We Remember – Hawkstone & Crew – 25th Feb 1958

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Hawkstone was built by “Richard Dunston Ltd” at Thorne and launched in 1948 for Mercantile Lighterage Ltd.     On 25th February, 1958 tragedy struck when Hawkstone was lost with all crew in rough weather on the edge of the Yantlet Flats.    The tug was raised refitted and put back into service,being broken up in 1976 at Blackwall.

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Photos above show Hawkstone before and after incident

This week the ex Cory tug Touchstone now privately owned by Rob Chandler paid respects to those lost by laying wreaths where the Hawkstone was found.        Sue Parkes is the daughter of Richard Ivor Stanhope Knight who was the skipper onboard Hawkstone that day.  Sue was joined by Tony Down who was her fathers apprentice and due to be onboard Hawkstone that day.

Sue kindly sent in these photographs

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The crew lost onboard Hawkstone that day were:

Richard Ivor Stanhope Knight (33 years old) (Skipper)
George Ernest Back (40 years old) (Engineer)
Michael John Deagle (25 years old) (Mate)
Brian John Watson (18 years old) (Greaser Boy)
Victor Stanley Keay (32 years old) (Lighterman)
Clifford Arnold Marks (35 years old) (Lighterman)

Below is a detailed report of what happened that tragic day :

At about 1015 hours on 25th February, 1958, the “Hawkstone”, with the two laden barges in tow left the premises of the London and Coastal Oil Wharves Limited, at Canvey Island, to proceed towards the Medway. The two barges were destined for Aylesford. It was the intention of the management that the “Hawkstone”, being an Erith-based tug, should hand the barges over to the “Crowstone”, a Strood-based tug, at some convenient place in Sea Reach or in the Nore Swatchway. There was no direct evidence before the Court as to the conditions and circumstances in which the flotilla left the installation at Canvey Island, but it was seen by a reliable witness in the vicinity of the Scars Elbow buoy, which is moored a little less than a mile below the place from which the “Hawkstone” had set forth upon her journey.

The “Crowstone”, which had brought two empty and two loaded barges from the Medway and was at that time proceeding up the Sea Reach towards Holehaven with the four barges, met the “Hawkstone” close to the Scars Elbow buoy, and there was some hailing between the two skippers, in the course of which the skipper of the “Hawkstone” told the skipper of the “Crowstone” what he was to do with his four barges on arrival at the installation. There was a stong wind blowing off Canvey sea wall and the “Hawkstone” was at that time well to windward. She was towing the two barges, which were breasted together in the usual way, on nylon tow ropes with a scope of a barge’s length or a little less.

The skipper of the “Crowstone” did not notice anything unusual about the “Hawkstone” and her tows, and although he himself had just passed up the Swatchway and the Sea Reach he was quite ready to contemplate following the “Hawkstone” down and taking over her two barges in the Swatchway in the weather conditions he had just been experiencing. It is not possible to be precise about the time at which the two tugs passed each other at the Scars Elbow buoy, but it it probably safe to say it was before 1100 hours.

At 1130 hours the “Crowstone”, having dropped her barges, left the installation and headed down the Reach. It is the evidence of her skipper that as soon as he got clear of the shore he could see the weather was going to be bad. The wind speed was increasing. It was snowing harder than it had been during his upward passage, and the snow was building up on the windows of his wheelhouse. The tide was now flood, high water at Sheerness having been about 1000 hours by prediction, although, owing to the strong north easterly winds which were prevailing at the time and bringing a great deal of extra water into the estuary, the meteorological predictions relating to the period in question are unreliable. Although the wind was north or north east, there had been enough east in it during the ebb to create an exceptionally heavy swell, and as the flood began to come up a nasty short cross sea built up which made things very uncomfortable for small craft. No-one will ever know precisely what was the condition of the various openings in the superstructure of the “Hawkstone” as she went down the Reach, but on the “Crowstone” everything was closed and there was no reason to suppose that the experienced and reliable crew of the “Hawkstone” would do other than keep all openings on that tug securely closed in weather conditions of that sort.

