Dennis Allen - stories from the sea

This is a short extract from a book Dennis Allen wrote about his first trip to sea in 1954.

The wind screaming through the rigging reached its peak as the storm hit us. Waves crashed over the decks ripping their way through the ships rails and over carefully secured hatchways. Each successive wave sent the ship over to a seemingly impossible angle as the helmsman fought to bring her head into the seas. At last the Parima slowly recovered and with the wind and sea driving into the bows we hove to, waiting for the weather to abate. The continuous battering of the sea sent shudders throughout the ship and any equipment not securely lashed down was sent crashing across the deck.

Scraps of information filtered their way down from the radio room, ships were sending out distress calls but until the weather eased nothing was to be done. A large ship sank within a few miles of us and additional lookouts were posted in the search for survivors.

Looking out through the portholes, the crashing seas reminded me of the weekend early in 1953 when as a sea cadet I had been trapped on board the T.S. St James in a severe gale. The St James was a Motor Torpedo Boat and had been converted for use as a Sea Cadet Headquarters. She was permanently moored in the harbour at Scarborough for a number of years. The senior boys often spent the weekends on board for training. The engines had been removed to create open areas for instruction but the galley and the focsle, where the crew accommodation had been, was left intact. The centre of the focsle where hammocks would have normally been slung was now used as a lecture room. All around the inner curve of the bow were a number of wooden bunks now used for cadets on weekends.

This particular weekend started the same as many others, about six cadets and two officers went aboard on Saturday morning, and the weather was rough but not really bad as we went about some cleaning and repair work. A spring tide was due but again this was not unusual, there are regular spring tides throughout the year when the tide levels are very high but not in any way dangerous. The real danger at Scarborough is when a spring tide coincides with an easterly gale. This combination can bring unexpected sea conditions as it did that weekend. Saturday night passed without concern to the cadets but I assume that the two officers had been carefully keeping an eye on the worsening weather.

By Sunday morning the seas had begun to break over the outer harbour wall, the wind was rising, as it swung round to hurl spray directly from the east. We were moored in the safety of the inner harbour with two sea walls between the rising North Sea and us. The height of the waves was increasing rapidly as the top of the tide drew nearer. It was now too late to get ashore and the officers decided to wait for the ebbing tide. The St James was moored about thirty feet away from the nearest jetty and access was by a narrow gangway with a hinged section at the end. This had been raised to avoid damage from the abnormally high tide. By midday the seas were breaking right across the outer harbour sinking many of the pleasure craft moored there for the winter.

As we watched the activity on the piers through the focsle portholes, the Coronia, a large pleasure boat was breaking away from its moorings at the opposite side of the inner harbour. A number of men were attempting to secure her as the sea level rose above the level of the Vincent pier, which lay, between the two harbours. These men, at times up to their waists in water seemed to be walking on the sea, the pier had totally disappeared from view. Some of the rowing cobbles near us had by now broken loose and driven by the wind had floated right over the high railings which separate the harbour from the roadway. The smaller boats were dragged to the shelter of the narrow alleys on the shore side of the road, while the force of the sea destroyed many others.

In the early evening the seas had abated enough for an attempt at getting ashore. The drawbridge section of the gangway had been badly damaged and temporary lashings were made before it was safe to cross. A safety harness was rigged with ropes between the ship and shore, and then one by one we climbed the remains of the gangway with the harness fitted round our waists. With the help of the officers and harbour workers we managed to get ashore.

The road, now no longer under water, was passable with care. Wreckage was strewn everywhere, shops and cafes flooded, windows broken and harbour railings destroyed. This was the worst storm to hit the northeast for some years but for sure it would not be the last. After the storm, I returned to the harbour to help with repair work to the St James and I was amazed at the damage everywhere. It would be many weeks before things returned to normal.

The spirit in this community is such that everyone wanted to help to restore the harbour area to its normal condition. Capsized boats were pumped out and refloated. Damaged boats were taken from the water and put on the slipways to be repaired or scrapped. A few unfortunate fishermen had great difficulty even finding their boats, it was hard to decide which of the many pieces scattered around the harbour belonged to them.

These fishermen had coaxed a living from the sea for many generations, boats named after their sons and daughters provided their only income and in adverse times like these, the community would always pull together. Most of the fishing families were related to each other, they were, Allen, Cammish, Colley, Colling, Cowling, Dalton, Elliot, Eves, Godfrey, Jenkinson, Leggit, Mainprize, Normandale, Pashby, Rowley, Scales, Sheader, Walker, Watkinson, Williamson, and many others. These families also provided the volunteer lifeboat crews for many years. At least nine of these families are related in some way to mine.

