Women on sailing ships

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (written in 1797 – 1798) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge relates the unfortunate tale of a mariner who shot an albatross that had guided his ship out of dangerous icy waters in the Antarctic. Spirits then led the ship northwards until it became becalmed near the Equator in uncharted waters. In their thirst, the sailors turned on the mariner and tied the dead albatross around his neck. All the sailors except the mariner then died, and after some horrific encounters and the ship rotting and sinking, he found himself left to wander the earth for evermore, telling his story, still with the stinking albatross around his neck, as a lesson for others.

Coleridge wasn’t himself a sailor, yet with this poem he tapped into and depicted the very superstitious life of seamen, in which the normal phenomena of the sea (winds, storms, phosphorescence and water spouts) were bestowed with malevolent magical powers and often blamed on women, as witches. Little wonder, then – as Dorothy Volo discovered in the course of her extensive research – that females were not popular on board. Despite this, there was a tradition of women at sea in the Royal Navy through the 18th and 19th centuries, though it was against regulations, on ships that were dubbed ‘hen frigates’. Moreover, in battle the women would fight alongside the men as best they could, or assist the surgeon with treating the wounded.

Prostitutes also went on board ships, though they seldom went to sea due to the fact that at the start of a voyage the sailors had probably already spent all their money, a scenario that gave rise to the Dead Horse ceremony described by Maud in such detail in the 1880 diary and by Roslyn Russell, who shows a charming contemporary painting of ‘Throwing the Dead Horse Overboard’.

The majority of women allowed on board were warrant officers’ wives, and sometimes the coopers, cooks and sailmakers were also allowed to have their wives aboard: women were ‘an unavoidable nuisance’. It says something that often women’s names were omitted from ship’s passenger lists, and their deaths were frequently not recorded.

The conditions for the seamen’s women and children on board were even worse than those of the men: they had to share hammocks in the crew’s quarters, and rely on their men to give them some of their food since they were not provided with their own rations. Their days were often spent in darkness below decks because they were supposed to keep out of the way until the evening, when they were finally allowed on deck to take part in any entertainment or dancing. Women gave birth in the dark below decks with little or no privacy or assistance, even in times of battle.

This lack of consideration for women carried through to land life, especially if the men were to die. Few benefits were available to sea widows, and often the regulations prevented them from accessing even the benefits that they were due, although some charities assisted them. Moreover, if a seaman died from his own actions, his wife was ineligible for any compensation whatsoever.

The warrant officers’ wives fared better than those of the seamen: they could share their husbands’ cabins, perhaps had a little more money and could spend their time ‘working’ – doing needlework and knitting. In addition, they may have been allocated 11 – 12-year-old cabin boys to do their odd jobs, such as polishing shoes or assisting with cooking.

Finally, women whose husbands were of higher rank – ladies of quality such as Maud, the captain’s wife – had a more comfortable cabin, a much better diet, and luxuries such as wine.

Despite the relative comfort of her quarters and conditions, life for the wives of the higher-ranking men was generally lonely. On board, Maud would have been socially isolated by the conventions of the time that would frowned on her fraternising with the crew, excepting the steward and cook, or with men other than her husband. To pass the time, Maud undertook simple tasks such as copying out the log for Henry, as she mentions, and walking on deck with him when he was free.

Nor was life on a sailing ship fashionable. One photo of Maud on board the Walmer Castle shows her as a young woman wearing the formal crinoline of the time, possibly made from silk, but this obviously would have been impractical at sea, particularly when climbing up and down ladders, as she did from time to time. Indeed, in a diary entry made when leaving San Francisco she mentions that her formal clothes are put away and she resorts to something like a black woollen wrapper or work dress, shown in a later photo. She must have had some serviceable shoes too.

