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An Insight into the Dramas, Tragedies and Follies around the coasts of Guernsey, Alderney & Sark 

by Ray Dafter

Ray Dafter

Author and journalist Ray Dafter has provided Island Life with this insight into some of the maritime dramas, tragedies, and follies around the coasts of Guernsey, Alderney and Sark. Following extensive research, Ray has written and published “Guernsey Wrecks: Shipwrecks around Guernsey, Alderney and Sark”, a fascinating account of these islands’ maritime history, embracing the most comprehensive details of shipwrecks and disasters ever published. Well over 800 wrecks are recorded and detailed. You can find details of the book on his website: www.matfieldbooks.com Email: rmdcoms@aol.com



It is perhaps inevitable that given its maritime traditions, strong tides, rocky outcrops and extremes of weather – from ferocious winds to blanket fog – the bailiwick of Guernsey has witnessed many shipwrecks throughout the centuries.

Some of the earliest ones – such as “Asterix”, the Gallo-Roman ship found in St Peter Port harbour – have come to our notice thanks to careful research by local divers and marine archaeologists. “Asterix”, which is believed to have sank in the early 280s AD, was discovered in 1982 by Guernsey diver Richard Keen. Very little cargo has been recovered to give a clue to her mission but evidence suggests the vessel, some 25 metres long, was a coaster that had sailed from western Gaul. The final resting place of this merchant vessel is perhaps not surprising given that archaeologists have now established that St Peter Port lies on the site of a former Roman town.

Another relatively recent discovery was the important “Elizabethan Wreck” in Alderney. Its whereabouts was first discovered in the 1970s by Alderney fisherman Bertie Cosheril but it was not until 1991 that members of a local dive club decided to investigate the site in detail. It quickly became apparent that they had identified an important wreck dating back to Elizabethan times, soon after the Spanish Armada.  Lost between 1588 and 1600, the vessel was armed with at least 11 cannons. This would seem to tie in with a letter from Sir John Norris, who was leading the English army in Brittany between 1591 and 1594. Sir John wrote in 1592 about “a shyyp that was cast away about Alderney” although the Alderney Maritime Trust says it is still unable to confirm that the “Elizabethan Wreck” was the one lost by Sir John.

A few decades earlier, in 1566, a pirate vessel - John of Sandwich - had been wrecked on the coast of Guernsey. Her crew managed to scramble ashore, only to be arrested. Having confessed their guilt they were lodged in the prison of Castle Cornet to await “Her Majesty’s pleasure”. Queen Elizabeth apparently determined that some of the crew had been deceived into thinking they were on commercial, rather than piratical voyages and they were set free. But the captain, Richard Higgins, was found to have followed a “most horrible and detestable” life and had conducted “divers and sundry piracies”. He was hanged at St Martin’s Point.

In later years Guernsey was to feature prominently as both the providers and provisioners of privateers, unlike piracy a legal activity licensed by the Crown. Sadly some of these armed merchant vessels met their fate in shipping tragedies, including Fame wrecked on Castle Rocks, Guernsey in 1805. Her demise was described by the “Naval Chronicle” as a “National loss and a serious misfortune to her public-spirited owners who had fitted her out at great expense in the most complete style as a private ship of war”.

Down the centuries thousands of sailors have lost their lives as vessels of all types have come to grief, from the grandest of naval battleships and magnificent East Indiamen, to the humblest fishing boat and pleasure craft.

Perhaps the most significant – and in some ways most mysterious – wreck is that of HMS Victory, the precursor of Nelson’s famous ship. This flagship of the British fleet was homeward bound from the Mediterranean, after skirmishing with the French fleet, when - in the autumn of 1744 - she became separated from the accompanying vessels. She sank after striking the Black Rock on the Casquets off Alderney. Not a soul survived; no fewer than 1,100 officers and ratings perished. It remains a mystery how HMS Victory - commanded by an Admiral and manned with a specially selected crew - became separated from the rest of the fleet  and was lost without a single survivor. 

Undoubtedly the most famous and tragic wreck was that of the Stella, dubbed the “Titanic of the Channel Islands” that sank in March 1899 after striking the very same Black Rock on the Casquets.  About 100 lives were lost. Stella was a London and SWR steamer sailing from Southampton to Guernsey. While a Board of Trade investigation could not find that the ship had been racing other passenger vessels - a practice that had become notorious among rival steamer companies - it did conclude that the Master was at fault for steaming too fast in thick fog in the treacherous seas around the Casquets.

The dramatic rescue operation was notable for some acts of outstanding bravery, none more than that displayed by stewardess Mrs Mary Ann Rogers who gave up her life belt and place in a lifeboat so that passengers could be saved. Mrs Rogers was last seen lifting her arms upwards, imploring: “Lord have me.”

One of the most unusual vessels to be driven on to Guernsey’s rocks must surely be the oil drilling rig Orion.  The rig, welded to a barge, was being towed from Rotterdam to Brazil on the night of 1 February 1978  when in near-hurricane conditions the towline snapped under the strain. The 19,000 ton rig was driven on to Grandes Rocques, putting the 33 men on board in peril. In a dramatic air and sea rescue operation all were saved…some by the skin of their teeth. A crewman was catapulted into the raging sea as a scrambling net became caught on an anchor fluke. A lifeboat was badly damaged when she was lifted on a wave, crashing into the underside of the rig’s helicopter platform. In the event - and after a month-long salvage operation - the rig was also saved.

The bailiwick’s maritime history is rich in tales of tragic deaths, super-human endurance, and heroic rescues - especially by those in the lifeboat service. (Coxswain John Petit, hero of the Orion rescue had featured in many other dramas, just like his  father Coxswain Hubert Petit.) But there have also been some lighter moments.

Wrecked vessels often provided islanders with some rich pickings as a variety of cargoes were washed ashore. In some cases looters helped themselves from stranded ships. The four-masted Liverpool, one of the largest and most beautiful ships to come to grief, provided those living on Alderney in 1902 with an array of goods from sardines to cognac. Four years later an abundance of sowing machines resulted from the wreck of the Leros, again in Alderney.  It is reported that Singer Sewing Machine Company was so upset at losing so much stock, it cancelled all the spare parts for the lost machines.

But it was the wreck of the Briseis in Guernsey on a calm October day in 1937 that left the most lasting impression - and mass hangover. The ship was carrying 7,000 casks of Algerian wine. The result, according to the local newspaper, was “amazing scenes of drunkenness, free fights and encounters with the law”. It was reported that the more sophisticated islanders took their wine glasses to sample the wine.   

As a reminder that shipping accidents can happen in the most unexpected of circumstances, we conclude with the incident of the steamer Alert in the spring of 1910. The vessel had been chartered by the Pilotage Committee for a voyage during which three officers were to attempt their pilotage examinations. On board was the committee - ships captains in their own right - as well as a number of favoured guests.  In spite of (or, maybe, because of) all this maritime talent, the vessel struck Boue Sarre rock off the Hanois. Somewhat alarmingly, all the candidates passed their examinations, prompting the magazine “John Bull” to comment: “Pity they didn’t pass the rock”.

 

Author: Ray Dafter

 

Price £14.95

Available from Amazon.co.uk

 
 
 
 
 
 

  

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