On 25 December, 1966, 12 of the 25-strong crew of the Hull trawler St Finbarr died in an explosion off Newfoundland. Brian W Lavery tells their story
St Finbarr’s final trip was plagued by bad luck from the start.
She took 14 days battling atrocious weather to get to Newfoundland’s Grand Banks – a trip usually done in half that time.
Electrical faults reported from previous trips caused three delays before she even set sail from Hull’s St Andrew’s Dock on 16 November, 1966.
On her maiden voyage in late 1964, St Finbarr, the most expensive Hull trawler ever built at £500,000, smashed the national record, hauling in 488t and 17 hundredweight, and had continued to achieve record hauls since. The press dubbed her ‘the perfect trawler’.
Hull Daily Mail shipping correspondent Robert S Wellings noted at the time: “The name of a little-known Irish saint who died more than 1,300 years ago will soon be coming easily to the lips of Hull trawlermen.
“They will use it when they talk about the big, 230ft all-freeze stern trawler which will glide into the Clyde at the yard of Ferguson Brothers (Port Glasgow) Ltd, tomorrow.
“The trawler is for the saintly named fleet of Thomas Hamling and Co Ltd, Hull and at the launching ceremony Miss Alanah Watson Hall, daughter of the company’s chairman and managing director, will name it St Finbarr. Appropriately – but by coincidence – the launch is taking place on the day after St Finbarr’s commemoration day.”
Ironically, it was St Andrew’s Day (the patron saint of fishermen) – 30 November – when she reached the Newfoundland fishing grounds on her thirteenth and final trip.
She had endured 38 days of foul weather, from Yorkshire’s Spurn Point to the storm-lashed grounds of the Grand Banks.
Skipper Tommy Sawyer, a hard taskmaster, pushed his ship and her crew to the limit, filling the fish holds – and the crew were looking forward to another bumper round of ‘film star’ wages.
Fishing was forced to a halt on 24 December when the nets were damaged and needed repair. Skipper Sawyer told his men to go below and rest before the next haul, apart from those on watch and those working on the nets.
The weather worsened. Around 4am, as it was now Christmas Day, he sent the mate round to hand out some beer and whisky to the crew.
At 7.30am, Skipper Sawyer – who had now been working for almost 18 hours – took a panicked call from below decks. Seconds later, the ship’s assistant cook Dave Whitaker appeared on the bridge shouting: “Fire!”
Skipper Sawyer lifted his radiophone and managed to get a hurried Mayday out. The Hull stern trawler Orsino, commanded by Skipper Eddie Wooldridge, which was five miles away, confirmed receipt and headed towards the stricken trawler.
A fraction of a second after broadcasting the Mayday, Skipper Sawyer was blown out of the wheelhouse window by a fireball explosion. He landed unconscious on the casing below. The melted plastic receiver of his telephone was still burning in his hand.
When he came to, he knew no one below could have survived, but still tried to get back below, only to be driven back by the intense heat. He could see a dozen or so panicking men in various stages of undress on the aft decks.
He went towards them and fought to calm the men as he decided his next move. Launching the lifeboat was impossible; the men kept getting shocks from it, as its davit and frame were live with electricity.
Skipper Sawyer decided to get the smaller liferafts launched, one either side. The men were slow and clumsy – a symptom of frostbite – and this, coupled with exhaustion, led to them losing the raft from the starboard side.
It was freezing, there were high winds and turbulent seas, and the remaining liferaft was their only hope.
Twelve men managed to get away in that raft – and at 9.30am were cast off to drift over to the Orsino. Two men – radio operator Tommy Gray and greaser Harry ‘Curly’ Smith – perished when they fell from the rope ladder used to board the Orsino as she was thrown around in the storm.
The skipper, mate Walter Collier and chief engineer Hughie Williams bravely stayed with the St Finbarr, and sheltered exhausted in the net loft.
An hour later, another Hull trawler, the Sir Fred Parkes, fired a line across with a liferaft containing warm clothing, but the trio were too weak to pull it aboard.
A rescue party from the Orsino later managed to board the St Finbarr. At first, Orsino mate Bryan Lee feared the three men were dead when he found them unconscious in the net loft, but he managed to revive them with brandy and warm clothing, having had to cut their old clothes from them.
Fire was still spreading through the St Finbarr, and there was a constant risk of further explosions.
