The following extract is from the book 'Porthgwarra' by Christine Gendall and reproduced with kind permission of Churchtown Technology, St Buryan. The extract gives a personal insight into some of the many shipwrecks around Tol Pedn and the neighbouring village of Porthgwarra.
From around 1910 the coastguards, stationed at Tol Pedn (now Gwennap Head) half a mile along the cliff from Porthgwarra towards Land's End have maintained a watch over the sea. Lately this has become a part time voluntary service. However disasters have not been wholly averted, as there have been wrecks in the area.
The most notable one was that of the sailing boat Khyber which occured whilst the coastguard houses were being built in 1905. The Khyber with a crew of twenty six men, had sailed from Australia in October 1904 with a cargo of grain. On 14th March 1905 the Khyber had been sighted passing the Wolf Rock Lighthouse, on a heading to cross Mounts Bay towards the Lizard, in heavy seas with a refreshing gale.
My grandmother (Ann Jackson) at the time was working in the house of her aunt at Roskestal but had been visiting in Porthgwarra that evening, along with her cousin Janie Williams. The evening was very rough and wet but Ann persuaded her fiance Jack Harvey that, since she had company, he need not walk her back to Roskestal. Jack was always to regret this decision because he considered that he might have seen some distress signals from this stricken vessel as she was pounded, near the cliffs at Tol Pedn. In the event no one saw the Khyber until early next morning when she was spotted, almost ashore, by a workman who had arrived at the site near Porth Loe ( where the coastguard houses were under construction). A workman ran to Porthgwarra to summon help from the residents. By the time they arrived at the scene the sailing boat was on the rocks and within fifteen minutes had completely broken up. Only three members of the crew were saved and it is recorded that workmen, with ladders from the building site, rescued them. No photographic evidence exists of the boat going ashore but there are postcards showing an artist's impression of that disaster. There are photographs of the scene some hours later, which show nothing but broken up spars and wood.
Communications were very limited in 1905. I have been told that Mr. Williams of Roskestal farm rode his horse to Sennen to alert the lifeboat crew but they were unable to launch because the sea had thrown boulders onto the launch slipway. I understand that following this incident the Sennen breakwater was built to give some protection to the launching slip
The Penzance lifeboat Elizabeth and Blanche was also summoned. She was a pulling (rowing) & sailing lifeboat and was actually towed to Tol Pedn by the steamer the Lady of the Isles. The storm was just too great for the crew to make headway by rowing. However they still arrived too late to be of assistance.- after a very brave attempt.
The locals searched for any other survivors from the Khyber and picked up wreckage. After their marriage in 1906, Jack and Ann kept two mementos retrieved from the wreck. One was a white china plate with a picture of a young lady on it and the other was a telescope (Captain's). Some years later a woman visited their cottage in Porthgwarra and said that her husband to be was one of the victims of the Khyber disaster. That plate, with her image on it, was being brought back as a wedding present. Jack immediately gave the plate to the visitor. The telescope is now in the possession of Jack and Ann's grandson.
In 1923 the steamer, City of Westminster, hit the Runnel Stone in fog. She knocked off the top twenty foot and become lodged there. the crew and passengers were rescued by the Sennen and Penlee lifeboats. Although the Tol Pedn LSA (Life Saving Apparatus) company had been called out and were standing by, their services were no longer required. A tug stood by awaiting salvage. Jack Harvey, a member of the LSA, returned home to Respletha cliff -a mile away. In the garden with his son (Raymond), they heard continuous blasts of a ships siren. This is a recognised distress signal and they thought another ship was in trouble. The fog then began to lift and they could see the City of Westminster had been broken in half, as the tide dropped back. Soon the tugs crew signalled a message to the coastguard, by aldis lamp, which said that a piece of rigging from the stricken vessel had become entangled around the siren's lanyard, causing it to sound!