9781472954237.jpgGiven these privations, one cannot but wonder why Maud accompanied Henry to sea so often. The answer perhaps lies in the simple fact that they didn’t want to be apart, a view that is reinforced by the following quotation from Hen Frigates in which Joan Druett cites one of her diarists, Mary Rowland, who wrote in 1873 of another Henry: ‘As Henry says, we have only one life to live, and he cannot be at home, and it is very hard for us to be separated so much, and a very unpleasant way of spending our lives when one is thousands of miles away.’

Extracted from The Epic Voyages of Maud Berridge: The seafaring diaries of a Victorian lady, available from www.adlardcoles.com



Riddle of the Waves: A Watery Solution

Steven Price Brown served in the Grenadier Guards for an arduous tour in Afghanistan in 2012. His platoon suffered appalling losses and as advance team medic he was at the centre of the most horrific incidents. After leaving the forces he retreated to Africa but became increasingly ill. Diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in October 2014 he returned to the UK but ended up homeless, living in a hostel and undergoing therapy. In October 2015, he was introduced to the military sailing charity Turn to Starboard, and discovered a new love of nature and a new purpose in life. This ultimately led to him writing Riddle of the Waves, a unique and inspiring account of the Spirit of Falmouth 2016 voyage around the UK with the Turn to Starboard crew.


“I tapped on the window to the area just outside the recording booth and the occupants sitting inside all looked up. Henry, who was from Bloomsbury and had kindly escorted and guided me through my first radio interview, seemed a little unsure about what I was up to, but you can’t let opportunities like this pass you by. Apart from moral support and a little advice, I think he was there just to make sure my nerves didn’t lead me to throw up into one of the plant pots.

Prince Harry was one of the reactors to my tap tapping.

I mimicked shaking hands through the glass and he nodded with understanding. My first interview had been a bit of a baptism of fire, an early morning chat at BBC Radio 4’s Today Program.

I was here to promote Riddle of The Waves, my debut book about a group of military veterans who had all suffered from the impact of conflicts and had decided to sail around the UK in a 92ft gaff rigged schooner, but that was only a part of it. The crew had shared their stories with me and I had included these poignant and often amazing stories about them. I really want to tell this story, how people can move on, how there is help out there.

I’d got the radio gig because our famous royal warrior was here to visit the BBC, of course having a veteran like me talk about something close to his heart seemed a nice fit. Prince Harry came out and we chatted, getting a couple of photos together – he had wanted to ask me a question whilst I was on air, but sadly time had been short so it never happened.

He asked, “What do you think the media are like with this subject?”

My sycophancy aside, it was a good question. In my opinion, the media are very supportive, I’ve so far only had positive responses, both about the subject matter and storytelling from the media.

The only thing that concerns me is that there is an underlining ‘story’, one that accuses the Forces that they don’t do enough to rehabilitate those who have suffered from military life.

It’s fair enough to think that, as is with the normal way of life, if someone is part of the cause they normally get saddled with being part of the solution. There’s not much doubt that the Forces are heavily involved in the creation of various issues, not because they want to, but because since time began war has always created casualties.

But my recovery came at sea, we, the crew, were first strangers to each other, but we slowly built trust between ourselves, being able to share stories that we generally never share.

Our boat was called Spirit of Falmouth a wonderful pilot boat that had been gifted to the charity Turn To Starboard by Prince Charles, another Royal doing his bit.

The ‘Riddle’ in the book’s title refers to the magic that seemed to happen to us over our trip. Watching people regain strength right in front of me, growing in confidence, losing the shackles of the past and start to return to the person they want to relate to, is somewhat other worldly. It also happened to me.

But then maybe it’s just the opposite, was it nature just repairing us? Being out in the ocean and so close to the elements, at the mercy of raw nature for our trip’s propulsion, we experienced something that was unique and restorative.

Sometimes it’s best not to try hard to work it out, just accept that something good has happened and let others take from it what they can, that’s what the book is about.”