The “Crowstone” kept well to windward under the edge of the Chapman Sand and passed to the northward of the East Blyth buoy. Her skipper told the Court that, owing to snow flurries, visibility varied between a quarter-of-a-mile and six lengths of his tug. While he was still under the Chapman he was able to proceed at full speed but as he opened the greater width of the Reach he had to ease down and he started to have trouble with gear shifting about the deck. When he got down to the West Nore Sand buoy some other gear got loose and he stopped his engine completely and headed up into the wind and lay for a few minutes while it was secured. At about that time the skipper of the “Crowstone” saw the “Hawkstone” about a quarter-of-a-mile below him, that is to say, below the West Nore Sand buoy but well above the next buoy down, namely the Mid Swatch. When he first saw the flotilla he could see only a single mass but shortly afterwards the “Hawkstone” appeared to turn up into the wind and he could distinguish the tug ahead of the barges and shortly afterwards again the flotilla seemed to be presenting a solid mass to the eye of the witness. At about this time the skipper of the “Crowstone” decided that it would be impossible to take over the barges from the “Hawkstone” in the Swatchway and he accordingly turned round and went back to Holehaven. His assumption in doing this was that the “Hawkstone” would continue with the barges into the Medway and tie them up at the Grain petroleum buoys at the top end of the Saltpan Reach. This was a justifiable assumption in the light of previous experience.

The “Hawkstone” was also seen by persons on board two upcoming craft although the precise time at which she was seen cannot be satisfactorily ascertained. It is, however, clear that the “Hawkstone” was seen from the motor barge “Thistle” somewhere in the neighbourhood of the Yantlet Flat buoy and it is reasonably certain that this encounter was substantially earlier than the last sighting of the “Hawkstone” from the “Crowstone”. At this time the “Hawkstone” was seen from quite close to and was described as “making very heavy weather of it”. She was probably making extremely little headway over the flood and it was observed that there were five or six people in the wheelhouse, but although the skipper of the “Thistle” formed the view that the “Hawkstone” was extraordinarily low in the water and rolling heavily and her tows jumping in the seaway, he did not think the men on board her were in any danger. His mate, who saw the “Hawkstone” at the same time opined that, “she was all right”.

Rather later, at a time not very reliably estimated to have been 1315 hours, the “Hawkstone” was seen from the auxiliary sailing barge “Cabby” somewhere in the mile-and-a-half of water which lies between the West Nore Sand and the Mid Swatch buoys. The weather at that time was described as very bad, with wind N.N.E., and the skipper of the “Cabby” was justifiably more concerned with hauling his vessel up to windward than with observing what other people were doing. He did, however, receive the impression that the tug was heading “off from the sand” by which he meant the Yantlet Flats, and that as he passed her she appeared to straighten down the Swatchway. This witness said further, “she was jumping about a lot but I think she was doing quite well considering the weather. She looked in good trim to me … I think she was doing better than we were”. He added, “I have never seen such a confused swell in Sea Reach. I think I had seen them higher but with the wind further up the Reach. I had not seen such a confused swell”. This witness made an excellent impression on the Court.

The “Crowstone”, having returned to Canvey, whence she was subsequently sent off on a mission up-river, the management reasonably expected that the “Hawkstone” would carry on into the Medway and that they would hear something of her during the course of the afternoon. When they found themselves without news they began to make inquiries from persons at various points in the Medway, but none of these inquiries produced any information. It was accordingly decided that a search ought to be made, but darkness had fallen before the searching vessel could set out. It was in fact the “Crowstone”, once more at Canvey after having completed her up-river mission, which set off on the ebb to look for lights in or near the Swatchway, but the search was fruitless and the “Crowstone” returned to Canvey with no-one any the wiser as to what had happened to the “Hawkstone” and her barges.

What must have been the almost completely submerged “Hawkstone” was seen from a passing vessel the “Crescence” on the edge of the Yantlet Flats at about 1630 hours on the 25th February, but the position of what was seen in relation to any of the buoys in the Swatchway was not reliably observed, although the Court concluded that it must have been the position in which the “Hawkstone” was later located by the Southend lifeboat. Having regard to the fact that no-one took cross bearings by compass of this position, it cannot be more particularly fixed than was indicated in the first paragraph of this Annex.