In the 1920's Raymond Harvey, as a young man living with his parents at Rowe's Cottages, got up early one morning to prepare to go to work. As was usual, he opened the front door to ckeck the weather and sea conditions. About a quarter of a mile from Porthgwarra he saw a craft about the size of a fishing boat. Since it was not a crabbing season he doubted that it was a local boat. He looked through a telescope and thought that the boat was well laden. He called his father and gave him the telescope. Jack declared that the boat was full of men. They took a torch and signalled the boat. A flashing light responded. Jack and Raymond hurried to the slipway and launched their dinghy. They towed ashore that boat, which contained sixteen Greek seamen of whom only one spoke some broken English. The men said that their ship had been in collision with another vessel near the Wolf Rock Lighthouse (8 miles southwest of Land's End) had been sunk. The families in the cove gave the cold men hot drinks, sat them by the slab and provided them with warm clothing. The Tol Pedn coastguard was contacted & the men were sent to the Fishermen's Mission, Newlyn. Another of that ship's lifeboats, with fifteen men aboard, later came ashore at Cape Cornwall (due N.of Land's End). The Porthgwarra residents, none of whom were well off, heard nothing further from these rescued seamen although, at the time of the incident, there had been a promise of compensation.
The rugged coastline of West Cornwall is beset by the mighty force of the Atlantic ocean. On the verge of busy shipping lanes, it has been a 'magnet' for shipwrecks down the centuries. Popular legend would have us believe that the Cornish were wreckers by nature, luring unsuspecting vessels onto the treacherous shore using lanterns on the cliff tops. Perhaps this reputation owes as much to romantic fiction as to fact. Indeed, the actions of the local inhabitants in seeking to help those in peril is well documented. The saga of the 'Esperancia', which took place just over thirty years ago, provides an excellent example of such care and compassion in action.
Off Southern Cornwall on Saturday 13th August 1977, the schooner 'Esperancia' encountered calm, but foggy conditions. The vessel's builder and owner Preben Petersen, was fatigued after many weeks at sea. He was sailing from Brazil, with his wife and their ten-month-old son, to their new home in Copenhagen. These condition, together with Petersen's tiredness, led to the 'Esperancia' running aground on rocks right in the middle of Porthgwarra Cove.
With a falling tide, it became clear that the 'Esperancia' was holed twice-forward on the starboard side and aft on the port. On subsequent tides attempts were made to repare the ferro concrete hull where the vessel lay, but it became clear that it was a futile effort. Petersen noticed that the ship's bell was missing and he decided to make preparations to salvage what he could from the wreck.
Meanwhile, news of the wreck spread. Far from finding his property at risk from wreckers, local people showed much care and not a little skill. Quickly £1,500 was underwritten towards removing the 'Esperancia' from the rocks and repairing her hull. It was a race against the weather and there followed three days of frantic activity. Tractors and lorries began to bring air tight canisters and drums from wherever they could be found.
On the Thursday morning's falling tide the boats hull was packed with airtight cans and foam. Large oil drums were lashed to the gunwales. As the tide returned, amidst an anxious hush, the 'Esperancia' slowly moved. Gradualy the vessel righted and was released from her rocky trap.
A locally owned fishing boat 'Heather Armorel' took the 'Esperancia' in tow. The next day she was taken alongside the Albert Pier, Penzance. Once the tide had receded, a crane unstepped the masts and then lifted the extremely heavy hull onto the quay. It was found that the damage to the hull could be repaired. As is often the case, finances were a problem and it was doubtful whether the Petersens would be able to afford to refit their schooner. However, the people of West Cornwall rallied around and did all they could to help.
Clothing and bedding, ruined by the salt water, was replaced. The crane hire charge was guaranteed by an anonymous individual, whilst a local garage reconditioned the 'Esperancia's engine. The Petersens were given food and accomodation whilst these repairs were effected. Working parties of local people cleaned the boat and also assisted with repairs.