For as long as I could remember it had been my ambition to go to sea. My father was a deep-sea fisherman following a line of fishermen and mariners dating back to 1700 and probably earlier. He fished the North Sea as a boy and later the more distant Scottish waters until, still only 41 years of age, he was lost with seven others when his trawler was sunk off the Outer Hebrides by a U boat in 1944. My two brothers were seamen, the elder had sailed on Norwegian ships before joining the British Merchant Navy and served right through the war years on the Atlantic convoys. He finally settled in Canada, joining the Royal Canadian Navy at the end of hostilities.

My second brother was first a deep-sea fisherman in Icelandic and Northern Russian waters, later joining the Merchant Navy to travel the world. It was natural that I should follow in this tradition. Often when daydreaming as a boy I could imagine my ancestors under sail in the days of Elizabeth the first, with Drake fighting the Armada or perhaps with Cook to the South Seas.

On the Parima the weather worsened, I was detailed to assist at meal times bringing food from the galley. To see the cooks working was amazing; there were pots and pans sliding about everywhere. The galley range can be fitted with steel bars which divide the top of the range into sections during this kind of weather, these restrict the movement of the cooking pots but they are still at steep angles when the ship rolls.

The galley boy had wedged himself into a corner where he was trying to peel potatoes; those, which had escaped, rolled back and forth across the deck of the galley. Meals had been reduced to more simple fare, stews etc., and the tables in the mess room had been rigged for bad weather.

The tables had hinged sides, which could be raised and secured to form a three-inch lip all around. This stopped the plates from suddenly flying off the table, unfortunately whatever had been on the plate continued beyond the edge, I soon learned that it was easier to hold the plate in one hand and eat with the other.

During all this there was no sense of fear, I was probably too excited to even consider our position. The seasickness that I had suffered from during the first few days of the trip never returned, I was far too busy to be sick.

We had almost made it across the Atlantic and were turning into the Irish Sea, when the tempest hit us from astern. The wind howled and screamed, the first damage was caused when a big sea crashed over the poop deck. The jack staff carrying the red ensign disappeared, and in seconds the crew's accommodation was four feet deep in water. On the bridge the second mate and the captain were both on duty and saw the enormous seas building up from the southwest.

A decision had to be made quickly, whether to run before it or risk turning her head into the sea and riding it out. The latter was decided on but the timing would be crucial. We could be swamped during the turn and be unable to recover. The timing was good, as we came round, the ship listed over to starboard and crashing crockery could be heard from the mess rooms. The wind screaming through the rigging reached its peak. Waves crashed over the decks ripping their way through the ships rails and over carefully secured hatchways. Each successive wave sent the ship over to a seemingly impossible angle as the helmsman fought to bring her head into the seas.

At last the Parima slowly recovered and with the wind and sea driving into the bows we hove to, waiting for the weather to abate. The continuous battering of the sea sent shudders throughout the ship and any equipment not securely lashed down was sent crashing across the deck.

On the bridge the port side door, which is about forty feet above sea level, took a heavy sea, which sent it crashing open split at the hinges, breaking the window and flooding the wheelhouse and chart room. The ship slowly recovered her trim and although we were being pounded by enormous seas, things settled for a while.

The carpenter set too, repairing the damage on the bridge, while the mate took a party of men to repair the small hatchway at the stern, which had totally collapsed under the first heavy sea to hit us, flooding the accommodation. The poop deck was now relatively sheltered and this work was soon complete, drying out the accommodation was going to be more difficult. The water had drained away through the normal drainage pipes; these run from various parts of the accommodation and pass via a valve through the ships side.

The water was now reduced to a few inches in some areas where it could not flow away. This was soon mopped up and the wet bedding etc. was dumped in the showers to drain off in its own time. Some of the porthole glasses had cracked, caused probably by over tightening them. They are made of brass with heavy-duty glass centres, and they are mounted onto a brass frame with a rubber gasket, if over tightened there is no give when a sea hits and it is likely to break. All portholes were checked and the deadlights secured, these are secondary porthole covers made of steel without any glass, they are really for blackout, but also give added strength.

I was now given a job on the bridge mopping out the wheelhouse and chart room. Luckily, when the door collapsed most of the water rushed straight through the wheelhouse, as the lee side door was already open. The doors on the bridge as with most doors opening onto the deck, have a step across the bottom to stop water coming in. In this case, it was stopping some of the water from draining away. Also as the step on the bridge door was only about four inches high, most of the water had already gone. The remaining water was rushing from side to side with the movement of the ship and I found that the easiest way to shift it was to stay at one side and bail it out as it rushed to that side.

