Read CHAPTER X of Heroes of the Goodwin Sands , free online book, by Thomas Stanley Treanor, on


The leak we’ve found, it cannot pour fast;
We’ve lightened her a foot or more
Up and rig a jury foremast,
She rights! She rights, boys! Wear off shore!

The case of the Mandalay here recorded so far resembles that of the Royal Arch and of the Edina, that in all three cases the vessels, the cargoes, and the lives of all on board, were saved by the Deal lifeboatmen, and by their courage and seamanlike skill, and intimate local knowledge of the Goodwins and other places and sands in their dangerous vicinity, brought safe to port. The Royal Arch was drifting at night from her anchorage in the Downs, in an easterly gale towards the surf-beaten shore. The Edina was in the most imminent peril on the edge of the Brake Sand. The Mandalay was on the Goodwins itself, and to save a vessel and her cargo from the Goodwins is no easy task.

On December 13, 1889, the Mandalay was passing the North Sand Head lightship a little after midnight. She was outward bound from Middlesbrough to the River Plate with a cargo of railway iron sleepers. They hailed the lightship as its great lantern rapidly flashed close to them, but the reply was lost in the plash of the sea and the flap of the sails and the different noises of a ship in motion. At any rate the Mandalay mistook her bearings, and managed to get into the very heart of the Goodwin Sands.

In the darkness she probably sailed into what is called the Ramsgate Man’s Bight, though this is only a conjecture. This bight is a swatchway of deep water, and the Mandalay then struck the Sands on the eastern jaw of another channel into the Goodwins. This swatchway runs N.E. and S.W., and leads from the deep water outside the Goodwins into the inmost recesses of the Sands; that is, into a shallowish bay called Trinity Bay; and it is much harder to get out of this bay than to get in, like many a scrape of another kind. The swatchway leading into Trinity Bay was about seven fathoms deep, but only fifty fathoms or one hundred yards wide. On the eastern bank or jaw of this channel the Mandalay ran aground. She ran aground at nearly high water, when all was covered with the sea, on a fine, calm night, there being no surf or ripple or noise to indicate the shallow water or the deadly proximity of the Goodwin Sands.

Some of the crew were on deck the man at the wheel aft would take a sight of the compass gleaming in the light of the binnacle lamp, and then cast his eye aloft, where the main truck was circling among the stars, as the ship gently swung along with a light N.W. breeze. Others of the crew were below and had turned in, ’their midnight fancies wrapped in golden dreams,’ when the grating sound of contact with the Sands was heard. Then came, ’Turn out, men! All hands on deck! We’re aground on the Goodwins!’

Efforts were made to box the ship off by backing and swinging the yards and trimming the sails, but all to no purpose, and then flares and torches to summon help were lighted. These at once caught the notice of the look-out men on the lightships, and drew from those vessels the guns and rockets, the usual signals of distress. As the sea was smooth there was no present danger for the Mandalay, but wind and sea rise suddenly on the Goodwins, and no one could foresee what might happen.

The Deal coxswain was roused by the coastguard; he saw the flash of the distant guns and rockets, and having obtained a crew launched at 1.30 a.m., the weather being hazy with frost. They reached the Gull lightship, and heard there that the vessel ashore lay E.N.E. from them. They steered in that direction, gazing into the darkness and listening for sounds or shouts or guns, and at last, about 3 a.m., found the vessel, her flares having gone out. In spite of the efforts of those on board, she was sidling more and more on to the Sands, and settling further into them.

The lifeboat anchored and veered down as usual to the stranded vessel, and the coxswain got on board: then morning came, and with it low water, when there would be not more than two feet of water round the Mandalay and the lifeboat, which latter was at that depth of water just aground. The lifeboat remained by the vessel, to insure the safety of the crew in case of possible change of weather. About midday, as the tide began to rise over the Goodwins, the lifeboat and her crew were employed by the captain to do their best to save the vessel.