A short while later a package turned up at the Penzance harbour master's office. It contained the ship's bell! Preben Petersen remarked:
"The bell is the soul of the ship, together with compass and wheel, now all is well". On 9th April 1978 the 'Esperancia' left Penzance for Copenhagen
(Esperancia article by Andrew Gendall)
The Torrey Canyon
"Ashore on Seven Stones, require immediate assistance". This was the message which began the drama of the break up of the 118,000 dwt tanker the Torrey Canyon 41 years ago on Saturday 18th April 1967. Initially the report of the vessel running aground on the Seven Stones Rocks said that seven cargo tanks had been holed and that some 30,000 tons of crude oil had escaped. The inspection made on the second day of the drama showed that the damage was a lot more serious than first stated and that 14 of the 18 cargo tanks had been holed. A fleet of four tugs and equipement was at the site but the master did not agree to there salvageing the vessel at first and this caused considerable delay. On the Sunday it was`realised that the rocks had ripped through the bottom plating beneath the forward and aft fuel tanks. At this stage the lifeboats and the Search and Rescue helicopters had lifted off most of the crew and only the Master and two other crew members remained on board.
The British Government and the salvage company tried to salvage the vessel in one piece and equipemnt was placed on board the Torrey Canyon to try to float the vessel and good progress was made through the Monday and Tuesday but then an explosion happened in the engine room and the salvage crews left the vessel and during this process the captain of one of the tugs was injured and died.
On the Wednesday the Royal Navy and the salvage company decided to try again and the vessel was partially floated by the Thursday . However the tanker was stuck firmly on the rocks and the weather started to deteriate. Force 7 to 8 winds were predicted for Friday 24th March so work was hectic to try and reflote the Torrey Canyon. On Saturday and Sunday further attempts were made despite the increasing deteriation of the weather. On the evening of Easter Sunday the vessel broke in two and the stern section started to settle in the water
On Easter Monday, the fore ship, pounded by the enormous seas, broke in two.. On the morning of Tuesday the Admiralty ordered everyone off the ship and away from the area and then Fifty three vessels sprayed 5000,000 gallons of detergent, itself toxic to wildlife, onto the slick which covered an area of 35 miles by 22 miles. With the wreck in three sections by this time, it still held about a third of its cargo, 40,000 tons. A decision was made that the R.A.F. woluld bomb the wreck in order to attempt to set fire to the oil. The R.A.F. dropped 200,000 lbs of explosive , 11,000 gallons of kerosene and 3,000 gallons of napalm onto the wreck The salvage attempt was officially abandoned . as the smoke could be seen from more than 100 miles away. Approximately 120 miles of Cornish coastline were contaminated. Tens of thousands of seabirds were estimated to have been killed along with other marine life
In 1982 her entire forepart, still intact, was refloated and converted into an oil storage barge.
Described as Scilly's own "Whisky Galore", the Antiguan registered 3,00 tons Cita was a dry cargo vessel built in 1976. The Cita's cargo, in 200 containers, consisted of items such as computer mice, car tyres, tobacco, house doors, plywood, plastic bags and womens summer shorts.Quinsworth bags, bound for Ireland, were used in shops for months following the wreck of the vessel in March 1997. The majority of the islands population assisted in the clear-up by removing the items from the coastline for their own use. The police were bought over from Penzance to assist and made note of those taking goods but no prosecutions occured.
According to David Martin-Clark, the reason behind the wrecking of the Cita was "the watch-keeping officer had fallen asleep and the watch alarm had been switched off."
The regular ferry service between Penzance and the Scilly Isles has also run into trouble on occasions. In 1872 communications between the mainland and the islands were severely hampered when not just one but two of the packets were lost within three months of each other. The first of these, the SS Earl of Arran, was wrecked on Nornour in St. Martins Neck and sank soon afterwards when a passenger offered to steer the ship. The first "Scillonian" packet steamer had the misfortune to run aground three times in its career, first in 1932 and then again in 1942 and 1951. On all occassions, she was refloated and continued in service.
There have been many hundreds of wrecks around the coastline near the station and between us and the Scilly Isles and their stories are often strange and or tragic rivaling the worst wrecks that have occured around the world.