I remember the 31st of January 1950 for two events in my life, firstly I had never felt so cold before in my life or since. Yet on that same day I saw the bravest act I have ever witnessed.We left Antwerp on the steam tug Rumania (owned by William Watkins Ltd) with a German ship in tow, bound for Hamburg on the 28th January 1950. The weather was good for the first two days but on the third turned foul on us. We were making very little headway against a severe gale. The wind was whipping the seas up causing a lot of spray. It was so cold the salt water spray was freezing on our casing, our gunwales were covered in ice and our decks awash.
On the day concerned, January 31st, we picked up a distress signal from a ship in trouble not far from us. I cannot remember our exact position but do know we were not far from the Elbe one lightship. The ship in trouble turned out to be a German coaster. When we arrived at her position she was on her beam ends, her crew of sixteen were standing on her side. We had not slipped our tow, firstly she was unmanned and would have became a hazard to shipping, and secondly, thinking back she probably acted as a drogue and kept us steady.
Soon after sighting the vessel (we later found out her name was Fidamus) foundered, her crew being thrown into the icy sea. Our Skipper (Capt H Griffiths) had positioned every man on board, with the exception of the man at the wheel and the two men on watch below, at strategic positions around the tug. We were armed with lifebuoys, heaving lines, boathooks – anything a man could grab hold of. We even had a boarding net over the side. There was no question of trying to put a boat over the side in such atrocious conditions. In fact the nature of the tug’s build with her low freeboard made her a better platform for rescue than a ships boat.
Fortunately we were down wind of Fidamus enabling her crew to drift down on us. Of the sixteen crew we managed to get eight on board, exactly half the crew. If only they had lifejackets on and lashed themselves together, we may have got them all onboard. I don’t think they would have all survived – but feel convinced more than eight would have lived.
Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - January 2011 Issue
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