Wick Coastguard Rescues. 


George Robb 


As reported in the "John O'Groat Journal" (Friday 11th December 1959).

"Two Ships Wrecked On Caithness Coast During Fierce Gale."

One of the worst storms in living memory has brought disaster to shipping and caused great loss of life. Scotland felt the full fury of the gale which broke on Sunday, abating Thursday. For four days mountainous seas lashed the coast and ships on voyage were at the mercy of the storm. On the Caithness coast, two vessels were wrecked and 13 lives were lost.

Around midnight on Sunday (6th December) the Aberdeen trawler, George Robb, bound for the fishing grounds, was swept ashore near Duncansby Head (John O'Groats) and her crew of twelve perished. A Wick coastguard who had gone out with the L.S.A. (Life saving Company) to Duncansby collapsed and died on his way to the wreck.

A Leith cargo steamer, the Servus (361 tons), was lost at Dunbeath on Tuesday despite every effort to save her. She had been held in tow by another ship for some time, but in the end the master and crew of seven had to be taken off by the Cromarty lifeboat, and the derelict steamer was driven to her doom below Dunbeath Castle.

The eight members of the crew of the Broughty Ferry lifeboat, Mona, lost their lives on Tuesday after going to the assistance of the North Carr lightship which had broken from its moorings opposite Fife Ness. After the lightship had been adrift for 36 hours the crew of seven were taken off on Wednesday by helicopter.

Two other ships - the Norwegian freighter Elfrida and the German coaster Merkur - foundered in the North Sea on Wednesday with a total loss of 27 lives (20 on the Elfrida and seven on the Merkur). Other vessels have been riding out the storm since it began, and a number of ships have not been heard of for days.

The people of Wick learned of the distress call when they heard the rockets sent off by the coastguards to call out the local Lifesaving Company. The Scarfskerry Company were also summoned. Meanwhile Longhope lifeboat had been launched and was heading towards the scene in heavy seas with the gale at its height.

When the coastguards and L.S.A. Companies under the command of Commander John L. Woolcombe, Coastguard Inspector for the Northern District, arrived at Duncansby Head Lighthouse, they learned that the trawler had already been located by some local persons. Among those who heard the George Robb's S.O.S. on their radio sets was Mr William Ham, farmer. Along with his wife (a trained nurse) he set off at once in his car for John O'Groats to the home of Mrs Ham's father, Mr John Green, New Houses. Accompanied by Mr Green, his son, John and daughter, Nina, and a neighbour, Mr Alexander Sinclair, contractor, they set off carrying torches, towards the cliffs to the south of Duncansby Head.

George Robb - John O'Groat Journal

(Original picture reproduced from the  John O'Groat Journal - with kind permission.)

"The George Robb, broken and awash, lies at the mercy of the foaming seas."

(Click on picture to enlarge.)

After proceeding more than a mile over the moor in the worst weather they had ever experienced, the party reached the cliff top and heard a siren sounding from the beach below. Mr Green said afterwards that he thought someone still aboard the trawler had seen their torches and sounded the ship's siren. "The siren was being sounded at five minute interval," he said, "but after it went four or five times it suddenly became silent."

In the storm driven spray dashing over the cliff top was difficult to see anything. "We could make out the faint outline of the hull," he said. "We got a glimpse of her between waves. The sea was crashing over her. We thought we saw a light in the wheelhouse but otherwise there was no sign of life." As there was nothing they could do, the party made for Duncansby Head Lighthouse and there met the Coastguards and Lifesaving Companies, and returned with them to the scene of the wreck.

The ferocity of the gales was such that men at times had to hold on to each other as they fought their way to the cliffs, guided by hand torches, crossing broken ground over which they manhandled heavy equipment, which had to be carried over fences, and ditches and streams flooded with water. Blinded and drenched by the spray they groped their way forward.

.Station officer Eric Campbell - John O'Groat Journal.
Station Officer Eric Campbell.

Original picture reproduced from the 
John O'Groat Journal newspaper. 

