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09 December 1951

SALVAGE OF THE WESTKUST BY HULL TRAWLER SWANELLA H42 -

By - SKIPPER OF THE SWANELLA H42 - LEOPOLD DICKSON ROMYN DSC + Bar - Courtesy ©of C Romyn 2007

L ROYMN

LEO D ROMYN DSC + Bar

SWANELLA H42

Newspaper Reports 09 12 1951

The crew of the 499- ton Dutch Coaster Westkust, which sent out distress signals this morning reported herself as been in a sinking condition about 25 miles east by north of Scarborough. The crew where picked up from the sea by the Scarborough Lifeboat this evening from a position south- east of Flamborough Head, and taken to Bridlington. The Scarborough Lifeboat was joined in the search by the Flamborough and Bridlington Lifeboats and various other vessels in the vicinity. The Westkust had reported been badly battered during the saturday night gales and had developed a heavy list. The Westkust`s position was found by the Scarborough Lifeboat and the Grimsby trawler Ottillie at about 6pm, it was learned later they had been told to standbye from the captain of the westkust, as he intended to raise the anchor and head for Scarborough under the vessels own power. When the anchor was raised the vessel became unmanagable and the crew abandoned her, jumping into the water from which they where rescued by the Scarborough lifeboat.

The Lifeboat reached Bridlington early sunday morning with all 10 crew members of the Westkust safely aboard, although two were injured and all suffered from exposure, one of the lifeboats own members had died after been crushed between the vessel and the lifeboat.

Further News Reports:

Under an agreement between the Dutch Owners of the Coaster Westkust 499 tons and the Hull Trawler Swanella 684 tons a payment of £17,000 is to be made for the salvage of the Dutch vessel in the north sea, after she had been abandoned in distress on 09 Dec 1951. The crew of the Westkust been taken off by Scarborough Lifeboat. A third of the amount will be shared by the crew of the Swanella and the remainder will go to J Marr & Sons Ltd owners of the trawler at the time.

 

IN REMEMBERANCE OF CREWMEN WHO DIED AT SEA
DALTON FRANK . SCARBOROUGH LIFEBOAT . BOWMAN 10 Dec 1951 Bowman Dalton was crushed between the lifeboat and the vessel and died during the service. - Awarded the RNLI Bronze Medal posthumously
. . . . . . . .

 

Scarborough Lifeboat Awards
SHEADER JOHN N . . . Coxswain . Awarded the RNLI Bronze Medal
MAINPRIZE THOMAS J . . . Asst Motor Mechanic . Awarded the RNLI Bronze Medal
               

 

SKIPPER LEO D ROMYN of the Swanella H42

At 10.50 am on Sunday 9th December 1951 we were about 150 miles NNE of Flamborough, bound for Hull, when we heard a distress message broadcast by Humber radio. This was a repetition of a message sent out by Dutch motor vessel WESTKUST a few minutes earlier, to the effect that she was in sinking condition, about 25 miles NE of Flamborough and required immediate assistance. A few minutes later a second message followed stating that they were standing by to take to the boats.

Several ships answered Humber at intervals, and as traffic past Flamborough Head on a Sunday morning at low water (which it then was) is about the heaviest of the week I had little doubt that some vessel would be on the spot in a couple of hours, at the longest, and remarked as much to Jack Pool, our sparks.

One of the ships that answered was the "Athenic" (2 miles NE of Flamborough); another, the "City of Hull", bound southerly. The trawlers "Cradock" and "Cape Duner" also gave their positions but did not seem to be close enough to do anything. As we were so far off we naturally kept quiet and just listened.

Scheveningen Radio had heard the distress message and soon after he called Humber and asked if Flamborough lifeboat could be launched and how long it would take her to reach Westkust. Humber would not say more than that the authorities had been informed.

A couple of hours elapsed and nothing more was heard of Westkust. We began to think that she had sunk, but about 1300 she came on the air again, much louder, and telling Humber that there was a big tanker about three miles from him but that he could not attract his attention. Could Humber do so? Still urgently needing help, as he did not think that she could last long. One boat lost and the other damaged. Humber then got busy on 600 metres and sent out the auto-alarm signal. The tanker mentioned above apparently proceeded all unheeding and was not heard of subsequently in connection with the case.

