Lost at sea

Tales my grandfather would have told me. A sailor's life 1910-1941

Posts Tagged ‘Laurence O’Keeffe

A sailor’s life – 75. Sniffing Stockholm tar

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SV Tenacious, snapped through the mist from SV Stavros S Niarchos in Dieppe docks, September 2014

SV Tenacious, snapped through the mist from SV Stavros S Niarchos in Dieppe docks, September 2014

In my sailor grandfather’s footsteps I have blagged my way into an oil refinery and onto a Shell tanker, I’ve crossed the Atlantic by container freighter and dropped a wreath into the night black sea at 49° 35’N, 19° 13’W where he and his final crew were lost – I have even traced and befriended the last old man of the U-boot crew that killed him.

For nearly 20 years I have read letters and diaries, rooted through archives, pored over photographs and asked damn fool questions of elderly seafarers who have shared their yarns with gentle amusement. But I remained an armchair sailor, sitting in the warmth, reading about a life beyond my understanding.

It was on a wet day in Liverpool docks that I ran into the Stavros S Niarchos, a dinky, modern sail training brig – square rigged on two masts, a charity venture providing outdoor challenges to young people.

And also, it transpired, to the not so young. Anyone up to 80 could have a go, said a grey-haired woman on the quayside. Was I too old to climb out along the yards, I asked – to try to experience what 16-year-old Bertie Sivell had seen and felt when he first went aloft a hundred years ago? Certainly not, she said, she had.

The author - beyond the crosstrees, heading for the t'gallants and royals.

The author – climbing past the fore t’gallant (right) to the royal beyond, where photographer is perched (see boot).

Anyone who ever read Treasure Island under the bedclothes and fell asleep dreaming of clambering among the spars of a tall ship will understand (and we who read by torchlight in the old days before duvets and Kindles know who we are). To swing up the swaying ratlines and out along the foot-ropes, and see “my” ship splice the waves 120ft below; to roll along a pitching deck, at one with the swell, dodging sheets of spray; and to lie down each night tired but buzzing and be rocked to deepest sleep?

I signed on.

Stavros is not Monkbarns. For a start she is smaller, with two masts not three and fewer yards and sails. She also has two engines, GPS, refrigeration – and heat and light and hot showers and plenty of fresh water and good food. In fact, my grandfather would scoff that my so-called experience in sail bears more resemblance to glamping than the conditions he endured when he began his career at sea as an apprentice in Monkbarns in 1911.

What a difference 100 years makes. The barrels of pork and beef gristle in brine are gone. The yawning cargo hatches and mountains of coal or guano, or slimy stone ballast, that had to be winched in or out basket by basket are gone. Nowadays safety lines snake up the ratlines and along the yards, where there was once only a boy’s own grip. The old cry of “One hand for the ship and one for yourself,” is not quite so scary when you’re wearing a stout harness and clip-on carabiners. Monkbarns suffered countless injuries, as well as losing two young lives overboard in just three years in the early 1920s – Laurence O’Keeffe off the jib-boom and apprentice Cyril Sibun in a fall from the fore upper t’gallant. They were 18 and 19.

Harbour stow in half a gale. Lower topsail.

Author (centre) on lower topsail carrying out a harbour stow in half a gale.

On Stavros clean, dry pipe cots with reading lights and lockers fill the t’ween decks where Monkbarns’ apprentices would have shovelled and sweated to trim (balance) the cargo, and out along her bowsprit net “sailor strainers” prevent accidents. But working a sailing ship is still not for the faint hearted.

I have shuffled out along the yards, muscles cracking as I wrestled to haul up and lash down the heavy clew of the sail high out over the waves. I have swung one-armed under the great steel yards, groping for gaskets blowing in the wind, and tied knots one-handed up and down the jackstays.

I have tailed on and hauled “with a will” among ill-assorted strangers until my shoulders strained in their sockets and the hairy hemp lines blistered my office softy palms, and rolled into my bunk sound asleep at 8pm to rise again fully clothed at midnight, to relieve the watch on the open bridge, donning gloves, scarf and waterproofs against the cold summer night. In a week the motley novice “crew” – paying travellers of all shapes and sizes – find themselves fused into a team. A ship’s crew. (Although our professional merchant navy officers probably think fondly of the days when a sailing ship cargo lay inert in the hold for the duration and didn’t need wetnursing.)

English Channel, 10 knots

English Channel, 10 knots

Together we have seen sails silhouetted against the stars – more stars than most of us city dwellers ever imagined, and the milky way arching overhead from horizon to horizon. We have sailed into the sunset and watched for dawn, eyes peeled for the pin prick lights of the fishing fleet. We have learned the ropes, and the buoys and the markers.

So far I have not been out of sight of land for more than a week, much less braved day after relentless day of gale-force winds, or icebergs round the Horn, but I have felt the pitch and roll of a tall ship doing 10 knots under sail and watched the horizon tilt and tip under the solid curl of the mainsail. I know the sound of the seas crashing past the scuppers and have tasted salt in the spray.

I may be just paddling in the shallows of my sailor grandfather’s life, but I have sniffed Stockholm tar.

Suddenly, the dusty records have colour and movement. This winter I shall abandon the archives again and join the paint gang aboard Stavros in Liverpool docks, chipping and cleaning, learning “my” ship from the rivets up, and next spring with a crisp CRB certificate in my pocket I hope to sail as volunteer crew – as cook’s assistant, if that’s what the ship needs.

Somewhere, my grandfather is laughing.

Stavros S Niarchos, Brixham 2014, showing safety nets on jib-boom

‘My’ ship: Stavros S Niarchos, Brixham 2014

Previously – Monkbarns: Britain’s last Cape Horner?

Next – The medals in the post

Read from the start:
A sailor’s life – beginning, middle and end



A sailor’s life – 43. Man overboard

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Monkbarns - deck views Cape Town February 1919, from collection of Bert Sivell

Monkbarns - deck views Cape Town February 1919, from the private collection of Bert Sivell

“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.

Coming next: Goodbye, Monkbarns
Previously: Shanghaied

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.