(Click on picture to enlarge)

It was while the Coastguards were on their way that Station Officer Eric Campbell collapsed. He was bringing up the rear with another man. They were carrying heavy equipment. The rest of the party were well ahead and were not aware that one of their colleagues was in distress. Two Wick volunteers in the Lifesaving Company - Hugh Green, 30 North Murchison Street, and William Tait, 13 Argyle Square - on their way but came upon Mr Campbell and his companion who were both exhausted. Mr Campbell appeared to be in a serious condition and Mr Green and Mr Tait decided to get help. They went ahead ant met Commander Woolcombe who was on his way back to the Lighthouse.

Returning to Mr Campbell they found he was now unconscious. Commander Woolcombe remained with him while Mr Green and Mr Tait proceeded to the Lighthouse for aid. Police Sergeant Robert Dunnett, Wick, who was about with a patrol car, along with Constable David Coghill, immediately organised a stretcher party and Station Officer Campbell was carried to the Lighthouse. Dr J.P.B. Gill, Canisbay, was summoned and when he arrived he found that Mr Campbell had died. On Monday his body was removed to the Police Mortuary at Wick.

Meanwhile the party ahead had reached the scene of the wreck. Using a powerful searchlight they could see the George Robb lying head on to the beach, and only a short distance from the cliffs. The trawler was in darkness and there was no sign of life aboard. The stricken ship lay as helpless as a toy at the mercy of the elements. Foaming seas swept over and around her.

Out at sea stood the Longhope lifeboat, but there was nothing that rescuers could by land or sea. Commander Woolcombe decided to recall the lifeboat and a message was sent to the Lighthouse to be relayed to Wick Radio Station which notified the lifeboat. The watch on the cliff tops was kept in case survivors had reached the shore. Nothing could be seen, however. The search resumed at day-light. The George Robb was now seen lying over on her port side and her back was broken in several places.

The beach was strewn with wreckage, including a large number of fish baskets. Lying on the shore, too, was an open suitcase, personal property of some member of the trawler's crew. A few local men had descended to the beach by means of a path, a short distance north of the wreck, and they found a body, half-clothed and barefooted. Coastguards lowered a stretcher from the top and the body was hauled up and taken to one of two Land Rovers which the police had brought to the scene. It was conveyed to the Police Mortuary of Wick later.

On Tuesday, Mr A. Robb, a representative of the owners of the George Robb, who had travelled north by train, identified the body as that of Bruno Saborowski (39), second fisherman, Crombie Road, Torry. The Lighthouse became the base for the operations. Motor vehicles crowded the narrow road outside. On this, the highest point of the coast, the force of the gale was terrific. As men left the shelter of the building they were whirled along, almost off their feet, and had to grab at the wall, nearest vehicle or anything they could to stop their progress.

Such were the conditions which a John O'Groat Journal representative found when he reached the scene on Sunday night. Accompanying the Lifesaving Company to the wreck, he saw these volunteers on duty in conditions such as they had never experienced before, and most of them had been out on many wrecks in all kinds of weather.

Exhausted men returned to the Lighthouse for warmth and shelter. In addition to attending to their ordinary duties the lighthouse staff - Alexander Matheson, Principal keeper, Fred Bruce, second keeper, and Charles Thomson, third keeper - were rendering every possible assistance. Mrs Matheson was kept busy serving hot drinks to men who were drenched and who had eventually to return to Wick for dry clothing.

The body was conveyed by road to Aberdeen Thursday. Another body was found washed up on the shore at Freswick Thursday (10 December) and was taken to the Police Mortuary.

The crew of the lost Aberdeen trawler were;- Marshall Ryles, (skipper); Peter Dempster, (mate); B. Saborowski, (second fisherman); William McKay, (chief engineer); R. Dugan, (second engineer); J. Findlay, (deckhand); A. Smith, (deckhand); George Duffy, (deckhand) - all of Aberdeen; W. Farquhar, (third engineer); and W. Duthie, (cook). Skipper Ryles took over command of the George Robb when she was recently converted from steam to diesel. Married with four children, he told his wife in a radio-telephone call a few hours before disaster overtook the ship that the weather was very bad and that he was "in for a rough time."

Further stories of the George Robb can be read 
(with picture's) as reported by:

Additional Reports:

the "Daily Record"  newspaper

The George Robb Skipper

the "Press & Journal" newspaper

What Went Wrong?

the "Scottish Daily Express" newspaper

Damage To Wick Harbour.

the "Bulletin & Scots Pictorial" newspaper

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