Meantime the Scarborough lifeboat had been launched very promptly at about 1120 and was in radio touch with Humber. We could only hear her faintly. She was the nearest lifeboat to the position given.

We were expecting "Athenic" or some other ship to arrive at Westkust at 1400 by the latest. However, time went on and no one found her. The tug " Euston Cross" had left the Tees bent on salvage and kept calling the Westkust. She also got into communication with Humber.

About 1430 or 1500, some doubt as to the Westkust's position began to develop and he admitted himself that he might be "twenty miles E to ENE of Flamborough". We were listening very intently. The questions were, "Would the crew be saved?", "Would the Westkust sink?", "Which ship would get there first?", "Would she get the crew off safely?" and finally "Well, what is the Westkust's position anyhow?"

Scarborough lifeboat was searching the position 25 miles NE of Flamborough and reckoned he was only a few miles from Westkust; likewise "City of Hull" and "Athenic". They asked him to fire rockets, which he did but nothing was seen. An aircraft was also reported searching - but of course they never saw anything. Westkust said it was thick with sleet and rain in his position and he couldn't see anything. However about 1500 he said he thought he could see Flamborough bearing WxN. He estimated his position as 15 miles off.

No one, up to this time, had spoken of taking a bearing on D.F. of Westkust, but about this time the "St. Elstan" (Hull trawler), bound home, about 60 miles NNE of Flamborough told Humber that he'd taken a snap of Westkust on his "fish snatcher" and got him S1/2W. This did not help a lot, because St. Elstan's position was not really definite, but it did wake Humber up a bit to ask Westkust if he could transmit on 600 metres or anything like that so that his position could be established. However Westkust was only fitted with 'phone wave R/T and so could not. Neither of the shore stations, Humber or Cullercoats is fitted to take bearings on these waves. (It seems to me that there is a serious defect in the distress arrangements in this connection).

When it appeared that Westkust was actually ExS instead of NE of Flamborough, the Flamborough and, shortly afterwards, the Bridlington lifeboat launched, as the Scarborough one was just about as far from the ExS position when in the NE position as if he'd been in Scarborough harbour! All three of the lifeboats could be heard faintly, communicating with one another, with Westkust and with Humber. They all seemed to get their instructions from "Coastguard Mablethorpe", which surprised me.

SCARBOROUGH LIFEBOAT

The Westkust had been at anchor from the time of the first distress message, to keep her up head to sea. The wind was apparently north westerly and I gathered that the force was about 7 or 8 with a rough sea. We had the wind somewhat more westerly and met with some uncomfortable swell at times.

By dark the Westkust had still not been located. The favourites in the race to find her seemed to be the steamer "Ayton", the Grimsby North Sea trawler "Ottillie" and the Flamborough lifeboat, all of which were searching on the ExS bearing from Flamborough.

Westkust had used his last rocket, but none of them had been seen. The tug "Euston Cross" was still making for her at full speed. We had still no inkling that we should be involved in the business, although Sparks was making a careful W/T log all the time. This was the position as dark came on Sunday December 9th.
High water at Hull was about 0330 on Monday morning, and we had been expecting to get this tide, but during the day we'd had a wire from Marrs that had decided to land us on Tuesday instead of Monday, as it appeared that we'd make a better trip on the later day. It became evident to, during the course of the day that the weather would prevent us from getting the Monday am tide. We had thus some 18 hours to spare for the Tuesday morning tide, which would still allow us to land on Tuesday. This was the first time for many months that we had had a few hours to spare. Recently we have always been dashing along with the bare hope of getting the tide desired, and had, incidentally, always just managed it.

Somewhere about 1800 on December 9th Westkust was at last found by "Ayton", with "Ottillie" and the Scarborough lifeboat a good second and third respectively. All other ships then resumed their voyages. The Flamborough and Bridlington lifeboats still proceeded to the scene.

The position of Westkust, as fixed by "Ayton", was 29 miles ExS of Flamborough, and this was the position everyone worked on from then on.