When the Southend lifeboat found the vessel at about low water on the 26th February, there was not enough water round her for the lifeboat to go alongside and it was necessary to fetch a boarding boat from Southend Pier in order to put men on board the “Hawkstone”. Those who boarded the tug found the aftercabin hatch pushed right back and the compartment full of water; the engine-room hatch open and that compartment full of water, and the forward cabin door open and that compartment also full of water. There was a great deal of damage in the wheelhouse. The compass was lying on the floor. The starboard wheelhouse door had been smashed by the sea and all but one of the wheel-house windows were smashed. The plastic lining of the wheelhouse had been torn away by the sea.

The Southend lifeboat was equipped with a petrol motor fire pump with a capacity of about fifty tons per hour and this was used to pump water from the vessel until she floated in the dock she had made for herself, which was estimated to be about five feet deep. Later, the Port of London Authority’s vessel “Yantlet”, arrived, and added another smaller pump to the effort. At about 1520 hours the lifeboat coxswain handed the “Hawkstone” over to the master of Messrs. William Cory & Sons’ River Salvage Vessel “Cormooring” and the 175 tons capacity suction pump of that vessel was put into the engine-room below the plates, and the fore and after peak tanks were pumped out through the manholes, the covers of which were removed for that purpose, and shortly afterwards the “Hawkstone” was taken in tow and removed up-river and was subsequently slipped at Erith.

It was observed that the towing hook was in the “Open” position; that the engine-room telegraph in the wheelhouse was at “Stop” and it was later ascertained that the main engine controls were in the “Stopped” position. A survey of the ship showed that the integrity of the hull was complete. The propeller was undamaged. The stern gland was in good order. The rudder and the steering gear were serviceable and there was plenty of starting air in the bottles. Although the fuel tanks contained a considerable admixture of water, there was, and at all material times must have been, more than enough diesel fuel to take the vessel to any place to which she might reasonably have tried to go.

The two lighters were found close up to the sea wall near the entrance to Yantlet Creek. They too were intact. Although parts of the tow ropes were found on the tug and both lighters it is impossible to deduce from their condition the sequence of events which led to the lighters becoming separated from the tug, particularly since, as has been observed, the towing hook was in the “Open” position.

The careful recording of what was seen of the “Hawkstone” and her tows before they stranded and of the condition in which she was later found has brought the Court no nearer to an explanation of what happened. All that it is possible to say is that it is likely that in the very wild conditions of wind and sea, the tug, whose course down the Swatchway would necessarily take her very close to the lee shore on the edge of the Yantlet Flats, caught the edge of the sand with her heel and was swung round until she was heading in a south westerly direction. Earlier in this Annex it has been mentioned that there is no reason to suppose that the experienced and reliable crew of the “Hawkstone” would do other than keep all openings on the tug securely closed while under way in the prevailing conditions. There seems little doubt but that it was subsequent to the stranding that the deck openings of cabins and engine-room were left uncovered. The tug which could not have grounded at speed would initially lie over on her high floor, and in that posture would take in heavy seas sufficient to destroy her reserve buoyancy with the result that she would remain fast aground and was, as has been said, seen practically submerged and probably upright at about 1630 hours on the 25th February.

Whether this catastrophe was due to a temporary mishap such as for example a momentary loss of power on the engine (of which there is no evidence) or whether it was due to the very difficult conditions of visibility owing to the persistent flurries of snow, can never be determined. There was certainly no evidence before the Court which could suggest that the management, or skipper and crew of the stranded vessel were in any way to blame. Nor is there any evidence of any damage to, or failure of, any part of the tug’s structure or machinery.

The “Hawkstone” was provided with two circular lifebuoys, five cylindrical buoys and ten life-jackets, eight of the latter being stowed in the fore cabin and two in the after cabin. These appliances were inspected on the 23rd February, 1958 by a representative of the owners and were found to be in satisfactory condition. The two lifebuoys and the five cylindrical buoys which had been stowed about the deck of the “Hawkstone” had all gone when she was found, and, indeed, several of them were observed very close to the sea wall by those who went to look for the lighters. Two of the life-jackets were found in the fore cabin but the others were missing. The bodies of four of those who lost their lives were recovered on the Kent shore and three of these were wearing lifejackets. The other two bodies were not recovered for some weeks and these were not wearing life-jackets. It can be reasonably concluded that someone entered both the fore cabin and the after cabin to hand out life-jackets and this is possibly the best explanation of the fact that the entrances to these compartments were found open.

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