I finally reached a point where I could start to dry it with a cloth, next came the chart room which was not too bad, soon the place was looking better. Messages were being sent from the radio room just behind the chart room so I was in a position to accidentally overhear. Damage reports were sent out and weather reports received from the company office and shore stations. We had apparently caught the tail end of a hurricane, which hit the southern United States, then had swung across the Atlantic astern of us.

During all this commotion the ships head was being held into the seas, which were now crashing over the bows. I hoped that all the hard work we did securing the hatches would be enough. Orders had been given that no one was to go on deck; all watertight doors had already been sealed. There was still access if necessary through the higher doors on the boat decks.

Suddenly there was a crash from the deck just in front of the wheelhouse; the forard jumbo derrick had broken loose. The constant pounding of the seas across the deck and the swing of the ship from side to side had somehow snapped the steel clamp, which holds the jumbo in an upright position. The jumbo tackle was still attached, it had been not been removed and stowed away as with the normal derricks.

If the derrick had been stripped, it would by now have crashed down onto the bridge causing a real disaster from which we may not have recovered. Luckily when it fell forward from the mast the jumbo had been stopped by the head lifting gear and now rested at an angle to the mast and about six feet from its broken clamp, it was now free to swing from side to side with the movement of the ship. The cargo lifting tackle was also still attached between the derrick head and the ringbolt in the deck, and although it had now become slack, it still partially restricted movement for the time being.

The tension on this lifting tackle had been reduced because of the downward movement of the derrick head leaving it to swing. While this lifting gear is very heavy and capable of lifting many tons, it would not be long before the sudden jerk as the derrick was stopped at the end of each swing fractured the shackle or ringbolt holding it to the deck. Volunteers were soon on the bridge planning emergency action. The Bosun was kept well clear because of his age and two of the Ab's were to climb the mast and secure the derrick. I had a grandstand view, as I had been restricted to the wheelhouse.

The two ships started up the mast with a safety rope round each man and a length of stout rope held between them. The plan was to secure one end of the rope to the crosstrees and pass the rope round the jumbo a number of times. The ship would be turned at a slight angle to the sea hopefully forcing the jumbo to one side, allowing the rope to be tightened and secured long enough to put a steel hawser around both mast and derrick. As the two men neared the crosstrees the shackle snapped! The jumbo was now free to swing in a full arc of almost 180 degrees across the ship. As it made its first few swings, the bottom block, which was now also free to move started crashing against the smaller derricks, which were lashed horizontally two on either side of the hatch. The derricks on the port side were soon dislodged and lying across the deck.

The two men on the mast were by now in position but it was very doubtful if they would succeed. Suddenly another heavy sea hit us, heeling the ship over to port, the massive derrick shifted violently to the port side and the lower block swung like a giant pendulum across the ship. The movement was so violent that the block continued across the gap where the port derricks should have been and wrapped itself around the mast entangling itself between the winches of No two hatch, holding the jumbo to the mast. The men quickly tied their rope round easing some of the tension from the trapped wire, which could come clear at any moment. These men fought to secure a wire hawser round the head of the derrick and an hour later they were back in the safety of the wheelhouse.

These two men were volunteers and the work they did was far beyond the normal duties of anyone, but as they said somebody had to do it, they were very lucky to have succeeded. I believe that they were rewarded in some way by the company and were offered promotion to Bosun on the company's ships. They deserved all this and more.

The storm raged for three more days without abating then on the fourth day the winds began to drop. When we were given the full reports that had been coming throughout the storm, we were devastated. Eleven ships had sunk in the area between the Bay of Biscay and the north of Scotland. Many of these were fishermen both French and British. Some were small coasters, and others quite large ships.

One ship, the Tresillian had disappeared in our area and a search pattern was started as soon as we were able. Additional lookouts were put on duty all around the bridge and most of the crew were also on unofficial lookout from the boat decks. This search continued throughout that day and well into the next.

There were three well-intentioned false alarms but nothing was found. I had a sick feeling in my stomach when we were informed that the Tresillian was carrying grain and the last report said that a main hatch had probably been stove in by heavy seas. I was told that when wet, the grain would quickly swell enough to split the ships sides, causing her to sink very quickly. This was not an official report but merely an assumption; we had no news at this time of any survivors.

A maintenance party was set up to check from stem to stern, taking care of urgently needed repairs. Meals consisted mainly of sandwiches and soup. Much of the crockery in the mess rooms and stores had been destroyed so things were difficult for a few days. We slowly made our way north through the Irish Sea and along the coast of Wales.