When his ship had been found by the above mentioned vessels, the Master of the Westkust stated that the position with him was a bit better and that he intended to try to get his ship to Scarborough with the Scarborough lifeboat and "Ottillie" in attendance in case of accident. Thereupon the Scarborough lifeboat put two of her crew on board the Westkust to help.

Within half an hour of this we were surprised to hear the Scarborough lifeboat reporting that the Westkust had been abandoned, and that she had all the crew on board, and was making for Bridlington. It seems that the Flamborough lifeboat had by then arrived, but not the Bridlington one. "Ayton" had resumed her voyage; "Ottillie" was still standing by. It was when I heard this that the idea that "Swanella" might possibly have a go at the salvage first came to me. We were expecting to be in sight of Flamborough about 2300.

During this day Sunday December 9th there had been two other distresses in the North Sea. These were both vessels whose steering was out of order. These two distresses were controlled by German radio stations and both vessels were taken in tow before dark. All three distresses were on 181 metres, so there was plenty to listen to.

We sighted Flamborough close on the Starboard bow about 2330, and by that time I'd decided to have a look at the Westkust if she was still afloat. A little previous to this we'd heard "Euston Cross" reporting to Middlesborough that she had run off from Flamborough and searched the area 25 to 29 miles ExS, and had seen no trace of Westkust. The weather had got worse, he said, and he'd returned and anchored under Flamborough.

When we got to Flamborough ( about 12 miles ENE ) we lay from 0100 to about 0545, and I turned in. At 0545 we had drifted to position East about 8 miles from the head. I then went south till I'd got the light WxN and then put her stern to it and ran off ExS. The weather was strong breeze to moderate gale NNW, squally.
I'd spoken to the Mate and Chief the evening before about the 1 in 100 chance we had of picking up Westkust, and we'd made a few minor preparations. At the time I'd thought the chances were that the Westkust would sink. If not, the tug would have a better chance than we. Then there was "Ottillie" and any other ship that might have similar ideas. Finally the weather looked very unpromising. Anyhow, we had several hours to spare so we thought we might as well invest them in the Westkust affair.

About 0740 we saw bright lights on the starboard bow, but I imagined these would be the "Ottilie", and continued to look for an unlighted vessel by radar. As the daylight grew, however, our interest turned to the ship with the lights as it was no trawler. Soon it appeared to be a vessel at anchor and seemed like a Dutchman by her build. So we turned to starboard and ran down-wind to her. It turned out to be Westkust, at anchor to two anchors, with a heavy list to port, but no apparent intention of sinking whatever. I'd expected to see her very much down by the head as I imagined her holds must be full of water. I knew the engine-room was dry when she was abandoned, as the skipper had spoken of trying to reach Scarborough under his own power with "Ottillie" and the lifeboat in attendance. Then, surely, she must have a lot of water in her somewhere or they'd not say she was in sinking condition and leave her.

"Ottillie" was laid about three miles to leeward and he came dodging up at once when he saw us make for Westkust.
I went once round Westkust and then lay close to her - wind against tide held us pretty well stationary - and considered what to do. I decided against any boat work as the sea was too rough for our inexperienced chaps to be safe. So first we put a dozen or so buckets of fish oil over the side to see if it would improve the chances of getting "Swanella" alongside Westkust. The oil went to windward alright, as anticipated, and one could see it on the water round her as we drove slowly off to leeward. But it was not thick or heavy enough to make any difference to the swell in which Westkust was plunging. Meantime we'd been getting a hundred fathoms of warp off each drum of the winch and filling some baskets with net to act as fenders. We also got the anchor ready for dropping. "Otti11ie" meantime dodged around and asked me on R/T what my intentions were and told me the ship was abandoned. Another of Ottilie's firm, the "Drusilla", I believe, said to him "Don't let him take her from under your nose; you've been laid by her all night so she's your ship. I'd phone the office if I were you and see what the legal position is." I told "Ottillie" that my intentions were to take Westkust in tow if I could. We soon afterwards heard Otti1lie's owner telling her that the first ship to get a line on her and make fast had priority and that a rocket line would not do as it had to be made fast. "Ottillie" fired a couple of rockets at Westkust about this time, but it was futile, of course, and I took it merely as a token gesture. He told his owner that the weather was too bad for him to do anything at this time. He'd previously told Humber that Westkust was still afloat, lights burning, and that he'd let him know if he sank.

