‘Tell Dave the boat’s going out.’
Broughty Ferry Lifeboat Disaster - Tuesday, 8 December 1959.
A series of severe storms lashed Scotland at the beginning of December 1959. The Aberdeen trawler George Robb was lost with all hands near Duncansby Head late on 6th and a steamer went ashore near Fraserburgh. Much damage was done along the east coast as swollen rivers burst their banks, fallen trees blocked roads and four-foot high sand drifts blocked the east coast railway line at Carnoustie. The Tay Ferries took shelter overnight at Newport as the Craig Pier was too exposed and several ships were storm-bound in Dundee Harbour. A force 9 south-easterly gale was still battering the east coast late on the 7th of December. Visibility at sea was down to around two miles in fierce rain squalls, both the middle buoys in the Tay had been missing for two weeks and the fairway buoy was swept away during that fateful night.
Despite the storm, off Fife Ness the 500,000 candlepower light of the North Carr lightship still sent its reassuring flash twice every thirty seconds far out across an angry, empty sea. Captain George Rosie and his six-man crew settled down for another uncomfortable night aboard the lurching, rearing lightship. But then, just after 2.00 a.m. on the 8th of December, one of the links on her main mooring chain, unable to take any more punishment, sheared. With no power of its own, the North Carr was now at the mercy of the storm and drifting rapidly towards certain destruction in St Andrews Bay.
Coastguard Charlie Jones at Fife Ness spotted the lightship moving off station and immediately raised the alarm. Anstruther lifeboat was the nearest source of help for Captain Rosie and his crew, but even attempting to launch between the pier heads at low spring tide in a south-easterly gale would have been suicidal. So, at 2.42 a.m., Senior Coastguard David Mearns telephoned to ask for the Broughty Ferry lifeboat Mona. Dundee Harbourmaster Captain Norman Moug immediately telephoned new Coxswain Ronnie Grant and Mechanic John Greive and, many years later, Maureen Greive could still recall how upset her mother was as her husband John and son, John jun., rushed around the house pulling warm clothing. Lexie Anderson recalled John Greive jun. knocking on her window at 3.00 a.m., shouting, “Tell Dave the boat’s going out.”
Head Launcher Charlie Knight sent the Mona roaring down the slipway at 3.13 a.m. and she set off downriver into the teeth of the gale. At 4.06 a.m. the lifeboat was abeam of the Abertay lightship and, watched by David Mearns from Carnoustie Coastguard Station, she plunged on, constantly disappearing behind huge, breaking seas thundering over the Tay Bar. Charlie Jones called the lifeboat a few minutes later to say, “North Carr has just fired a rocket. Did you see it?” From the wildly lurching Mona John Grieve could only gasp out a brief, staccato reply, ‘No…our position…we have just past the Middle Buoys on the Bar…and we are just hanging on.’ Jones then signalled that the lightship was riding to a spare bower anchor two miles north west of Fife Ness. Jones made contact with the Mona again at 4.48 a.m., saying, “The North Carr has just fired another red rocket. Did you see it?” John Grieve replied from the Mona, “Yes, we saw that one. We have just cleared the Bar.”
After that, silence.
At 5.08 a.m. the Coastguard realised they had lost contact with lifeboat and asked her to burn flares if she was still able to receive. Nothing was seen until, thirty minutes later, at 5.39 a.m., Charlie Jones thought he saw the Mona’s lights approaching the North Carr. He radioed the lightship to ask if they had seen the lights and they replied, “Yes, I think it is the Lifeboat. Will burn another flare.” Then the lights disappeared. By this time the Coastguard were becoming really anxious and transmitting continuous signals on the distress frequency, 2182 kcs, “Your transmitter seems to have broken down. If your receiver is still working, fire rockets and flash your searchlight up in the sky, indicating your position. Broadcasting every five minutes.”
There was no reply.
At soon as it was light, at 8.00 a.m., an RAF Sycamore helicopter of 228 Squadron took off from Leuchars to search for both the lifeboat and the lightship. The helicopter searched an area between Fife Ness and the lifeboat shed at Broughty Ferry, but found only the Lightship rolling heavily as she lay to a spare anchor off Kingsbarns. The helicopter returned to Leuchars to refuel, then took off again to search the Fife coastline for any sign of the lifeboat. Meanwhile, at 8.45 a.m. David Mearns spotted what, in the half light, appeared at first to be a long black plank washed up on the beach about a mile south of Carnoustie. He soon realised however, that he was looking at the Mona and immediately fired the maroons to call out the LSA team with their breeches buoy rescue equipment.