Steven’s account of the 2016 Spirit of Falmouth voyage Riddle of the Waves is available from www.adlardcoles.com

From Rescue Pilot to moviemaker…

One of our bestselling books of 2015 was RESCUE PILOT, the story of Jerry Grayson, who at age 19 was the youngest helicopter pilot to ever serve in the Royal Navy, and by 25 was the most decorated peacetime naval pilot in history after his courageous rescue efforts during the 1979 Fastnet Race. After leaving the service Jerry embarked on a new career – flying the lens to capture aerial footage for the likes of Ridley Scott, Werner Herzog and James Bond movies. His new book, FILM PILOT, is published in the UK today. He writes:

When I first picked up the diary in which my Mum had written a page for every day of her life since the age of nine I realised that it had been both a discipline and a labour of love for her. So it has been for me in writing Film Pilot.

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How many people even get to do a job that they really like, let alone one they look forward to every day? My eight years of flying in the Royal Navy had taught me how to pilot a helicopter to good effect, but as soon as I started to use my machine as a camera platform a whole new canvas of opportunity opened up before me.


It was the opportunity to share with others the privileged perspective I had from a vibrating seat above the ocean; racing yachts and power boat scything through the dawn, the first hot-air transatlantic balloon flight diving into the cold Irish Sea, Tall Ships catching the east wind in their huge white sails, and submarines appearing from the depths like mythical leviathans.

Then came the fresh skills of co-ordinating an aerial ballet in order to capture the power and majesty of other flying machines; a Spitfire, a pair of Tornadoes and a young girl making the first crossing of the English Channel by hang-glider. The latter not only went down in the history books but also nearly caused my heart to stop when the flimsy aerofoil was released from beneath the hot air balloon that had been carrying it. The balloon pilot employed nothing more technical than a hunting knife to cut the rope by which she’d been lifted, at which point the hang-glider tried to roll upside down.

As time went by the tempo and profile of being a Film Pilot increased with every new assignment. The synchronicity of time and place took me to my first movie – a James Bond film for heaven’s sake! – and my first sports gig; the Winter Olympics.

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Eventually I began to actively seek out the hot spots of the world to capture on film and share with those who would never otherwise have the chance to see New Orleans under water, the deserts of Kuwait on fire, or the surface of another celestial body. As I morphed from a Film Pilot to a Film Director I began to tell cohesive stories with my hands on the controls of a flying machine.

With the advent of drones and an entire generation who think nothing of controlling a flying machine with just their thumbs, I hope that my book provides the inspiration to get out and create an image that changes the world. As I’ve learned at every stage in this remarkable journey; a picture doesn’t just speak a thousand words, it has the potential to change minds.

FILM PILOT is published in the UK today, RRP £12.99 (or buy direct from us at a 10% discount: http://bloomsbury.com/uk/film-pilot-9781472941077/)

Christmas Gifts for Sailors


Searching for that perfect nautical gift this year? Whether you’re buying for a seasoned skipper or armchair sailor, we’ve got Christmas covered. Take a look at just a few of this year’s Christmas picks, then shop the sale where all our books are 45% off!*

* Sale ends Sunday 11 December 2016, excludes Reeds Nautical Almanacs


9781472918857A History of Sailing in 100 Objects
£20.00 £11.00

Which civilisation first took to water in small craft? Who worked out how to measure distance at sea? Why did the humble lemon rise to such prominence in the diets of sailors? A quirky look at history through one hundred objects that changed the way we sail.

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9781844863143The Sea Chart
£25.00 £13.75

To sail the oceans needed skill as well as courage, and the sea chart was the tool by which ships navigated their course. This magnificent book looks at the history of the chart and nautical map as a means of safe navigation.

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9781472922786Des Pawson’s Knot Craft and Rope Mats
£16.99 £9.34

Knotting guru Des Pawson gives step-by-step
instructions on how to put together beautiful rope

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9781472927088Narrowboat Life
£18.99 £10.44

Filled with beautiful, enthralling photography, Narrowboat Life answers all the questions we’ve wanted to ask about the ins and outs of living on the inland waterways.