My mate, George Pearson, had at once volunteered the previous night to go aboard if it was possible to get there, and I'd told him to get three other volunteers. These were now standing by in readiness with lifejackets on, but no oilskins so they would not be hampered. The Mate had a bag of tools - spanners, shackles, punch, hacksaw and spare blades, rope-yarns and chains.

I decided to try and get our starboard bow alongside her port quarter, as any damage done on that side would be above water on both ships, due to his list, and there would be no dead space to jump across. These conditions would be reversed on his starboard or high side.

So I came up from astern and had a go. We got right tight up to him and there was a crash of glass and a grinding bump and a crunching from his bridge as we made contact. However they got no chance to jump as Westkust rolled or sheered away and we fell off almost at once.

Some damage done, but no further ahead! I then had to take a full turn out of her in order to get into position to try again. Six times I tried in vain to get into position for the men to jump. Most times we did not touch Westkust, as she sheered away as we came up, and we then fell off again. Once we got our anchor foul of his port mainmast stay and carried this away. Two or three times we made contact with her hull but apparently without doing much damage. "Ottillie" meantime was keeping as close as possible and lay astern of Westkust apparently to hamper us from getting alongside, and I did not blame him for this as it was a battle between us. One or two smaller G.Y. trawlers had come up but did not attempt to interfere. "Ottilie" made no attempt to get men aboard Westkust.

By this time the tide had turned, making the job a bit better, wind with the tide instead of against; and the seventh time we tried we succeeded. We ground alongside Westkust and the men jumped all together, and the tool bag was slung after them. They all landed safely on the bridge verandah and quickly disappeared from sight.

So that meant that we had to get hold of the ship.
The men got aboard Westkust about 1145, and we then set about getting the warps across to her. First of all I went up ahead of Westkust and slightly on her port bow and let go our anchor, hoping we would lie nicely close to Westkust so that the four men would be able to pull the warps across by hand if necessary, one at a time. However when we got tight to the anchor I found we were a bit too far off her, so I hove up and did it again, this time getting into a satisfactory position.

Boarding Party - Charles Johansson, Bob Warren, George Pearson, John (Jack) Hargreaves

We then fired a Schermuly rocket line from our boat-deck. The rocket hit the water between the ships and, bouncing, flew across the Westkust's bows. The line fell on her anchor cable and was secured by the boarding party. We put a light wire on the rocket line and the end of our starboard warp on to that. The warp was led from the winch through the centre and wing bollards, through the after gallows and towing block. With considerable difficulty, and the use of a reel used for coiling wire on the Westkust, the end of the warp was pulled aboard and made fast on her starboard bow. A second rocket then went over Westkust's aerial and this was followed likewise by a light wire and our port warp led similarly on the port side, and this was secured on Westkust's port bow.The weather had fallen away a bit during this time and we hoped it was dropping for good.

The boarding party then disappeared below into the Westkust's chain locker to knock the pins out of the shackles next below deck in each cable. This took a certain amount of time, and then the first anchor was slipped. Westkust at once began to drive and was soon tight to our warps astern. The second anchor was slipped and we started to heave up Swanella's anchor. This took about half an hour, as there was some trouble with the windlass. Just before 1500, or thereabouts, we were ready to go ahead. By that time it had freshened considerably and a heavy squall bore down on us.

I did not at all like the idea of turning Westkust broadside to the wind to get her on course for the Humber. I thought that it might well be that she was, and had been, alright anchored head to wind but when she came broadside the cargo might shift further and the vessel capsize. In fact I was terrified of what might happen seeing that our men on Westkust had no serviceable boat and that we should be severely hampered by the towing lines in rendering them any assistance if the worst happened. We made all preparations to chop the warps at short notice.

The mate had sung out that the ship was clear of water and seemed quite alright except for the cargo in No. 2 hold ( or No. 2 hatch ) having shifted. It looked like black sand. It proved later to be slack coal of low value, known as slurry, and used for making briquettes on the continent, I asked him if he thought there was any danger of her capsizing if we turned her broadside to the sea. I was able to do this and to maintain very easy communication with the Westkust from the time we started to move her right to the end owing to the fact that the boarding party found Westkust's radio telephone still switched on and working. It was just a matter of shifting waves and our sparks was able -to direct Pearson in doing this. This was naturally the greatest help. Over the R/T Pearson told me he thought she was alright to turn and felt O.K.