William Philip, the barman at the Carnoustie Station Hotel, was out walking his dog at Balmossie Den when he found the Mona labouring heavily in the surf, her rudder being thrust to and fro as if by unseen hand and the only sign of life an eerily still burning port hand navigation light. Philip called out, “Anyone there?” but got no reply. Then he came across the oilskin-clad body of a young man at the water’s edge and pulled it up onto the beach with help of Auxiliary Coastguard John Hamilton. The helicopter arrived a few minutes later and, as pilot Flight Sergeant Clark fought to keep the aircraft stable against the gale, Master Signaller Ken Jacobs was winched down to the lifeboat. Unable to get aboard on his wildly swinging winch wire, Jacobs was nevertheless able to see five bodies lying in cockpit and another body on the shoreline a short distance away.
Thirty minutes later, once the tide had ebbed, David Mearns ran out behind a receding wave, grabbed the lifeline and clambered aboard the Mona. This was a particularly poignant moment for Mearns as, not only did he know all of the Mona’s crew very well, he had been rescued by the lifeboat more than twenty years before when the Abertay Lightship got into difficulties in a very similar storm. Opening the cabin hatch, he shouted down, “Is there anyone there?” but got no reply. He then went aft and found Ronnie Grant, Jim Ferrier and George Smith under the shelter, John Grieve sen. half out of the open engine room hatch and Davie Anderson aft, under the steering shaft. John Grieve jun. was the young man pulled from the sea by William Philip and John Hamilton. Police officers coming around found the body of former Coxswain Alex Gall, who had gone on the shout to give Ronnie Grant the benefit of his experience, half a mile to the south along with the mast of the boat and George Watson’s lifejacket. Of George Watson himself there was no sign.
The Dundee Evening Telegraph’s Pat Shearer was one of a number of reporters sent out to likely points when the boat was reported missing. Ignoring the red warning flags on the army firing range at Barry Buddon, he arrived just as the last body was being brought ashore. Years later, he could still recall the windswept, desolate scene, the black, scowling sky and the lifeboat rocking gently in the surf, looking deceptively as though she was waiting for her crew. He also recalled the incredulity - the seemingly impossible had happened.
The lost crew were;
Ronald Grant (28) Coxswain.
George Smith (53) Acting Second Coxswain.
George Watson (38). Bowman.
John Grieve (56) Motor Mechanic.
James Ferrier (43) Second Mechanic.
John T Grieve (22).
Alexander Gall (56).
David Anderson (42).
Back in Broughty Ferry, Maureen Greive had sat up all night listening to the radio and knew something was wrong when the Coastguard lost contact with the lifeboat. Lexie Anderson went back to bed but got up at 6.00 a.m. with the feeling that something terrible had happened. She went to the lifeboat shed but was told that the boat was all right and only learned the truth when she heard people in Fisher Street talking about the boat and ran back to the shed. Charlotte Ferrier saw a policeman and former Coxswain Jim Coull standing on the front at Fisher Street and, feeling uneasy, crossed to the shed only to be told that the Mona was safe and sheltering in St Andrews Bay for the night. A short while later she met George Smith’s very distressed sister who called across the street to her that the Lifeboat was down and the crew were lost. John Grieve’s wife had telephoned Harbour to be given the news of the loss of both husband and son. Josephine Grant heard the news in a radio bulletin before anyone else could reach her. George Watson’s wife Winnie was told the terrible news while at work as a nurse at the Armitstead Home. Women stood shivering in the cold and rain outside the shed, conversation in the Gray Street cafes was subdued and Grove Academy pupils learned of the tragedy from early editions of the Evening Telegraph as they went home at lunchtime.
A memorial service was held in St James’ Church, immediately across the road from the lifeboat shed, on the morning of Friday 11 December. The church held around four hundred and service was relayed to 300 seated in St James Hall and to a large crowd outside in a rain swept Fort Street. Among the congregation singing hymn 556 to Sibelius’ triumphant tone poem Finlandia were lifeboat men from Anstruther, Arbroath and Montrose. As the funeral corteges left the village that afternoon, Christmas decorations in the shops seemed horribly out of place. The lifeboat shed held only wreaths, later to be cast on the sea near the scene of the tragedy. A disaster fund set up by Dundee Lord Provost Hughes would receive donations of well over £77,000 by the end of the month.