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Click here to find all our gift books at 45% off


9781472916730Gordon Bennett and the First Yacht Race Across the Atlantic
£16.99 £9.34

The result of a drunken bet between three rich 19th century Americans, the first race across the Atlantic would change the course of yachting history and leave six sailors dead…

“A jaunty and surprise-packed retelling of a wonderful story” Times Literary Supplement

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9781472936004.jpgIn the Wake of Heroes: Sailing’s Greatest Stories
Introduced by Tom Cunliffe
£8.99 £4.94

A collection of amazing stories of great seamanship, bringing together some of the best sailing accounts from the last few centuries. Renowned sailor Tom Cunliffe introduces each extract by giving insightful background on the writer, their book and what makes their experience so worth reading.

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9781472908841Sea Fever: The True Adventures that Inspired our Greatest Maritime Authors, from Conrad to Masefield, Melville and Hemingway
£8.99 £4.94

This enthralling book takes us on a tour of the most dangerous, exciting and often eccentric escapades of literature’s sailing stars, and how these true stories inspired and informed their best-loved works.

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9781472928320Untie the Lines: Setting Sail and Breaking Free
£8.99 £4.94

Former stressed-out city girl Emma is in Malaysia, living on a yacht with handsome Guy, with plans to explore the world’s most remote and exotic places. Life couldn’t be more perfect. But when she is eventually forced to return to her old life in London, Emma finds herself struggling with anxiety and panic attacks. Running, or sailing, away is just not an option any more.

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For big savings on all our bunkside reads, head to www.adlardcoles.com


9781472935342The Pacific Crossing Guide 3rd edition
RCC Pilotage Foundation
£50.00 £27.50

A complete reference for anyone contemplating sailing the Pacific in their own boat. From ideal timing, suitable boats, routes, methods of communication, to seasonal weather, likely costs and dangers, the comprehensiveness of this book will both inspire dreamers and instil confidence in those about to depart.

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9781472918130The Complete Ocean Skipper: Deep-water Voyaging, Navigation and Yacht Management
£30.00 £16.50

The Complete Ocean Skipper covers everything a yachtsman needs to know when planning an offshore cruise or ocean passage.

“Essential reading for anyone planning for or dreaming about sailing long distances” Soundings

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9781472923196Heavy Weather Sailing 7th edition
£35.00 £19.25

For 50 years Heavy Weather Sailing has been regarded as the ultimate international authority on surviving storms at sea aboard sailing and motor vessels. This is the seventh updated edition, ensuring that in its 50th year the book remains as relevant and as essential as it has been for the previous five decades

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9781472923202Splicing Modern Ropes: A Practical Handbook
£20.00 £11.00

For any seafarer, splicing rope is an essential skill. But the traditional 3-strand rope is fast disappearing. So how do you splice braided rope? This is the definitive guide to this crucial skill. Most of the techniques are quite easy to master – and they are also fun to do!

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Click here for course books, cruising guides, maintenance manuals and more – all 45% off!


9781844864096Britain’s Historic Ships
£20.00 £11.00

The British Isles have a long, rich seafaring history stretching from the earliest times through the victories of Drake and Nelson, the voyages of discovery of Cabot and Cook and the defence of the realm by vessels in the present century. This lavish book explores twenty of the most celebrated ships in Britain.

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9781472930804Tom Diaper’s Logbook: Memoirs of a Racing Skipper
£16.99 £9.34

Tom Diaper’s memoirs, written on scraps of old cigarette papers, tell of dramatic races with the German Kaiser, working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, both World Wars and other exciting adventures during Tom’s lifetime. This is a rare opportunity to read first-hand about the drama, conflict and fascinating details that made up the life of a for-hire racing skipper during the glory days of racing.

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9781844862344Cutty Sark: The Last of the Tea Clippers
£20.00 £11.00

A beautiful volume describing the eventful history of one of the world’s most celebrated ships – from her construction at Dumbarton in 1869, her famous tea voyages, through to a career under a Portuguese flag and subsequent return to the Thames, the dramatic fire, painstaking restoration and glorious reopening.

