Shipwrecks in St Andrews Bay

The wreck of the Wilhelmina.
The wreck of the Wilhelmina.
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As the year draws to a close, St Andrews historian Jimmy Bone looks back 100 years to when shipwrecks were in the news, not least the tragedy of the Titanic which sank on April 14/15, 1912, just four days into her maiden voyage across the North Atlantic. Closer to home, St Andreans witnessed their own dramas in St Andrews Bay . . . 

ONE hundred years ago, shipwrecks both international and local were making the headlines.

In April 1912 the “unsinkable” RMS Titanic was sunk after hitting an iceberg in the Atlantic.

There were 2206 people on board, including 900 crew, although the actual capacity was 3350. Strangely, there was room for only 1178 in her 20 lifeboats.

Only 703 people survived the disaster with much heroism being shown in some quarters and disregard for life in others. J. Arthur Elliot, whose 24-year-old son, Everett Edward Elliot, a crew member, perished that night wrote a poem in his memory.

A few lines of that poem form part of the inscription on the memorial stone at the cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and reads: “Each man stood at his post while all the weaker ones went by and showed once more how Englishmen should die.”

There was a much happier outcome in October of 1912 when the lives of all crew members of two ships that foundered in St Andrews Bay were saved.

St Andrews had every reason to be proud of her lifeboat and gallant crew when on Sunday, September 29, they succeeded in rescuing three men from a fishing boat.

On Tuesday October 1, they effected the rescue this time of nine men from a Swedish barque, which had been drawn on to the rocks near the castle.

During the previous week there had been a fine spell of weather. It had been enjoyed with little indication that a heavy storm was brewing.

A gale sprang up on the Saturday evening and blew all night and on the Sunday the bay was flecked with white breakers. Around 2 o’clock on the Sunday the firing of a lifeboat rocket indicated that someone was in danger in the bay and hundreds of locals rushed to the Kirkhill and pier to witness the rescue.

A fishing smack was seen making heavy weather in the waves about a mile off Kinkell Braes.

Coxswain Chisholm and his crew launched the lifeboat and rowed through the breakers at the harbour entrance and then set their sails to reach the doomed boat. They arrived just in time as the craft, having already lost its rudder, had now parted anchor and was at the mercy of the waves.

The fishermen were hauled on board the lifeboat and were transported safely ashore after the vessel had successfully negotiated some tricky swell and tide conditions to the applause of the cheering crowds on the quayside.

The wrecked boat was the sparling fishing smack, Resolute, No850 from Leith. It was completely wrecked on the rocks at the Kinkell Braes, although some of the belongings of the sailors were recovered - including the artificial leg of the skipper!

On Tuesday morning, October 1, the coastguards observed that a three-masted barque had become embayed. A strong north east gale was blowing and it seemed impossible that the barque could weather the storm.

The lifeboat and rocket brigade turned out in readiness should they be required. The ship parted her anchor around 8.30am and started drifting helplessly towards the rocks at the castle.

She struck the rocks and although the waves were breaking over her, stood the strain well. Many onlookers who had gathered to witness the drama were fearing this might be a repeat of the loss of the Merlin in 1881, which in similar circumstances resulted in the loss of her crew of 11.

The rocket brigade fired a trial shot over the stricken vessel, but the line could not be secured. The lifeboat, John and Sarah Hatfield, had already launched and with great difficulty was alongside and able to rescue all nine members of the crew.

The lifeboat and rescued sailors were then landed at the West Sands where W.J. Rusack took the captain and the mate to his home, while Mr Black, the slater, South Street, provided lodgings for the rest of the crew. The barque was the Princess Wilhelmina of Halmnstad, Sweden.

She had left Finland on September 12 with a cargo of timber for Dundee. The Tay pilot had been unable to come aboard because of the weather and the Princess Wilhelmina had put to sea again where she was overcome by the prevailing weather conditions.

The tide eventually lifted the wreck from the rocks at the castle and she was beached at the West Sands. Her cargo was washed out and strewn along the shore.

Coxswain Chisholm and his crew were highly praised for their gallant efforts in successfully rescuing all the crew of the wrecked ship.

There was another happy ending when the ship’s cat was found in the bed of the second mate during a search of the beached vessel and the soggy moggy was amazingly little worse for the experience.

The RNLI awarded James Chisholm, the coxswain, a silver medal and vellum, along with a monetary award to him and each member of crew. Captain Johnsson, of the Princess Wilhelmina, presented Mr Chisholm with two handsome chairs which had graced his cabin and one is in the possession of the St Andrews Preservation Trust Museum.