As for the Mona, what had caused the disaster and when it had happened, with no living witnesses any conclusions would be little more than educated guesswork. Still lying on the beach at Carnoustie two days after the disaster she was pumped out by the Fire Brigade and then manhandled round to face out to sea. After an unsuccessful attempt in still poor weather on 13 December, Arbroath lifeboat Duke of Montrose finally managed to pull her clear on the afternoon high tide the following day. The Mona spent a night alongside in Arbroath harbour before being towed to Weatherhead’s boatyard at Cockenzie in the Forth. There she was examined closely for any trace of a fault that might have caused her loss.
Both engines were set at half ahead and all engine controls were normal. The electrical systems were in full working order, the navigation lights were switched on, the radio was set as normal and the anchor and drogue were properly stowed. The steering gear was functional though the rudder had cracked while she was battered by the waves on the beach. Two of the three cowl vents on the engine room were missing as were both the cowl vents on the cabin. The searchlight and loudhailer were also missing. Ten feet of the starboard rail and foot whale were displaced and the mast had been broken off just above the tabernacle. Oil stains on the engine room deck head.
Fifteen gallons of petrol had been used and 97 gallons remained to be drained from her tanks. The fuel system was set normally and the tanks were correctly pressurised. This meant the extremes of running time would have been between 2 hours and 3 hours 30 minutes. As the engines were found set for half ahead, it was assumed that she had come down from full speed on losing the partial lee of the Abertay Bank. A watch found in the inside pocket of Alex Gall’s jacket had stopped at 6.19 a.m. It was full of water and sand which, it was felt, would have taken some time to penetrate his clothes and the watch case. The boat’s clocks could give no clues - one had stopped before the launch and the other was still working. Taking all the evidence together, the RNLI concluded that the Mona had capsized sometime between 0530 and 0600. She had been carried north west until her mast had touched bottom and this had helped to right her. In the process of righting, the damage was done to the starboard rail etc.
Former Coxswain Jim Coull said later that John Grieve sen. had probably sensed something was wrong in the engine room and opened the watertight hatch to find water flooding in through a jammed ventilator. George Watson and possibly Alex Gall had gone out on deck to stuff Watson’s pullover into it - the pullover was found tangled in the railings and his lifejacket, which he had to have taken off before removing his pullover, was found on the beach next to Gall. With the boat flooding, some stability would already have been lost when Grant doubtless reversed course to run with the sea while the two men were working on deck. Possibly during the turn, or immediately thereafter, the boat was capsized by a large wave. With the engine room hatch open, all the air in that compartment and any that might otherwise have been trapped in the cockpit would vent straight out through the cockpit drains. The upturned boat would have been swept across the Gaa Sands at the mouth of the Tay, her mast breaking off as it struck bottom, and then righted herself as she washed up onto the beach, damaging her starboard rail as she did so.
In great secrecy, in the early hours of 18 March 1960, the Mona was towed out of Cockenzie harbour and allowed to settle well below the high tide line. It was still dark when petrol cans were emptied into her, a lighted brand was thrown in and she exploded in flame. It was a Wagnerian end, somehow fitting for a lifeboat that had saved so many lives, 114 of them, and yet caused so much heartache on her last shout.
What of the North Carr Lightship, the casualty the Mona had been bound for on that fatal December night? The spare anchor she had dropped about a mile off Kingsbarns in St Andrews Bay held. Her crew were taken off on the morning of the disaster by a helicopter from RAF Leuchars, though only after they had chopped down the lightship’s mizzen mast so the helicopter could approach safely. The lightship was taken in tow once the weather improved somewhat and refitted at Leith before returning to her station off Fife Ness. She was finally retired in 1975 and is now preserved in Dundee’s Victoria Dock.And what of Broughty Ferry Lifeboat Station? The first volunteers to form a new crew came forward within hours of the disaster. Thirty-eight men had put their names forward by the time a relief lifeboat, the City of Bradford II, arrived for station duty on the 22nd of December, just two weeks after the loss of the Mona. A new coxswain and crew were selected and the station was declared operational the very next day.
|Last Updated on Monday, 26 January 2009 22:08|