A sailor’s life – 43. Man overboard
“Looks like we’re going to get wet,” shouted ordinary seaman Laurence O’Keeffe over the storm, as Monkbarns’s poop vanished under a mountainous green sea. They were his last words.
The jib-boom to which O’Keeffe and apprentice Lewis Watkins were clinging rose up and up, until they could see underside of the old sailing ship for half its length below them. Then the ship’s head came back down with terrific force, “plunging the boom and the men clinging to it into a mighty mass of rushing water,” according to a fellow apprentice, Victor Fall. The jib-boom was buried. As the water poured away at the next rise of the bows, Watkins emerged, caught head down in the jib-boom guy, but O’Keeffe, further out along the foot rope, was gone, ripped from his handhold and sucked into the sea. All Watkins remembered was being forced upwards by a great pressure of water.
Captain Donaldson refused to lower a life boat.
“The sea was incredibly savage and confused,” Fall remembered, “with enormous swells rising up to a great height, toppling over in a fury of foam, while the fierce wind whipped an unending spray from the crests. No [life] boat could live in such a sea, an attempt would mean not only the loss of one man, but that of a whole boat’s crew.”
Bert Sivell, the mate, threw a lifebelt from the poop in a final, helpless gesture. But they all knew it would do no good. “The ship raced on through the storm,” recalled Fall, “while a fine young seaman drowned astern; nothing could be done.”
It was January 18, 1919, and they were off the coast of Africa, fighting towards Cape Town with a cargo of Jarrah wood railway sleepers.
They had celebrated Christmas in the tropics off Madagascar with a blow-out meal of roast chicken – one between three – which the Old Man, Captain James Donaldson, had laid on in Bunbury, Western Australia, although the Mate, Mr Sivell, marred it slightly by making them spend Christmas Eve tarring down the rigging. There was plum duff and a slightly surprisingly good concert on the foredeck.
Day after day had passed without incident. As they slipped into the Mozambique channel, planning to run down the Agulhas current to the cape, winds and work remained light. They sighted steamers, and flying fish and even a six-foot turtle, gliding lazily through the crystal blue water. By New Year they were clear of the southern tip of Madagascar, but now the weather began to change. One night a sudden fierce squall “nearly caught the ship aback,” records Fall. The outer jib and both fore and main top gallants were carried away. All hands were summoned on deck, to hurriedly lower the yards and reduce sail. Early next morning the remaining rags of canvas had to be taken down and new sails bent on.
It was to be the start of three terrible weeks.
By the time they were on a latitude with Durban, the wind had reached almost hurricane force. They were sailing under reefed foresail and lower topsails only, but the seas were huge. “Great walls of water rushed at the ship, which reared up on the crests, to plunge a moment later, down, down and down into the troughs, and rise again to the next incoming monster,” wrote Fall. At each descent the green torrents swept the foc’sle head as the ship thrust jib-boom first into the next wave.
Shortly before 5.30pm on January 18th, the mate asked for volunteers. The inner jib was still set, and pulling. Someone had to climb out along the jib boom to take it in. A dangerous job. Watkins and O’Keeffe stepped forward.
Watkins was barefoot, wearing only a singlet and an old pair of white trousers, as the order “All hands on deck” had come in his watch below and he hadn’t had time to dress. It saved his life. O’Keeffe was in heavy sea boots and oilskins. He did not stand a chance.
He was only 18. A Welsh boy from Port Talbot, he had been with Monkbarns since she had sailed from Cardiff two years previously, remaining loyal, even during the mutiny of the fo’c’sle hands round Cape Horn the previous summer. In the crew agreement the words “shipwrecked” appear beside his name, and the money due to his widowed mother for this short, tragic career – £38 13s 3d.
He only earned £5 a month, but half of that – £2 10s – was paid to the family at home every month. From now on, they would struggle.
Gloom settled over the ship the evening he was lost. In fo’c’sle and half deck, men were subdued, Fall recorded. But the sea hadn’t finished with them yet. All that night and the next day the gale howled and screamed, and boiling, churning seas swept the decks from rail to rail, making it hazardous to relieve the man at the wheel. It was a week before they sighted land again, and almost immediately another gale struck.
This time the main top’sle carried away, leaving a broken chain lashing lethally around the deck, and while they struggled to secure it, a huge sea poured into the ship, smashing the galley door and washing the Egyptian cook out into the scuppers. The terrified man fled forward and locked himself into his cabin, where for three days he refused to come out.
The galley fire was drowned. Pots and pans were strewn around the ship. But they had to eat, and apprentice Fall was detailed to sort something out. Many years later, he still remembered the stew he’d put together that night. “Everything went into it – salt beef, salt pork, bully [tinned] beef, beans, peas, dried vegetables – everything; but by the cold wet and exhausted crew, including the skipper and mates, it was voted delicious.”
On February 6, 1919, Monkbarns dropped anchor in Table Bay, Cape Town – 63 days from Bunbury, WA. The following day the hatches were opened and the process of unloading began again. Another cargo had arrived.
PS A relative of O’Keeffe’s writes from Australia, 10 November 2010: “Laurence O’Keeffe was my late husband’s uncle. He was named Laurence after him. We knew that he had been drowned but until I found your website & story never knew how or when. I couldn’t find a death record for him, but I have now located it on the Deaths at Sea index. A passenger list from Callao, Peru, to Liverpool for the RMS Otega in December 1916 shows several seamen embarking at Coronel in Chile for Liverpool, including Laurence O’Keeffe as a 15-year-old OS of 20 Bute Street, Cardiff, which is where his widowed mother ran a boarding house. It must have been a very tough life in those days.”
Laurence O’Keeffe, then still only 15, was listed by the Pacific Steam Navigation Co. as one of six “Distressed British Seamen” repatriated back to the UK in 3rd class just before Christmas 1916. His previous ship, the four-masted barque Canowie, had been wrecked off Piritu Point, Chiloe Island, in southern Chile, that October. He signed on with Monkbarns on 30th January 1917, just over a month after getting home. It is conceivable he only ever made two voyages in his short life.