Launch Stories

Last year RNLI lifeboats rescued almost 8,000 people, an average of 21 people per day.

The Luray Victory

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Nick, Andy and Stuart near the Luray Victoryluray and Freddie

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Article by David Chamberlain


From Baltimore, bound for Bremerhaven, the Luray Victory had been at maximum speed in the Atlantic and as she approached the Straits of Dover she did not decrease. The evening of January 30th 1946, the ship was thundering up the Channel towards the Goodwin Sands. She had no pilot aboard as the American War Shipping Administration had advised the masters that there was no need of them. According to them the English Channel was 'relatively free of dangers'.

The west-north-west wind had the makings of a Channel gale and darkness was made darker by the rolling masses of cloud that hid the stars. On approaching the south-eastern comer of the Goodwins the Luray Victory lost the deep water and ran up on the sandbank. The jolt and the abrupt way at which she came to a halt immobilised her engine.

At nine o'clock that night the Luray Victory's chief engineer declared that he was at a loss to repair the machinery and the captain, through a radio transmission, summoned the advice of the coast guard.

When the North Deal coast guard station fired the maroons the Charles Dibden lifeboat was just corning ashore. They had been out on an earlier shout and had spent three hours searching the Goodwin Sands for a large Liberty ship, Am-Mer-Mar. She had reported being stranded, however, the ship had managed to dislodge herself unaided, and the lifeboat had been ordered to return to Walmer beach. Freddie Upton had been coxswain of the Charles Dibden for only seven months but his local knowledge and seamanship was paramount in the area. He questioned those ashore if there had been some confusion with the present distress summons appertaining to the previous one. Being assured this was a fresh casualty they turned the lifeboat around on the turn table and re-launched into the darkness. Coxswain Upton found the Luray Victory at twenty-seven minutes past ten that night. The ship was aground on the Sands and seas were breaking around her. With the aid of a signal lamp, Upton conveyed that it was too dangerous to go along side, but they would lay-off and await dawn. In the early hours some tugs arrived and at six in the morning the lifeboat up-anchored and helped transferring their wire hawsers to the stranded victim. Every effort to re-float the Luray Victory at high water failed and the ship took on a list to port.

Although the American captain requested the lifeboat to continually stand-by his vessel, Freddie Upton refused. He knew she was in no immediate danger and, being low on fuel, motored back to the lifeboat house. The Charles Dibden had been afloat since seven twenty-eight the previous evening - apart from the thirty minutes she had beached and returned to sea - and his men were tired and hungry.

Coxswain Upton speculated that they would have to spend another night with the casualty and bade his men to put some dry clothes on and get a quick meal. This they did and within two hours the Charles Dibden was back at sea. By this time the wind had backed to the south, nevertheless, it was still blowing gale force. 1t was an uncomfortable journey. They had to motor the long way around the Sands, via the South Goodwin lightship, to reach the outside edge.

As the lifeboat hove in sight, an hour later, at four o'clock on that grey afternoon, Upton could see that the ship was starting to break up. The tugs had stood well away as their services were futile. They only remained as witnesses to this ships demise. The wreck's list had been extenuated and spray was cascading up and over the weather side of the hull drenching the deserted decks.

The captain of the Luray Victory signaled, by Aldis lamp, that he was going to abandon ship. He and his crew had felt their ship being destroyed by the weather and the Goodwins. Their large steel haven in which they had put all their trust was fast becoming a monstrous tomb. The hull was making awful groaning noises as the welds split and then loud cracks as gaping gashes appeared. Dark, sandy sea water was entering her holds, spoiling the cargo of grain.

The stranded hulk had her lifeboats swung out on her davits and men were seemed to be getting ready to board them. Upton knew to do this would have been suicidal. With the falling tide, the ships keel at the stern was starting to show. The tide was sluicing along the hull with confused waves beating against it. Upton ordered double amount of fenders to be tied from the bow to amidships of the Charles Dibden. With the help of his motor mechanic, Percy Cavell, he approached the towering hull. Freddie's voice became hoarse with constant instructions to Percy on how he wanted the control of his engines. As he nudged the lifeboat closer his crew started to prepare themselves for the unknown. It took immense skill to con the craft alongside where a Jacobs's ladder had been hung from the ship's side. Eagerly awaiting on each rung of the ladder was a crew man from the American vessel.

The coxswain, on the helm, was fighting with the wheel. There were cross seas sweeping against the ships side and the lifeboat - trying to push her away - however, he still managed to keep contact. With the small boat's engines going in and out of gear the Charles Dibden continued to bump against the welded hull. Each time the two vessels came together another sailor jumped into the sturdy craft. Miraculously the entire crew of 49 made the transaction without injury.

With all of the grateful men in the lifeboat her hull lay deep in the swirling waves. Freddie Upton steered his craft south, into the teeth of the gale, to make another rounding of the South Goodwin lightship. The heavily laden craft disappeared at times in the enormous waves. 1t was not until she turned to the north-west and home that she had the weather and seas on her port quarter.

The boat came safely ashore in a flurry of spray and the men, with the effects of adrenalin wearing off, felt cold and weary. None of the Luray Victory's sailors had time to thank the lifeboat men, as they were whisked off by the Lloyds Agent and the American Authorities to warmer accommodation.

Later Freddie Upton reflected on the rescue, and in his report he wrote... 'The coxswain wishes to record his appreciation of the splendidly efficient manner in which his crew carried through this very arduous service. The number of survivors brought ashore at one time is believed to be a record. The American crew was mixed - white and coloured. The job of getting them in the lifeboat, which involved them jumping from considerable height was extremely hazardous. Altogether a fine service. '

It did not take long for the Luray Victory to completely split in half and she did so just forward of the bridge. The bow section was swept a few hundred feet away and was quickly overwhelmed by the Goodwins. Some salvage was attempted on the other half and a couple of hundred tons of cereals were removed, but the rest of the waterlogged grain was left.

The sand bank did its best to swallow the remaining stern half of ship and succeeded until the wreck found the Goodwins chalk subsurface. When the upright hull sat uponthe foundations of the Goodwin Sands only the king posts still showed.

This spectacle has remained until the present day - and is the only visual reminder of the menace which lie six miles off- although the American War Shipping Administration deemed the area as 'relatively free of dangers'.

To predict the Sands movements are almost impossible - it can cover as well as expose wreckage on a tide. In the summer of 1991 Barry Curtis, a Medway scuba diver, found a 18 inch high by 18 inch wide bell on the remains of the wreck. This massive bronze item weighed 78 pounds and sadly as expected, on a mass produced Victory ship, it did not have her name inscribed upon it.

Position of the LURAY VICTORY 51º-ll'-04N. 001º-31'-62E. Steam ship. Built in 1944 by the California Shipbuilding Corporation (CalShip) yard in Los Angeles. The Joshua Hendy Iron Works, California built the engines. Length 455 feet 3 in. Beam 62 feet. 7,612 GRT. Ran aground on the Goodwin Sands 30.01.1946. At time of loss owned by Black Diamond Steamship Co.

 

David Chamberlain is a local author who has published 'Saga of the Goodwins' and 'Lost and Found'. Your can purchase these books from local bookshops, or order online from David's website. To access David's site please use the Links Page

The black and white photographs are kindly provided by David Chamberlain.

If you would like to find out more about a Victory ship that is still in existence please refer to the Red Oak Victory also on the links page.

 

 

 

 

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