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We took to the lifeboats off Ascension – a captain’s story

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As a young seaman, Jonathan Mercer spent an anxious time in an open lifeboat after crew and passengers abandoned a burning Union Castle ship between Ascension Island and St Helena. Almost exactly 40 years on, he revisited both islands as Master of the cruise ship MS Amsterdam. 

In his online Captain’s Log, Jonathan Mercer made just the briefest mention of the near-disaster that had taken him to Ascension Island in July 1973.

“I know this island well,” ran his entry on 19 April 2013. “One might almost say intimately. I spent over a week here after abandoning my ship, along with 83 others.

“We were brought back here by the tanker which sighted our lifeboats and rescued us. Having nothing but a rather dirty white uniform to my name, the Americans on the base were kind enough to donate clothing, mine being a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of bright blue and white striped trousers. One could see me coming a mile away.”

And with that, he left off to write of his disappointment that this time, he and his passengers could not go ashore, as 950 of them had done at the previous stop at St Helena. Conditions at the landing pier were too rough.

In another journal entry recalled how he came to be in the South Atlantic, notching up sea time so he could earn his First Mate ticket.

“Union Castle line was part of our group and then ran the ‘mail’ boats, a scheduled run with several ships, each leaving Southampton, England, on a Friday and returning five weeks and two days later,” he wrote.

“The majority were passenger ships, on which I spent some time. Two others were smaller, very fast cargo ships and it was on these that I mainly served and incidentally, had the dubious distinction of abandoning into a lifeboat, following a fire, which we fought for 24 hours.”

Others have also written of the incident, including Chief Officer Robert “Rab” McKillop, who had been a young Third Purser aboard the Good Hope Castle when it departed Ascension on 29 June 1973.

“Despite all efforts to contain and extinguish the fire, it defeated us and the order was given by the Captain to take to the boats,” he wrote.

“What I remember most is my lifeboat had no engine and all had to take their turn on the oars; that, and the huge swells that caused almost everyone in the lifeboat to experience intermittent bouts of seasickness.

“The vessel had been well outside the usual shipping lanes (not much traffic between Ascension Island and St Helena), and the Radio Officer had failed to get a distress message sent before abandoning ship, due to the noxious fumes inside the superstructure being too great.

“Flares were sent up during the night more in hope than expectation. Against all odds the flares were spotted and all were eventually picked up by a tanker en route to Brazil, their Italian Captain following a course off piste so to speak.

“I heard later he had diverted his ship as he had wanted to show his wife Ascension Island, and that he was subsequently sacked for not following the designated and quickest course: a great shame if true.

“A short time afterwards a Merchant Navy padre called at my parent’s house to tell them I was all right, and that was the first they knew I had been in danger. No instant communication in those days.”

Captain Peter Ashcroft, a veteran of the Union Castle Mail Steamship Company, gave more details on the Merchant Navy Nostalgia website. He wrote:

“From the South Atlantic island of St Helena on 1 July, 1973, came a message that the Good Hope Castle, which should have arrived there the previous evening, had been in radio silence since leaving Ascension Island in the afternoon of 29 June.

“Anxiety increased as the Good Hope Castle became more and more overdue.

“Fears were confirmed in a later message from Ascension that the ship was ablaze and had been abandoned, burning and listing, but that everyone aboard was safe. The only tragedy was a little dog that was too frightened to come out from beneath the Old Man’s bed.”

The fire had broken out on 29 June, when the ship was only 35 miles from Ascension, steaming towards St Helena and The Cape. A broken lubricating oil pipe sprayed oil onto an exhaust manifold, and the resulting fire spread to the accommodation.

The fight to control it was lost, and passengers and crew took to the boats. They were lucky to be spotted in the vastness of the ocean, and taken aboard the steam tanker George F Getty.

The drifting ship was later sighted by the Southampton Castle, 24 miles off Ascension and listing by 30 degrees, with a propellor visible in the swell. On 4 July, the Clan Malcolm circled the ship and found hatch covers glowing red, deck cargo alight, and flames coming from the accommodation. The front of the bridge had collapsed.

“Next day, the Good Hope Castle was drifting in a near-gale some 100 miles WNW of Ascension, still on fire,” wrote Captain Ashcroft. “An afterdeck cargo of drums had exploded, mail in No 5 & 6 hatches was burning, the midship accommodation was gutted, but the hull beneath the weather-deck was still seemingly intact and in good condition.”

On 7 July, a salvage tug put a Union Castle superintendent aboard. He found no flames, but  the deck severely buckled and still hot. Two days later, the tug began the slow tow up to Antwerp.

The entire midships structure was destroyed, but a dry dock inspection showed no twisting of the hull. Restoration fell to a repair yard in Bilbao.

“After extensive repairs,” wrote Captain Ashcroft, “RMMV Good Hope Castle departed Bilbao on 19 May 1974, and arrived at Southampton to resume her position in the mail service to South Africa, departing Southampton on 31 May 1974.”

Air travel had already brought an end to the weekly Union Castle runs to St Helena, but not for Good Hope Castle and her sister ship, Southampton Castle. They had started out on the route as purely cargo ships – the world’s fastest – but were later fitted with passenger berths, specially to serve St Helena.

Island historian and shopkeeper Nick Thorpe had known both ships well, sailing on them with his brother Mike to get to school in the UK. “Saints going to work on Ascension used to sleep on deck upstairs,” he said.

“Many of my generation have travelled on the Good Hope Castle and experienced drama: smoke coming up from the engine rooms, breakdowns – all kinds of problems. It was considered to be a pretty jinxed ship.

“We had cargo on it when it caught fire. I know the margarine went up in smoke. It was the first time we had to do an insurance claim. They paid up.”

Tristan da Cunha wreck lifeboat drifts to Australia
St Helena and an ordeal at sea

Merchant Navy Nostalgia (scroll down to see pictures of the stricken Good Hope Castle)
Captain’s Log: Ascension Island – by Captain Mercer
Captain’s Log: How I became Master – by Captain Mercer
Recollections of a Retiring Man by Chief Officer Robert ‘Rab’ McKillop

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