The lifeboat was now on the port bow of the Mandalay, which lay fast on the Sands with her head to the S.W., and the coxswains laid out a kedge or small anchor, with warp attached, to the N.E., five of the lifeboatmen remaining in the lifeboat with Roberts, the coxswain, to direct the course of action on the Sands, while Hanger, the second coxswain, went on board with seven lifeboatmen to direct operations there, and to heave on the warp, in order to move the vessel. Just then a tug-boat hove in sight, and as the sea was calm, she backed in and made fast her hawser to the Mandalay, at the captain’s desire. Though all on board heaved their best on the warp, and the tug-boat Bantam Cock made every effort, they were unable to move the Mandalay from her perilous position, and the tug-boat then gave the matter up as a bad job and later in the evening went away.

It was now about 3 p.m., and the tide was again falling when the lugger Champion, of Ramsgate, appeared and anchored in the swatchway spoken of above. Some of her crew also went on board the Mandalay, and under the directions and advice of Roberts and Hanger, the two Deal coxswains, who were determined to win, all hands turned to throwing overboard the cargo to lighten the vessel. They thus jettisoned about two hundred tons of iron sleepers working at this job till midnight and threw it over the right or starboard side of the ship, where it lay in a great mass. It was never recovered, though every effort was afterwards made to save it. It had been engulfed and disappeared in the Goodwins’ capacious maw.

The men of the lifeboat, now cold, wearied, and hungry, managed to get an exceedingly frugal meal of tea and some bread and meat, and about 4 or 5 p.m. the light N.W. breeze fell away to a calm. Towards 7 p.m. the Champion lugger at anchor hoisted her light, to indicate the channel or swatchway by which the Mandalay would have to come out if ever she moved at all. The wind now came strong from the S.W. and then backed to S. and by W., and there was heard the far-off moan of breaking surf, making it plain that there was a heavy sea rolling in from the S.W. on a distant point of the Sands. The sea was evidently coming before the wind, ‘the moon looked,’ the men said, ’as if she was getting up contrary,’ and Roberts said, ’We’ll have trouble before morning.’ At 10 p.m. the wind came. The calm was ’but the grim repose of the winter whirlwind,’ and it soon blew a gale from the S.W. Before this some Deal galley punts had also wisely made their way for the shore, and the lifeboat and the Champion lugger were left alone on the scene than which nothing could now be wilder. Fortunately another tug-boat, the Cambria, had anchored about 7 p.m. in deep water outside the Goodwins, as close as was prudent to the swatchway before described; but the inevitable struggle was regarded with the greatest anxiety by all hands, notwithstanding the proffered help of the tug-boat and the lightening of the ship.

About midnight the rising tide had again covered the Goodwins, but the surface, no longer fair and calm, was now lashed into fury by the gale. The seas were breaking everywhere, and as the moon emerged from behind a flying cloud, far as the eye could see was one sheet of tumbling, raging breakers, except the narrow channel in which the brave Champion rode with her guiding light, plunging heavily even in the deep channel. But the most furious sea raged on the western jaw of the deep swatchway; there currents and cross seas met, and the breakers rose up and clashed and struck together in weightier masses and with especial fury. Now a black cloud covered the moon, and again as it swept away came the clear moonlight, but in the darkness and in the moonlight the scene was equally tremendous.

As the water deepened round the ship, sea after sea broke over her with such increasing fury that the work of jettisoning the cargo, which had been carried on under great difficulties, had to be given up, and the hatches had to be put on and battened down tight, to keep the ship from filling. The same seas that broke over the Mandalay also struck and buried the lifeboat as she rode alongside to the full scope of her cable, and as each breaker went roaring past she as regularly freed herself from the water which had been hurled into her the moment before.

At one o’clock this wild winter morning the time came for a final effort to float the ship; and the steam-tug Cambria that had been waiting outside the Sands now moved in, and, guided by the riding light of the Champion lugger, anchored for this purpose in the swatchway, was cautiously manoeuvred in through the narrow channel, and feeling her way with the lead at great risk came even into the broken water in which the Mandalay was lying. This broken water was only fourteen or fifteen feet deep, and though barely enough to float the tug-boat in a sort of raging smother of froth, was not deep enough to float the Mandalay, which required three feet more and still lay firm as a rock, and, like a tide-washed rock, was swept by the seas which were flying over her.