At about 4pm, the boarding party returned to the blazing ship and fixed a towline. Skipper Sawyer and 12 of his crew were now safe aboard the Orsino, which began to tow the stricken trawler, stern first, the 240 miles towards St Johns, Newfoundland, at a dead slow pace.
Back in Hull, there was fear and confusion. Rumours and exaggerated jungle telegraph tales abounded in the pubs and clubs on Hessle Road, in the heart of the fishing community.
On Christmas Day evening, Reverend David MacMillan was dispatched from the local Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen by the vessel owners to tell the families the limited amount they knew; that there had been an explosion, and some men might have died.
The Mission man and his volunteers went to prepare the families for anything they might hear on radio or TV later, and to urge them not to listen to gossip.
It was 2am on Boxing Day when Reverend MacMillan got back to his office, only to be sent out again following a call from the owners.
This time the clergyman had good news – but for only 13 families. It was now known that 12 men had perished, and that the ship was under tow.
But after two days battling severe weather, the towline parted and the St Finbarr sank rapidly. The vessels were less than 30 miles from shore. Orsino skipper Eddie Wooldridge informed the owners – Hamling’s of Hull and Lloyd’s of London – by radio telegram. Because Christmas that year fell on a Sunday, there were no newspapers until 28 December. In a dispatch from Newfoundland sent on 27 December, headlined ‘Blazing trawler sinks in gale’, Victor Davis of the Daily Express wrote: “In Britain it was the quiet disaster… not until tonight did details of the Christmas morning disaster in the gale-swept Atlantic leak through.”
The survivors came home around a week later. At a press conference in Canada, Skipper Sawyer told of the tragic deaths of the two crewmen who fell during the rescue.
“Two other men died within feet of safety. They fell back into the water as they tried to get aboard the Orsino. Both died from cold. My God, it was a freezing hell out there.”
Skipper Eddie Wooldridge, whose supreme seamanship saved so many of the men, said: “The hull of the St Finbarr was white hot and the bridge a mass of flames, when we took Skipper Sawyer and the mate.
“The fire swept over the ship in seconds. The rescue of the first part of the crew took three-quarters of an hour. The skipper, mate and chief engineer had stayed aboard a further four hours.
“Conditions were terrible for the rescue. Big seas were running, and water froze as it touched. The men’s legs hung in frozen water [in the raft].”
Skipper Wooldridge also spoke of the dying seconds of the St Finbarr after the 48-hour towing effort failed. “We towed her for half an hour with her bow under the water, then she went right down and turned to starboard.”
But perhaps the most poignant quote came from St Finbarr’s cook Harry Prince, who told reporters: “We must be the luckiest 13 men in the world.”
A year later, a Board of Trade enquiry found that a build-up of explosive gas from melting overloaded wire casings caused the blast that destroyed the St Finbarr.
The court also heard that there had been a series of small fires and electrical failures throughout the final voyage, and on previous trips too. These had been ignored by the owners, in spite of warnings from the crew.
The most dramatic admission of that hearing came when Skipper Sawyer and mate Walter Collier admitted that fire drills had never been carried out, so they could catch more fish. Both men admitted having faked reports in the log to say the drills had taken place.
But the hearing also put on record its appreciation of the extraordinary courage of the skipper and his crew. Skipper Sawyer upheld the tradition of being the last to leave the stricken vessel, having done his very best for the men under his command.
Skipper Tommy Sawyer went on to have a long and distinguished career, becoming one of the most respected of trawler skippers of the Hull fleet.
Skipper Eddie Wooldridge and the men of the Orsino had their courageous rescue mission celebrated at an event held by trawler bosses later in the year. It is impossible to overstate the courage and seamanship demonstrated by these remarkable men in the most extreme circumstances.
The 1966 Christmas Day disaster was overtaken in the public consciousness little more than a year later when, in the opening weeks of 1968, three Hull trawlers – the St Romanus, the Kingston Peridot and the Ross Cleveland – sank within three weeks of one another in what became known as the ‘Dark Winter’, killing 58 men.
Those tragedies sparked a campaign led by Lillian Bilocca, aka ‘Big Lil’, who inspired a fishwives’ army who later became known as ‘The Headscarf Revolutionaries’.
Their successful fight for better safety at sea culminated in a march on parliament – a story that took Vietnam off the front pages.
The author wishes to thank Ron Smith, whose father died on the St Finbarr, the family of the late George Lee and the Hull Daily Mail for their kind permission to reproduce the images.
This story was taken from the archives of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here.