While trying to put our men on to the Westkust we had communicated by link call with our office explaining to some extent what we were about. Our sparks spoke to them, as I was busy. They were much interested and asked us to let them know how we went on. When we got Westkust in tow, head to wind, we reported again by R/T and they at once got in touch with A.M.Jackson & Co. and got all directions as to what to do and what not to do. Later they called us and told us all this. They'd arranged for United Towing Co. to take over from us in Hull Roads and to dock the vessel on a docking - not a salvage - basis. Also there were instructions that nothing aboard the Westkust must on any account be touched and no "souvenirs" be collected. No one must be allowed to get on board on arrival in Hull, especially none of the Dutch crew, until the vessel had been handed over to the receiver of wreck in the morning. Our men must stay in Westkust.

To return to when we got Westkust in tow. There was a squall on. This died away and Pearson said he felt confident about turning. So we took her round to starboard - low side to the swell so that if the cargo did shift again it would probably go the right way. She came round well, without alarming symptoms and we started off, dead slow speed, SWxS, for Spurn Light vessel. We let the warps pull as they wished whenever there came a jerk, keeping them level.

It was not long before Westkust had taken up a position broad on our starboard quarter and heading about two points more westerly than ourselves. In spite of them having her wheel permanently hard-a-port she obstinately refused to follow us. It seemed to get worse and worse and the tugging on the warps continued. Finally it appeared in the semi-dark that we were almost trying to pull her broadside on, and our speed was so low that it was difficult to see whether we were going through the water at all.

WESTKUST CREW LAND AT BRIDLINGTON

This was hopeless, so we stopped and hove in a lot of the warp thinking we might control her better with a shorter nip. This proved correct and it soon became evident too that the pulling and tugging on the warps had been due to them snagging on the bottom of the sea. When we had shortened in they ceased to pull and we gradually increased speed. This gave Westkust better steerage way, and instead of being entirely controlled by the wind, and consequently swung beam on to it, they began to get a bit of control over her with the helm. Their electric lighting had failed, the batteries having run down and they were unable to find any secondary lighting on board. They found a couple of (white) oil lamps but no paraffin. They tried diesel oil in them instead, but they kept going out as the wicks would not soak it up. To get the colours they got red and green bunting and tied it round the lamps.

We gradually worked up speed to about six knots, Westkust sheering vilely but following after a fashion. We passed outward-bound ships but couldn't see any shore lights. We could see the loom of the Outer Dowsing at times. We reported to the office by R/T that we were on the way and that they could tell the tugs to expect us at Hull between midnight and 0200 but it was very provisional and entirely dependant on all going well. Fortunately it did, and although we had more trouble and anxiety with the warps snagging on the bottom again when we got into the really shoal water approaching Spurn, and we had at all times a man at each winch brake nursing the warps, we arrived abreast of Spurn lightship about 2200.

Before we got there Humber Radio told us that the tug "Rifleman" was calling us on 600 metres. We made contact with him and he told us he was one of the tugs detailed to dock the Westkust and that if we would advise him on W/T as we approached Killingholme he'd meet us near Saltend. This was very satisfactory, as I was a little apprehensive of coming up to Hull on a flood tide with the tow sheering about and having no one to meet us, or at any rate not until we were well up abreast of Hull. Two newspapers also called up on link calls through Humber for stories and Jack Pool (sparks) attended to them.

We had one receiver tuned to Westkust almost all the time and kept in constant touch. We were thus able to have an idea of how things were on board her. The four men had taken no oilskins with them and were wet. They began to feel this when the rush of work was over and they had little to do but try to keep her straight. So I instructed them by R/T to look around and see if they couldn't find some clothes to borrow. This they did, putting on the clothes of the Dutch officers and men, two of them having uniforms with several stripes on, to their amusement. Food was another problem. They managed at first to make some tea, but later couldn't get the oil stove going again. There was nothing they could find to eat except chocolate and oranges. These they made a meal out of, and Jacksons have arranged that payment shall be made for these and also for a number of cigarettes which the men smoked.

