Eleven souls were lost along with the ship.
Two years later, a Grimsby trawler suffered a similar fate. Fortunately, the outcome was less tragic. When the ship ran aground, the crew of the Lord Ernlie made a fire on the deck to signal for help and the Flamborough lifeboat responsed. A one point, the waves were so vicious that the rescue boat was thrown onto the deck of the floundering trawler. As she slid off, half the rudder snapped off. Despite this setback, all the crew were brought safely to shore and the lifeboat's coxswain, George Leng, received a medal for gallantry. Thankfully, the villages along the coast weren't short of courageous men.
Still visible from New Roll-up viewpoint at low-tide are the boiler and propeller of the Radium which was wrecked in 1923. This Italian vessel was carrying 5000 tons of coal and got into difficulties as thick fog wrapped itself around the cliffs. SOS messages were picked up in Flamborough and rescue crews were soon at the scene. Ropes were shot by rockets onto the deck and the crew brought ashore by 'breeches buoy' - a kind of rope seat that was hauled up the towering cliffs by a team of men. While the ship was lost, all 28 crew were rescued and they attributed their survival to the ship's two lucky black cats - neither of which survived.
The most searched for wreck hereabouts is that of the Bonhomme Richard. During the War of Independence, the American captain John Paul Jones was ordered to attack British ships, which he duly did. During September 1779 he appeared off the Yorkshire coast and engaged the frigate HMS Seraphis in what has become known as the most famous single ship duel in history. This spectacular battle was watched by thousands of people lined up along the cliffs from Flamborough down to Filey. The ships fought at close quarters lashed together and both fought furiously, even when both were engulfed by flames. At one point, when his ship appeared to be overpowered, John Paul Jones was asked to surrender and gave the immortal reply: ' I have not yet begun to fight'. In the end, it was the British who surrendered as a falling mast from the Bonhomme Richard crashed into the hold of the Seraphis causing gunpowder to explode. However, the convoy the Seraphis had been protecting sailed on unscathed. The wreck site has never been found despite many searches. Whoever finally discovers it is sure to share some of the glory of the heroes of this epic sea battle.
This was a evening of stories to fire the imagination and no doubt many who heard them tossed and turned that night like boats in a storm as they slept and dreamed of brave men battling raging seas.
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