Directed by the second coxswain, attempts were now made to get the Cambria’s steel hawser on board the vessel, and in the boiling turmoil the Cambria came dangerously near the heap of jettisoned iron on the starboard side of the Mandalay. It will be plain that without the presence of the lifeboat and her crew in case of disaster, all other efforts to save the ship would have been paralysed, and indeed would never have been attempted. Without the lifeboat, no tug-boat, or any other boat, would have dared to venture into that fearful labyrinth of sand and surf.

The hawser was got on board after an hour’s struggle, and made fast to the Mandalay’s starboard bow; but though the Mandalay rolled and bumped she was not moved from her sandy bed. It was almost impossible for those on board to keep their feet as she struck the sand and as the seas swept her decks. The position of the tug on the starboard side of the Mandalay was so perilous that it was decided to bring her across the bows of the vessel to her port side; and this was done with great difficulty against the gale and sea continually becoming heavier. Creeping round the bows of the Mandalay the tug-boat came, and in doing so crossed the cable of the lifeboat with her hawser, and therefore the lifeboat’s cable had to be slipped at once, and she had to be made fast to and ride alongside the Mandalay.

Still round came the tug, and getting into deeper water of about three or three and a half fathoms, after a most hazardous and gallant passage through the breakers round the vessel, set her engines going full speed ahead. The seas now struck and bumped the Mandalay so heavily that, in spite of all efforts to save her, she was in a most critical position, and at the same time a great disaster nearly occurred. The great steel hawser of the tug, as she strained all her powers, was now tautening and slackening, and then, as steam strove for the mastery against the storm, again tightening with enormous force till it became like a rigid iron bar. It vibrated and swung alongside the lifeboat, which could not get out of the way, and dared not leave the vessel return to which, had the lifeboat once slipped her anchor, against wind and tide would have been impossible; and their comrades’ lives, and those of all, depended on their standing by the vessel. Though the gallant coxswain did all that man could do to combat this new danger, still with a terrific jerk the steel hawser got right under the lifeboat, hoisting her, in spite of her great weight, clean out of the water.

Aided by an awful breaker, whose tumultuous and raging advance was seen afar in the moonlight, this powerful jerk of the tightening hawser, which had got under the very keel of the lifeboat, lifted her up so high that she struck in her descent, with her ponderous iron keel or very undermost part of the lifeboat, the top rail of the Mandalay’s bulwarks. The marvel is how she escaped being turned right over by the shock. The next day I saw with astonishment the crushed woodwork where this mighty blow had been struck.

The lifeboat’s rudder was smashed and her great stern post sprung, and one of the crew that remained in her was also injured, but still Roberts held on to the ship. At this critical moment Hanger, seeing the lifeboat’s safety was endangered, and regarding it as a question of saving not only his comrades’ lives but the lives of all, most reluctantly gave orders to cut the steel hawser of the tug, which was made fast on board the vessel. This would have of course sacrificed all the trouble and risk that had been incurred; another tug-boat had also crept up on the starboard bow to help the first, and efforts were being made to get her hawser too on board; in fact, success and safety seemed almost within their grasp, but it was a matter of life or death, and one of the Deal men, obeying orders, seized an axe and hewed and struck with all his might at the steel hawser, which was still endangering the lifeboat.

Strand after wire strand was divided, when a great sea came and the vessel trembled from her keel to her truck, and all hands had to hold on for life. Down again came the axe, as the sea went by. But its edge was blunted and it cut slowly, as the wielder doubled his efforts in reply to the shouts, ‘Cut the hawser, or the lifeboat’s lost!’

A confused struggle was now going on; some were passing the second tug-boat’s hawser on board, and some were trying, under pressure of dire necessity, to cut the hawser by which the Cambria tug was straining at the vessel, and still the terrible hawser got under the lifeboat, and still the axeman strove vainly with a blunted axe to divide the hawser.

Another sea came racing at the vessel. It lifted her off the Sands, and thumped her down with such fury that Hanger said, ’The bottom is coming out of her!’

