For all who go down to the sea: Bravery and rescue in Orkney and beyond

A storm at Hogmanay: The story of the SS Earl Thorfinn, 31 January 1953

The ferry SS Earl Thorfinn with its crew of twelve served the North Isles of Orkney from 1928-1962. It was the hurricane on Saturday 31 January 1953 that ensured its place in Orkney’s maritime history. The ferry left Kirkwall at 06:45. By 08:30 the wind had risen to gale-force. An attempt to dock at Stronsay proved impossible, so the ferry headed for Sanday. At 09:30 Captain Hamish Flett lost control of the ship and had to turn and run before the storm. He later told The Orcadian newspaper:

I’ve never seen anything like it before. Visibility was nil and the gale was more than 100 m.p.h. [miles per hour]. Twice we nearly went aground on Sanday.

Captain Hamish Flett, 1953
Oil Painting of SS Earl Thorfinn, by Douglas F Sinclair, Sanday. Date: 1953
This painting depicts the epic voyage of the North Isles passenger ferry, SS Earl Thorfinn, when it was caught by the devastating hurricane on the 31 January 1953 and driven south to Aberdeen. The artist was the brother of Hilda Meil. Hilda’s father-in-law, Willie Meil of Geramount, Sanday, was a passenger on the voyage.
Orkney Museum 1977/120

At 10:05 the steam steering gear broke and the crew had to steer the ship manually – five men at the wheel. Water was constantly washing over the wheelhouse. The crew spent the day soaking wet and with very little to eat or drink. Below deck, the chief engineer manually worked the throttle to relieve the strain on the engine, while the greaser kept the engine lubricated. The fireman had to keep stocking the boiler to keep a full head of steam. Water pouring through skylights and hatches soaked these crewmen, too. The steward was busy attending to the ten passengers on board and bailing out water that poured down through the ventilators.

Darkness fell but the blizzard conditions eased, making visibility better. At 18:00 the men spotted the lighthouse at Kinnaird Head in Aberdeenshire, then Rattray Head lighthouse, which gave them a definite fix of position. By 21:30 the battered ferry arrived at Aberdeen Bay, only to find the harbour closed. They joined the seven trawlers and one cargo ship that had to keep sailing around, as it was still too windy to safely anchor. Aberdeen harbour opened the following afternoon at 15:00. The SS Earl Thorfinn finally docked at 15:15.

No news until Aberdeen

As the SS Earl Thorfinn had no radio, the first news of the vessel’s fate to reach Orkney was when the ferry finally arrived in Aberdeen. The ship had to remain for repairs, while the weary passengers were sent home on another ship.

One of the passengers, Willie Meil of Geramount in Sanday, had been on the final leg of a journey home from Aberdeen when the hurricane hit and drove him right back there again. His son, Oliver, married Hilda Sinclair from Stronsay. Hilda’s brother Douglas was the artist who painted this picture. This might explain how the painting came into the Meil family, as it was donated by Hilda. Douglas F Sinclair died on board the cruise ship SS Uganda in 1974 and was buried at sea.

Researched and written by Tom Muir

Sources and further reading

Cormack, Alistair and Anne, Days of Orkney Steam, Kirkwall, 1971; 1990.

The Orcadian, 5th February 1953.

The Orcadian, 5th March 1953.

A ‘life-saving brigade’: Bravery on the Stromness shores

Stromness Coastguard’s megaphone. Date: 20th Century
This tin megaphone was used for hailing; calling out to ships stranded near to the shores around Stromness.
Orkney Museum 2017.762. 1/20

The Stromness Coastguards have a long tradition, beginning as the Life Saving Brigade, which was founded in September 1868. Stromness had just received Orkney’s first lifeboat, the Saltaire, at the end of 1867. The Life Saving Brigade had rockets that could be fired towards a stranded ship off-shore. A line attached to the rocket would be secured by the crew of the ship and a ‘breeches buoy’, consisting of a pair of canvas ‘breeches’ (trousers) suspended from a life-belt, could be used to take people off the ship.

Signal flags used by the Stromness Coastguards. Date 20th Century
The flags were used by members of the coastguards to send semaphore messages to ships stranded near the shores around Stromness.
Orkney Museum 2017.762.1/20

The effectiveness of this was shown on the early morning of 11 December 1907 when the Hull steam trawler Shakespeare went ashore at the Point of Spoil near Breckness at Outertown, Stromness. The Stromness Lifeboat Good Shepherd sailed to its aid. The Life Saving Brigade later joined in the rescue.

They found the trawler mostly submerged with two men in the rigging, one on the funnel and three more clinging to the mast. Four of the crew had already been washed away and drowned beneath the strong waves. Captain Greig of the lifeboat managed to get near enough for the lifeboat’s bowman to throw a grapnel into the trawler’s rigging and pass a life belt to the two men clinging there. The man on the funnel was also rescued by the lifeboat, but three men were still in peril.