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9781844862894Captain of the Carpathia: The Seafaring Life of Titanic Hero Sir Arthur Henry Rostron
£20.00 £11.00

Henry Arthur Rostron was the captain of Carpathia, the first ship to reach the distressed Titanic, defying the ship’s limitations to rescue 706 survivors. Following the rescue Rostron became the most celebrated master mariner of his generation.

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Browse our full collection of maritime history & save a festive 45%!

Merry Christmas from Adlard Coles!

Sailing in Heavy Weather – a Close Encounter with a Waterspout

One of the longest-standing books on the Adlard Coles Nautical list is the international bestseller, Heavy Weather Sailing. K Adlard Coles himself wrote the very first edition, and we are proud to announce the 7th edition (edited by Peter Bruce) has just been published ahead of the book’s 50th anniversary. Thoroughly revised to bring it right up to date, the 7th edition remains the essential book about coping with storms at sea.

In this exclusive extract, another Adlard Coles author, Bill Cooper, describes a close encounter with a waterspout:

Bill Cooper has an account of an extraordinary experience in the Bermuda area aboard his 17.7m (58ft) steel ketch Fare Well. He, his disabled wife Laurel and a lady friend Nora had sailed from Bermuda heading for New England when they heard on the radio that Hurricane Alberta was coming their way. The forecast gave conditions in which ‘elderly gentlefolk should not be at sea’ but they had nowhere else to go. Having made relatively light work of the hurricane, happily quite distant, something totally unexpected and sinister then took place.

‘BY THE EVENING OF 19 JUNE we were hove-to under storm jib and very close-reefed mainsail. Our wind was averaging 40 knots with the gusts going well off the clock. I think the seas were about 4.6m (15ft). These conditions persisted all night; the average wind not rising much but the seas built up a bit, and I estimated 6m (20ft) in the morning watch. Each broadside wave shot a little jet of cold water through the perished rubber sealing of the deckhouse window onto the protesting form of Laurel in the stand-by berth. Otherwise all was dry and sound below. The yacht was behaving very well indeed. The decks were awash most of the time, but the high poop had only spray, and the cockpit, which is really a sheltered area at deck level, had received no green sea, but enough itinerant slosh to justify one storm board in the hatchway.

The storm centre was then reported to be in position 41 degrees N 66 minutes W, some 170 miles away to the northwest, and probably the closest we came to it. Our position was based on DR, of course, for we had seen no sunshine for some time.

fare well

A feature of these violent and fast moving storms is that the advanced semi-circle has strong winds over a much greater radius. Behind the storm the radius was only 50 miles and conditions soon started to improve. The sea was slow to give up, but the wind moderated quite quickly. We tacked when reasonably sure the storm had passed, and headed 290 degrees T, leaving our reduced sail up for the night.

When I took over the watch at 0400 on 20 June the wind had eased to force 4, but the seas were still considerable, though not dangerous. We rolled badly, and the main was not filling properly. I furled it, and decided to set the genoa and mizzen to get some way and stability. It was very dark, and raining heavily. There had been a couple of thunderstorms during the night producing moderate squalls: there was thunder about at that time, but nothing exciting.

I had got the mizzen half-way up when I heard, rather than saw, what looked like a wall of very heavy rain approaching. In a second or two it arrived, rain of unbelievable intensity. I had been glad of our cockpit shelter, but it was of no help against this sort of rain, when even the splashes wet everything. Then the wind arrived before I had time even to move. It came across the few yards of water I could see, blowing the waves flat. It hit us an almost solid blow, and we were flung over to starboard; how far I cannot say for there was no point of reference, but certainly more than 90 degrees, and I fell onto the starboard bench at the limit of my lifeline. While we were over, a sea broke and swept us, wresting the boom from the gallows, parting lashing and gaskets.