The following day we were in the river Mersey on the incoming tide heading for the lock gates, which are the entrance to Liverpool docks. Our voyage had been due to terminate at Victoria Dock London, so we would be delayed at least another week. Our bedding and mattresses were all replaced as soon as we had tied up, and any clothing, which could not easily be washed, was sent ashore for dry cleaning. All deck work was taken over by the Liverpool dockers and shipyard workers, and we were off duty most of the time in port. Repairs were being made and as I wandered round the decks, I was amazed at the extent of the damage.

This bulk of this was to the foredeck area and bridge, with the bridge windows broken, light fittings and ships rails torn away, hatch bars bent but luckily not broken, some torn tarpaulins, and all of our carefully done paintwork stripped almost to the bare steel. The jumbo derrick had luckily held ok, and once a new mast clamp had been welded into place the damaged lifting gear was removed ready for replacement.

The press was soon aboard taking photographs of the damage, it seems we had been in the news for a couple of days. The galley was in a real state, as were the mess rooms and cabins. Once the broken plates, pots and pans, etc. had been replaced the place soon took on a new appearance. Most of the crew drew an advance on their pay and went into town on a binge.

There was little sleep that night when they got back, so I joined the party in one of the cabins, accepting a couple of beers. The last thing that I remember was one of the girls that had been brought back singing her version of the hit song of the day 'Little things mean a lot', followed by 'Maggie May', and of course the inevitable, Sam's rendition of 'My Yiddish Mamma'.

Next morning everyone had a first class hangover, but there was no work to do so that didn't really matter. I was asked to go down to the engine room to collect some of the clothing belonging to the girls which had been put below to dry. They had apparently all been caught in the rain on the way back to the ship last night. They had returned from town in a taxi but when they had left it at the dock gates, they had to run for the ship. Normally the dock police are very strict about bringing 'Goods' into the docks but this time they had turned a blind eye. They knew that we were lucky to be here at all and deserved to let off some steam.

The short journey round the coast holds few memories. More severe weather was now creating problems all round the UK. Even the Queen Mary returning from the USA was delayed by gale force winds. We arrived in London at about 6am, catching the tide and we were soon tied up in the Victoria Dock. The agent came aboard early and the next thing I recall was standing in line in the ships office to receive my discharge papers and my four months wages. The deck crew then had a whip round to collect for the Peggy (Mess Boy), which is sometimes done after a trip. Bob and I had shared the job of mess boy, I had done the outward bound half and he did homeward bound so we also shared the tips between us, we would have a good Christmas on the proceeds.

At sixteen, I had already been almost halfway round the world, visiting Jamaica and Curacao, through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean. We had seen San Francisco, Los Angeles and Oakland in California, Seattle and Vancouver in Canada and I would be home tonight.

Usually when signing off a ship the crew are asked to re-sign and if they decline they are allowed a 50% paid travel warrant home. As the Parima was going into dry dock for a refit and signing all the crew off this trip we were given a free warrant for the journey home. I was travelling as far as York with Bob and the Geordie AB Steve who had signed on with us at Middlesbrough. Steve knew the way to Kings Cross Station and although it was busy on the tube, we had no problems getting there.

The next train was at ten fifty so we had time to call for a mug of tea at the station buffet. The journey to York seemed to take forever, but at last, we were there. I said goodbye to the Steve and added to Bob that we would probably sail together again as we were both on Middlesbrough pool. As things turned out, I never saw either of them again.

The Scarborough train left at four thirty and I was home just after six-o clock, in the dark, freezing cold, but it was great. Five minutes walk from the railway station and I was home.

It was Saturday 11th December 1954.

The Captain of the Parima was retiring after this trip and he had said that this was the worst storm he could recall. My first trip was now over and I wondered what the future would hold. I knew nothing of the news waiting as I walked into the house.

Chapter 13. The aftermath.

On arrival home I was shocked to learn of the Scarborough Lifeboat Disaster. Three days earlier on the 8th of December, the lifeboat had been called to escort fishing boats back to port. She had been returning to the harbour in the late afternoon when she was hit by a succession of big seas and capsized near the harbour mouth. When the lifeboat righted herself five men were in the water. The engine was quickly restarted and two men Ernie Eaves and Bob Crawford who had luckily managed to grab lifelines were brought back aboard. The Bowman Bill Sheader and Mechanic Allen Rennard brought the damaged lifeboat safely into port. As they passed the lighthouse they called out 'men washed overboard' and a search was started.

