Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Forgotten Rescue: The Suevic

The Forgotten Rescue
by Roger Weston

In March of 1907, a ferocious storm raked the gloomy waters off the Cornish coast. Thick fog buried the Lizard peninsula. This treacherous outcrop was the home of many small fishing communities. On this night in the Ides of March, a fisherman’s wife spotted an ominous red glow in the fog. Word spread quickly in the small community. Bearded fishermen leapt into action. It was clear that this red glow was no weather phenomenon. It was the distress flare of a ship. The news could not have been more grim given that the conditions were brutal, and the chances seemed high that some if not all of the mysterious ship’s passengers would die if they were not soon rescued.

The fishermen of the Lizard Peninsula knew the sea like their own mother, but on this night the sea raged out of control. The men knew well the power of storms like they knew the frailty of men in peril. They knew the code of the sea demanded their action. Four crews of men took to the oars of four rescue boats and set out to sea in fog so dense they could see nothing at all. In these eerie conditions, they rode the wild horse of the sea’s towering waves. Huge waves thrust them high in the fog and they could see nothing but the distant red glow. They rose and fell, rose and fell. The men fought with all their might against a powerful south-westerly gale. The rowers pulled with all their might and even then could barely make progress against the adversity of the storm and sea. They were determined, however. Their will was fixed to match that of the sea. So thick was the fog soup that they couldn't see the stricken ship until the rescue boat bumped into her wave-swept hull. 

As the waves swept by the ship, which was run aground on a reef, the rescue boats were lifted high up toward her rails where 524 terrified passengers prayed for their lives. The complement included 85 children. When the rescue boats rose on the crests, men and women dropped their children overboard into the lifeboats. Two of the ship’s own lifeboats had already been launched and were headed for certain doom because they did not know how to pass through the reef. The timely arrival of the local fisherman played a crucial role in their salvation. Another minute and they’d have been lost in the fog, lost to the hungry sea whose appetite is never satisfied.

All night long the men of the local fishing villages risked their lives, running out to the ship and rescuing loads of passengers. Sixty local fishermen took turns at the oars. Every passenger was ferried safely to shore where the wives of the fishermen had lit bonfires to guide their men home and keep the survivors warm. 

These selfless local heroes worked all through the night, fighting a Herculean battle against the weather, making run after run out to the ship. These brave men, guided by the red glow on the waters and the orange glow of fires ashore, these men who knew the ways of survival at sea—they saved everyone on board, brought them all to safety. These men of the Lizard Peninsula were true heroes, and it is only fitting that their heroic deed should be remembered. 

The ship was the Suevic, a 550-foot leviathan, her bow run aground on a reef. She survived the night as it turned out, but after the storm settled, neither her crew nor salvagers could get her to budge.  There was no way to refloat her.

Almost no way. 

There is always a way, and salvagers put forth a highly-risky plan to her owners, the famous White Star Line. What the salvagers proposed was to carefully place numerous explosive charges of dynamite up and down the sides of her bows. They would detonate all the explosives and sever the grounded bow from the rest of the ship. The rear 400 feet was not damaged, so the majority of the ship would be floated back to harbor, her compartments sealed off so that sea water would not flood her holds. 

The explosives were detonated as planned, weakening the steel that connected the bow with the rest of the ship. That weakness gave way as the ship lifted and lowered on the watery swells.  The ship—minus her bow, was sailed back to Southampton under her own power. She was towed by salvage ships, but their role was mostly to guide the ship, since her engines and propellers were in good shape and provided the power for the voyage. 

Back in port, her owners had a new bow built and attached to the ship. She was then in great shape to continue her career on the high seas. In fact, she went on to sail for more than three decades, but was finally sunk by her crew to avoid her falling into the hands of the Nazis. 

One final fact regarding this amazing tale should be mentioned. Two years after the wreck of the Suevic, her owners, the White Star Line, began work on another ship which was destined for a much more tragic shipwreck. That ship was the RMS Titanic

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Roger Weston writes action-packed thrillers with a maritime twistYou can find all of his books at: Roger Weston's Amazon Author Page 

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