I scrambled up as the ship righted. The mizzen blew out. The main boom shook like a slipper in a puppy’s mouth and, with a loud report, the 14oz (397g) main split and blew to shreds. The genoa, which had been rolled up, stretched in the wind and, without the core turning, allowed a few feet to unroll; the clew then blew out. My oilskin was ripped open; all buttons gone and the zip pulled apart.

As I tried to gather myself to deal with matters, I felt all the power to move leave me. I stood holding the leather-covered wheel feeling strangely euphoric as if being drawn steadily upward off my feet. The feeling went on and on as if time had stopped, and I could not breathe, though my lungs were full. I could not move at all.

Then the lightning struck. Instantly, tension disappeared. The whole space around the yacht seemed to be glowing but I had absolutely no sense of time. I was aware of Nora appearing in the hatch followed by Laurel, looking very white. Both had been rudely propelled from their bunks when the gust had heeled us over, and all the above had taken place as they scrambled to the deck, say 20 or 30 seconds. Laurel describes me as standing motionless at the wheel, mouth wide open, with water streaming down me as if I were standing under a waterfall. I had to be roused to move. Presumably I was in a state of shock.

The ladies turned to, and gradually I joined in, largely doing as I was told. Together we tamed the main boom, which had broken its gooseneck. When it was safely in the gallows we bundled together the collection of streamers that had been a mainsail. The mizzen was grappled in. The genoa was more of a problem. The sheets had slackened as the clew pulled out, and had tied themselves into a spaghetti knot so tight we could neither furl the sail, nor get it down its extrusion core. I did not fancy my chances half-way up the forestay at that time so we let it go.’


There was big trouble in the engine room, and compass deviation went from zero to 90 degrees W then slowly to 25 degrees W, which only came to light through logging the direction of the swell. But what was it, apart from the lightning that struck the ketch at 0430 that morning? Bill Cooper now thinks that he encountered a waterspout.

HEAVY WEATHER SAILING (ISBN 978-1-4729-2319-6) is available now through all good bookshops and chandleries. It has an RRP of £35, but you can buy it with a 10% discount via the Bloomsbury website here.

Finding triumph in disaster – Fastnet ’79

Cowes Week may be the highlight of the British sailing calendar, but it’s a significantly different event every second year, when it culminates in the launch of the world-famous biennial Fastnet Race.

Famous names to have sailed across the Solent start line over the years have included former Prime Minister Ted Heath, American media mogul Ted Turner and Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon. The race’s 600 nautical mile route takes competitors into the English Channel, across the Celtic Sea, round Fastnet Rock then back to Plymouth via the Scilly Isles. It usually takes the winning crew two to three days to complete the course.

The 1979 race was expected to attract about the same level of attention as all the others that had preceded it – a loyal following from the yachting fraternity at the launch, some mild curiosity from the rest of the Isle of Wight, and barely a byline from anywhere else. Instead it went on to become the most notorious disaster in British yachting history.

By noon on Monday 13th August the leading yachts had rounded the Fastnet Rock and were on their way back. The shipping forecast predicted south-westerly winds at force 4 to 5, increasing to force 6 or 7 for a time. By late afternoon that had been revised to a warning of gale force 8 winds. Most of the skippers missed that forecast. A later revision for an imminent severe force 9 gale never made it to the BBC studio in time for the evening shipping forecast.

The fleet of 303 yachts and their crews taking part in the Fastnet Race sailed on into the night, unaware of what was coming their way. But even the latest dire warning was wrong. By the middle of the night, many of the helpless racers found themselves stuck in the heart of a raging storm force 10 gale.

Jerry Grayson

In August 1979 Jerry Grayson was not yet thirty, but already nearing the end of his time in the Royal Navy. After he spent the early part of his military career flying helicopters from aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal he transferred to Culdrose airbase in Cornwall and joined the Search and Rescue squadron based there. Day to day his job revolved around picking up people stranded on cliff faces or giving dramatic fly pasts for local fetes that were hard to spot from the air.