The mate has told me days afterwards when we were discussing the affair that there was "a bit of a mystery" about Westkust. On board her they found every evidence of a woman's presence. Clothes in the wardrobe in the skipper's berth, and her underclothes half-washed in a basin. No mention was ever made in any of the newspapers of a woman being among the Dutch crew rescued that Sunday night by the Scarborough lifeboat, so it must have been kept from them. No doubt she would be dressed in man's clothes for jumping into the lifeboat and perhaps even the lifeboatmen never knew about it. One can think what one likes. I never heard anything of this while ashore. I expect she was the captain's wife as they often go to sea I believe.

In conversation with our office I had told them that the four men in Westkust were cold, wet, hungry and tired. They at once arranged for four extra men to meet them as soon as the ship was berthed, and that these men should bring them food and clothes. Later I heard that they had been to the homes of each and had collected a suitcase from each wife or mother and taken them on board. Our people could not possibly have done more or been more thoughtful and encouraging. (Just like them! It's good to work for a good firm.)

Westkust continued to steer badly all the way up the river and kept sheering from quarter to quarter. But we managed to keep clear of buoys and shipping and abreast of Killingholme hove her close up astern of us and they then slipped the port warp from Westkust and we hove it in. We continued with the one warp pretty slowly till the tugs "Rifleman" and "Linesman" came to us a bit below Saltend. They got alongside the Westkust and there was a lot of flashlight photography. Evidently newsmen in each tug. The other warp was slipped and we proceeded to the Fish Dock, leaving Westkust to the tugs.

She was put in Alexandra Dock and the four relief men came on board her, bringing the food and clothes. It had been arranged to have eight men there all the time till she was handed over. Four more men were sent about 0900 on the Tuesday, and our four from "Swanella" allowed to leave. George Pearson told me later that all had gone off very well. No one had tried to get aboard, but members of the crew of another ship of Westkust's firm which was in Alexandra Dock at the time had come along the quay to have a look at her. The dock police had been there at the same time and told our chaps to let them know at once if there was any trouble of any sort. Naturally there was none.

The ship was handed over to the Receiver of Wreck that morning, and by arrangement between him and Jacksons the Dutch crew who had come from Bridlington were allowed to go aboard. Pearson had carefully locked all the cabin doors before the shore chaps got aboard, so he had no trouble in getting a receipt or statement from the Captain that all was in order. I asked him how the Captain seemed to take the business and he said he seemed like a broken man.

Later the B.O.T. man told me that the Captain had been "monkeying about with his water ballast". This was unofficial, he said, but just "as one seaman to another". Apparently the cargo had shifted to starboard in the first instance and he'd put some water ballast in to try and right her. This had been partly responsible for the shifting more severely of the cargo to port soon afterwards. Anyhow I was and am sorry for the man. He'll have a lot of questions to answer in Holland, I expect.

The value of the ship - 10 months old only, 499 tons gross - had not been established when we sailed. Jacksons had heard she was insured for £50,000 but they'd said (Mr Ashburn, who is dealing with the case) that they were not accepting that valuation. I see newspapers have put her value as high as £125,000 but their stories are almost always well wide of the truth and exaggerated, as no one knows better than you, I'm sure.
I think this pretty well brings the story up to date, and we'll have see how it develops.


Addenda

Value of vessel was established at £51,000. Value of cargo £1000. The salvage claim was settled amicably for £18,250, of which about £900 was "expenses", including extra awards of £100 to Pearson and £50 each to Warren, Hargreaves and Johansson. Also £100 to Pool (W/T Op). The residue of £17,300 (approx.) went 2/3rds to owners, l/3rd to crew. Skippers share, 10% of the £17,300, £1730 approx. -less PAYE- about £930 -less surtax, probably about £500, later on - £430 (approx.). The hands got £143 each less about £60 PAYE. Chief Engineer got £420 less PAYE. Mate got about £1200 + £100 special award, less tax.

Skipper L.D.Romyn DSC + Bar

COURTESY © C ROMYN -2007