30 January 2009

A Symphony of Seamanship

On this day in 1955, the Queen Mary having been urgently beckoned by the S.S. Liberator, arrived at her side to take aboard two Greek seamen with possible mortal injuries. Only two lights shone from the small ship as it tossed on the stormy sea. Chief Medical Officer Joseph B. Maguire observed, "She was wallowing and rolling, exposing her red-leaded bilges, taking huge green seas over the foc's'le head which burst into a flurry of white foam along her length. We saw her dripping propeller at regular intervals, turning impotently in the air." 

No matter. In a sea boat, the ship's surgeon, Mr. A.C.K. Yates, set off in his life vest with an interpreter and a small crew, navigating the heaving water as it swelled and bottomed out dramatically. Passengers lined up along the promenade deck watched, spellbound, and Captain Sorrell [pictured], who had recently quit smoking, lit up and stubbed out enough butts to fill an ashtray. It was no simple task providing weather protection with the Mary's giant bulk while ensuring she didn't drift perilously close to the smaller craft. But he conducted, in Maguire's words, "...a symphony of seamanship on the engine-room telegraphs..." until thirty minutes later, Yates had arrived safely at the Liberator's side. That, as it turned out, had been the easy part. 

Getting aboard the freighter was far more difficult -- and dangerous. As the ladder lowered over the side of the Liberator banged against the bow, two men precariously jumped for it, one of them Yates, and found their way to the ailing sailors. The weather worsening, Sorrell's radio request that the Liberator shine lights or blow its horn when the men were safely aboard went unanswered. Finally, after much anxious waiting, the boat returned -- without patients or doctor. 

The risk of the small boat being swamped had been too great, the coxswain explained, and so they had come back. The alternative? There was none. Sorrell directed a new crew to try again. And so they did. Most of the passengers by now had given up on the whole affair and gone to bed. They would miss the grand finale. The Mary once more provided lee as the sea boat made its way to the Liberator. It would take several attempts for the patients, bandaged and covered for warmth, to be lowered safely. But on the sixth try, they were at last on their way to the Queen Mary's hospital. The sea boat, lifted on davits, found hot-water bottles and stretchers awaiting its banged-up cargo. Thanks to the Mary, her gallant officers and brave seamen, both Greek sailors survived their harrowing ordeal.

By the time the wounded were in the hospital, Captain Sorrell already was heading for Cherbourg. An extract from the Queen Mary's log that day is deceptively dispassionate:

0132 hours, stopped and removed two men to Queen Mary hospital.
0434 hours, resumed voyage to Southampton.
Weather:  fresh gale, very rough sea, heavy west-northwesterly swell, overcast and fierce rain squalls.  

A parting message from the Liberator, composed by the ship's German radioman, was sent as its savior departed: "Your trying has been admirable. Praises British Merchant Marine. Good courage. Many thanks you, doctors and crew." 

The Sea My Surgery, Joseph B. Maguire
Queen Mary, Isolation Ward Exhibit

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