Jerry headed to Culdrose for the early shift on Tuesday 14th, arriving at 3.30am to be told of reports coming in of several yachts taking part in the Fastnet Race which had run into trouble around the Scillies. ‘What race?’ Jerry asked. By the end of the following night it’s not a question he would ever need to ask again.

As Jerry and his crew took to the air and flew into the night, the radio went haywire. One helicopter after another was being scrambled from Culdrose, all heading in the same direction. The Coastguard emergency channel was also going berserk, with yacht after yacht issuing emergency Mayday calls and crying for immediate assistance.

Jerry had been expecting to help a few stranded sailors aground in the Scillies. Instead he and his crew were flying into 70mph winds, and were going to airlift people from yachts foundering in the troughs of waves that crested 40ft above.

Jerry and his crew were used to hovering at only 15ft when lifting people to safety.

But they managed it anyway, because they had to. Flying through the night, returning to Culdrose when his helicopter was running on little more than fumes, refuelling, then heading back out to pick up more, Jerry helped save grateful sailors who knew they owed their lives to the risks the Search and Rescue personnel were taking.

Some of the yachts that took part in the race were able to escape the worst of the storm and retire in time to avoid the disaster. Of the remainder, caught in the worst of it, 75 capsized, and several were lost altogether. Jerry was one of 4,000 people involved that night in what became the biggest rescue effort since Dunkirk, and the largest peacetime rescue in our history. Eighteen people died, of which three weren’t competitors – they were rescuers. For his gallantry, Jerry was awarded the Air Force Cross.

Rescue Pilot

Jerry has written all about his varied experiences in the job in his book, Rescue Pilot, which is now available in paperback (ISBN 978-1-4729-1794-2). It has an RRP of £8.99 but you can buy it with a special 10% discount direct from the Bloomsbury website here.

Last year Jerry also took part in this BBC Radio Four special reuniting people involved in the Fastnet disaster. There he met Nick Ward (pictured below, with Jerry, left), the last sailor to be picked up alive during the storm after being abandoned by his crewmates (a story he related in our book Left for Dead, also available at a special discount from the Bloomsbury website here).

Jerry and Nick Ward

The loss of the Lancastria – Britain’s worst maritime disaster

17th June 1940. The Nazis had occupied Dunkirk. Operation Dynamo was over. The last of the Little Ships had long returned to England. As far as many in Britain were concerned, the evacuation was over, and the British Army survived largely intact to fight another day.

However, over 200,000 British personnel remained in France, stuck in an ever-shrinking pocket of unoccupied Europe as the German military closed in. There was a rush for St Nazaire, where ships waited off the coast, with small boats ferrying people out of the shallows of the Loire estuary. Operation Ariel was not just about evacuating the remaining troops, but also civilian staff and their families. This was even more urgent than the retreat from Dunkirk. Once Operation Ariel was over, any British people who remained in Europe would be stuck there until the end of the war.

One of the ships waiting at St Nazaire was the liner RMS Lancastria, which could have gone on to be remembered for bringing up to 9,000 evacuees back to Britain. Instead she went on to suffer the deadliest disaster in British maritime history, which would hardly be remembered at all.

The Lancastria (image: Royal Pioneer Corps website)

By late evening on 16th June, the queue to get on to a ship at St Nazaire was 5 miles long. The Lancastria reached the Loire estuary at 4am the next morning, but had to anchor miles offshore rather than risk running aground by getting any closer. Royal Navy officers told her captain, Rudolph Sharp, to take as many people as he could fit. All he could do was sit and wait whilst the evacuees were brought out to his ship. The first arrived at 7am. Sharp expected 3,000 in total, which was already over the legal limit of 2,200.

The Lancastria‘s stewards lost count after 6,000 came aboard. By the time Sharp decided to refuse any more at 2pm, estimates for the number aboard range from a minimum of 7,500 to in excess of 9,000 souls. The last to board couldn’t even get below decks. They would have to spend the journey squeezed onto the open deck. Lifejackets had long since run out too.