Just then, holding on to prevent himself falling, he looked at the compass, ‘Great heavens! She’s moving! She’s slewing, lads!’ he said; the axeman threw down his useless axe, and again came a sea, lifting up the vessel and her iron cargo as if she had been a feather. Had she struck the bottom as violently as before, her masts must have gone over with a crash into the lifeboat, but the lift of this overwhelming sea was at the very instant aided by the strain of the tug-boat’s hawser, exerting enormous force, though divided almost in twain, and the vessel’s head was torn round to the east and, ’Hurrah! my lads! she’s off!’ was heard from the undaunted but wearied battlers with the storm.

The hawser of the second tug-boat had been passed shortly before this with extreme danger both to that tug-boat, the Iona, and to the lifeboatmen working forwards to make it fast, on the slippery footing of the deck. The strain of the second tug-boat was now felt by the moving vessel, and then came the scrapes and the crunches and the thumps as she was pulled over the sand towards the deep swatchway. Her head sails were set, to pay her head off still more, and at last the victorious tug-boats pulled her safe into the swatchway, accompanied by the lifeboat.

On the left or western jaw, it will be remembered, the most terrific sea was running, and the tug-boat approached this awful turmoil too closely. Fortunately, Roberts saw the danger, and shouted from the lifeboat, ‘Port your helm! Hard a-port! or you’re into the breakers!’ Hanger on board, with answering readiness, set the great spanker of the vessel, and forced her head up to the north-east, barely clearing the Champion and her invaluable riding light; and at last the Mandalay was towed through the narrow swatch, on either side of which roared the hungry breakers, baulked of their prey by human skill and perseverance and dauntless British pluck.

Some time before emerging from the death-trap, as the spot where the Mandalay grounded might well be called, and when in the very most anxious and critical part of the struggle, the moon broke out from behind a great dark cloud, and there was seen struggling and labouring in the gale a ship whose sails caught the moonlight. She shone out vividly against the black background, but the lifeboatmen were horrified to see that, attracted by the lights of the Champion, she was heading straight for the terrible sea on the western jaw of the swatch, where she apparently thought she would find safe anchorage in company with other vessels.

The North Deal coxswain expected to see her strike, and had decided, in his mind, to get his crew from the Mandalay on board, and then rush through the breakers to the doomed vessel, and having rescued her crew, to return with the help of one of the tug-boats to the Mandalay; but, fortunately, this catastrophe was averted by the humane and generous action of the captain of the tug-boat Bantam Cock, who went at full speed within hail, and warned the unsuspecting vessel of the terrible danger so near her.

We can almost fancy we hear the hoarse shouts from the tug-boat of ‘Breakers ahead!’ ‘Goodwins under your lee!’ and then the rattling and the thunderous noise of the sails, and the creaking of the yards and braces, as the vessel swings round on the other tack into safety.

The Mandalay was then towed out of the swatchway by the Cambria into deep water, and round the Goodwin Sands, with the lifeboat alongside her, into the anchorage of the Downs by the half-divided hawser. Had the axe’s edge been keener, or had a few more blows been struck, or a few more strands severed, or had the masts of the vessel crashed into the lifeboat, or the lifeboat been capsized by the hawser’s mighty jerks, how different a tale would have been told!

But it is our happy privilege to record the successful issue of thirty-five hours’ struggle against the terrors of a winter’s gale on the Goodwin Sands, and of doing some small justice to the seamanlike skill and daring of the Deal coxswains and lifeboatmen, and of all engaged in the task.

It will be seen from the case recorded in this chapter that the motives which were apparent in the minds of the brave fellows who manned the lifeboat on each occasion were those of humanity and generous ardour to succour the distressed; the salvage of property was an afterthought. They started from the beach to put their intimate local knowledge of the Goodwins, their skill, their strength, nay, their lives, at the service of seamen in distress; but when they saw that their energies, and theirs alone, could save a valuable vessel and her cargo, and that they could earn such fair recompense as the law allowed, this salvage of property became a duty, in the discharge of which, had any man lost his life he would have lost it nobly, having entered upon his perilous task in the unselfish and sublimer spirit of rescuing ’some forlorn and shipwrecked brother’ from death on the Goodwin Sands.