Fishermen lined the piers and the south beach in the desperate search. Lights normally used only for summer decoration were turned on to illuminate the beach and vehicles were driven onto the piers to floodlight the sea. Two men were seen in the water and wading out into the still heavy seas fellow fishermen brought them ashore. They were taken the short distance to St Thomas's Hospital on the seafront but as there were no resident doctors there, three doctors were sent from Scarborough Hospital. Artificial respiration and oxygen were given without success and doctors eventually gave up their struggle.

Later a life-jacketed figure wearing yellow oilskins was seen about 50 yards from the west pier but it was three hours before the body of Frank Bayes was recovered from the steps near the lighthouse.

This was the worst lifeboat accident in Scarborough since 1836 when ten of the twelve crew perished. In that crew was an ancestor of mine, Joseph Allen. Three of those in the crew of the 1954 disaster were also relatives of mine and although I did not know them personally I did know younger members of most of the families. I had gone to school and grown up with many of them. We had played together on the fishing boats and had often been chased from the fish pier by these same fishermen.

Monday 13th December was the day of the funeral and the town came to a standstill. The service, which had originally been planned to take place at St Thomas's Church, (The Fishermen's Church) was now considered to be too small to hold the expected congregation and it would now take place at St Mary's Parish Church and an address given by the Archbishop of York.

After the service, as the cortage made its way from St Mary's all the streets were lined with local people paying their last respects. I was with my mother as the vehicles slowly passed us laden with thousands of flowers. It was a sight I had never seen before and has rarely been seen since.

The following extract is taken from The Scarborough Evening News, 30th November 1954.


Several survivors from the crew of about 40 of a cargo ship, which sank in St George's Channel in heavy seas today, were picked up by three other vessels, which went to her aid. One ship launched a lifeboat, which searched for other survivors.

The cargo ship, the 7,373-ton Tresillian, sank 44 miles off Cork after water flooded the engine room and she had developed a list of 30 degrees.

St Just (Cornwall) coastguards said that the crew were in the sea in life jackets and lifeboats.

The first rescue vessel on the scene was the London tanker Liparus (6,473 tons). She was joined by the 1,044-ton Ardglen, from Greenock, and the Royal Mail Line steamer Parima (5,596 tons). There were no passengers on the Tresillian, which is owned by the P. and O. Line.

The following extract is taken from The Scarborough Evening News,1st December 1954.


Casualty lists issued today gave the names of 21 members of the crew of the sunken P. and O. cargo-liner Tresillian (7,373 tons) who are missing presumed dead, three more are known to be dead, and 16 survivors.

The Tresillian met her doom yesterday in a raging gale at the part where the Bristol Channel and the Irish Sea meet.

Among the dead is the captain, Capt. W. J. Winter (59), of Carlton Terrace, Trodyrhiw, Glamorgan. He and another dead man were taken, with 12 survivors, on board the tanker Liparus to Cobh, Co. Cork.

One dead man and four survivors were taken to Milford Haven by the Ardglen.

Two of the 12 survivors taken to Cobh were rushed to hospital. The other 10 will fly from Dublin to London tonight.

The following extract is taken from The Scarborough Evening News, 9th December 1954.

THREE DIE AS LIFEBOAT OVERTURNS. Two Hauled Back on Board in South Bay Storm.

The sea claimed the lives of three members of the crew when Scarborough Lifeboat was overturned by gale-lashed waves in the south bay yesterday afternoon as she was making way for the harbour after five hours' escort duty for fishing-vessels.

JACK SHEADER (63), coxswain, who was washed ashore on the south beach and found to be dead on arrival at Scarborough Hospital.

JACK CAMMISH (55), second coxswain, on whom doctors worked for more than an hour and a half in a vain effort to save his life after he too had been washed up on the beach.

FRANK BAYES (29), the signalman, whose body was recovered from the sea near the Harbour entrance more than three hours after the lifeboat capsized.

Also thrown out of the lifeboat, but hauled back on board by their colleagues, when she righted herself after turning a complete circle were Ernest Eaves (30), of 28 St. Sepulchre Street, and Robert Crawford (34), of 29 Cook's Row, two scratch members of the crew.

And the tragic irony of the incident was that the fishing vessels, which the lifeboat had gone out to escort, had been taken safely into port either at Scarborough or Whitby.

The lifeboat was lying off the Castle Hill in a south-easterly gale when she received a radio message stating that the last overdue Scarborough fishing-vessels, Courage, Mary and Pilot Me, were in Whitby Harbour.

The lifeboat was making a wide turn ready for the run-in towards the Harbour entrance, when she was hit broadside on by two huge waves and overturned.

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