The first German bombers had appeared at about 1.50pm but Sharp was more worried about submarines. He was planning to leave in convoy at 4pm, but at 3.48pm several Luftwaffe Junkers attacked the ship. Three bombs landed direct hits in holds 2, 3 and 4. Some 800 RAF personnel were crowded into hold 2 and most were killed instantly.

The bomb that hit hold 4 tore a hole in the hull beneath the waterline. Sharp made it to the bridge and saw a rush of white water bursting up through the middle of the ship. The Lancastria was going down by the head and listing further to starboard. Sharp gave the order to abandon ship.

The Lancastria going down by the head (image: Lancastria Association of Scotland)

Unfortunately his order would struggle to circulate on a vessel overcrowded to perhaps more than four times capacity. Thousands were trapped below decks in chaos as the lights flickered on and off. Passages had been destroyed by the explosions, and were now filled with smoke or boiling-hot steam from burst pipes, and exits were blocked by fire.

The ship was listing so badly to starboard that people jumping from the port side had a potentially lethal fall of 70ft to the water. Meanwhile on the starboard side people could step off into the sea. The crowds pouring on to the top deck had made the ship top heavy.

Yet deep down in the bowels of the ship, there was a very orderly evacuation taking place. A Catholic priest, Father Charles McMenemy, who had been in France to serve as chaplain to the troops, led men through ankle-deep waters at the bottom of the ship until they found a way out through the side, only a few feet above the waterline.

That was one of the rare stories of survival from those trapped below decks. As the ship slipped deeper into the water, there was a crush on the wooden staircase. It collapsed from the weight of too many people trying to climb it at the same time. There wasn’t enough to time for those stuck at the bottom to find another way out, and the passages were too crowded anyway. The water was rising so rapidly now that none of those people had any hope for survival.

The Lancastria took only 20 minutes to sink, in which time only two lifeboats were launched successfully. When the ship rolled over, many climbed onto her capsized hull. Some found dry cigarettes and smoked them whilst there was still time. Others joined in songs, including There’ll Always Be an England. When the ship finally sank, thousands were left floating in the water. Other ships taking part in Operation Ariel were already overladen, but more than 2,500 people from the Lancastria were saved.

The Lancastria after capsizing (image: BBC)

The first five weeks of his premiership came to define Winston Churchill’s entire career. Three of the four speeches for which he is most famous were delivered in little over a month. Churchill knew that many in Britain doubted the country’s ability to resist a Nazi invasion. All of Europe already lay at Hitler’s feet. However, Churchill knew that a lack of self-belief now would only help ensure defeat.

So Dunkirk was recast, mythologised immediately into a great success that ensured Britain had the means to fight on. The fact that so many more British personnel remained stuck on the continent afterwards was not publicised, and the loss of the Lancastria would have been a new and wholly demoralising end to the victorious Dunkirk story. If the upper estimates of the number of fatalities are accurate, then the military personnel lost aboard the Lancastria represented about a third of all British casualties since the declaration of war the previous September. The government issued a D-Notice, an official request to the press not to cover a story if it was in the national interest not to do so. At the time, all of the newspapers obliged.

The British government accepts that 1,700 died – 200 more than died when the Titanic sank. This number includes all those who can unequivocally be proved to have been lost when the ship sank. Meanwhile the memorial at St Nazaire commemorates 4,000. The actual figure could be several thousand higher than that precisely because nobody is sure just how many people went uncounted when they boarded. The British government’s files on the disaster were sealed for 100 years, so the extent of their knowledge won’t be revealed until 2040. Only then will we perhaps know the true scale of Britain’s worst maritime disaster.

You can read more about the Lancastria and other deadly maritime disasters – many of them similarly little known – in our book, Final Voyage: The World’s Worst Maritime Disasters (ISBN 978-1-4081-5894-4, RRP £8.99). If you buy it direct from the Bloomsbury website you will get a 10% discount: http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/final-voyage-9781408158944.