Coastguard’s souwester. Date 20th Century
This sou’wester, made from oil cloth, is a waterproof hat that was used by the Stromness Coastguards. It is believed that the name is derived from the Sou’wester wind, the most dominant or prevailing of the winds throughout the British Isles.
Orkney Museum Number: OM 2017.762.1/20

Untiring efforts

The Orcadian reported the story as told by the Life Saving Brigade.

We at once proceeded to the water’s edge and fired one rocket, the line falling on the mizzen mast right to the men’s hands …. we sent out the breeches buoy and dragged each man through the surf … being landed in an unconscious state, benumbed with cold and exposure and almost naked … William Cutt and John Baikie were untiring in their efforts which expended some hours to bring the engineer back to consciousness.

The Life Saving Brigade, Stromness December 1907, as reported in The Orcadian

Researched and written by Tom Muir

Source and further reading

Wilson, Bryce, Stromness: A History, Kirkwall, 2013.

Saving lives in Orkney and beyond: The Stromness Lifeboat

The Stromness Lifeboat J.J.K.S.W. arrived in the town on 3rd March 1928, replacing its much smaller predecessor, John A. Hay. On the 19 March it was already saving lives, when the Hull steam trawler Lord Davenport ran aground at St John’s Head, Hoy. Two of the trawler’s crew had already drowned before the lifeboat arrived, but the remaining six were rescued.

The J.J.K.S.W. was officially named by Prince Albert (later King George VI) on 6th June 1928. He later sailed in it over to Longhope to name their new lifeboat. It was the first time that a Royal Standard had been flown from a lifeboat.

Stromness Lifeboat J.J.K.S.W. Date: 20th Century
The Stromness Lifeboat J.J.K.S.W. served from 1928-1955 and its crews saved 139 lives. Not only did the lifeboat serve the seas around Orkney, but she also needed to provide cover as far afield as Shetland, which did not have a lifeboat until 1930.
Orkney Library and Archive L7362/1.

A mercy dash to Shetland

On 28 March 1930 the Aberdeen steam trawler Ben Doran ran aground on the Ve Skerries, near Papa Stour, Shetland. The wreck was not spotted until the next day. Gale-force winds and high seas prevented any rescue attempts by motor boats and the Lerwick Lifesaving Company. It wasn’t until the afternoon of the 30th March that the Stromness Lifeboat was called out. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution had announced earlier that same month that Shetland should have its own lifeboat, but on this occasion the nearest lifeboat station was Stromness. Sailing 134 miles overnight in appalling conditions the J.J.K.S.W. and crew arrived in Scalloway at 07:30 on 31 March. After taking on fuel and a local pilot, to assist them navigating the local seas, and having had a warm meal, the lifeboat sailed the last 25 miles to Ve Skerries. By the time they arrived, only the top of the Ben Doran’s mast was sticking out of the water. The lifeboat crew made an exhaustive search, but they found no survivors. The J.J.K.S.W. returned to Scalloway before heading back to Stromness.

A second journey to Shetland

Just over a week later, on 10 April 1930, the Stromness Lifeboat was once more on its way to Shetland. The Royal Mail Steamer St Sunniva had run aground in fog on the island of Mousa. After a 13 hour voyage the crew of the J.J.K.S.W. arrived at the scene only to find that everyone had safely evacuated the Royal Mail Steamer in small boats. The Stromness Lifeboat Station had been informed of this, but there was no radio on the J.J.K.S.W. so she couldn’t be recalled.

There is a strange postscript to the Ben Doran disaster: one former crew member had a lucky escape thanks to a premonition. James Mitchell from Aberdeen served on the Ben Doran along with his uncle, also named James. After a poor trip at the end of 1929 and with little reward for his hard work, Jim arrived home carrying his wages, an envelope and his bed roll. He told his wife that he’d left the trawler. ‘But why Jim?’ she asked. After all, a small wage was better than none. ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Something just tells me that it’s time to get out of there.’ Opening the envelope, they saw that it contained the ship’s calendar for 1930. Instead of the usual photograph of flowers or a nice landscape, it was a photo of the crew. The skipper was holding the ship’s lifebelt. To a superstitious fisherman, that photograph felt like bad luck. The Ben Doran was kept in port for repairs, and Jim found himself work on another trawler. The Ben Doran left port once more, with Jim’s uncle on board. They would never return.

Researched and written by Tom Muir.

Source and further reading

Leach, Nicholas, Orkney’s Lifeboat Heritage, Port Stroud, 2007.

Please cite New Connections Across the Northern Isles (2019) when referencing materials from this virtual museum.

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