One of the great voyages of history was made by Commander Frank Worsley, going with Shackleton to South Georgia in a small boat to seek help for their fellow crew members, stranded on Elephant Island. Frank Worsley knew Orkney well – and in addition, he learned some of his seamanship when sailing with an Orkney captain, as Patricia Long describes.
When Frank Worsley visited Orkney in 1921, he heard that an old sea captain who was very ill would like to see him, so he arranged to visit Stromness. In his book Endurance, published in 1931, he wrote:
“It had never occurred to me to ask the captain’s name. But the moment that I walked into the room where he lay, I cried, ‘Why you are Captain Jock Sutherland, my old Skipper in the ship Piako!’ and he replied, ‘Why, if it isn’t little Worsley! To think that it was one of my lads that went South with Shackleton!’ He was tremendously excited and made me spend hours telling him our adventures.”
Less than five years earlier, Frank Worsley had arrived in the other Stromness, the whaling station on South Georgia. He had been captain of Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, and had just navigated the small ship’s boat, the James Caird, 800 miles across the Southern Ocean. He had learned his trade with the New Zealand Shipping Company, one of whose captains was Robert ‘Jock’ Sutherland.
From ship’s carpenter to captain
Born in Stromness in 1840, the son of John Sutherland and Betty Leask, Robert served his apprenticeship as a ship’s carpenter in Stanger’s Boatyard and went to sea as second mate and carpenter. He impressed his captain so much that he persuaded Robert to sit the examination for Master in the foreign trade. His very successful career was cut short by an accident in 1891, to the benefit of Stromness, where he served on the Town Council for many years.
When I asked about the family in Stromness, I was told that there was a picture of two of his grand-daughters, Jessie Moore and Maimie Sutherland, in Sea Haven, the book by Keith Allardyce and Bryce Wilson. Bryce had quoted from Sailing Ships of the London River by Frank G. Bowen so I borrowed a copy of the book through Inter-Library Loan and found this.
Captain Sutherland, ‘Jock’, as he was invariably called, was an Orcadian by birth and was originally a ship’s carpenter. A colossal man, nearly six feet six inches high, he was as gentle as a lamb for all his great strength. He trusted his officers to get on with their job, and it was very seldom that he saw any reason to interfere, but when he did it was not easily forgotten. He believed that an officer of a sailing ship should be able to turn out a spare spar as well as the average ship’s carpenter, and that he ought to be a thoroughly practical sail maker as well. So, while his officers got on with the running of the ship, he paid every attention to the training of the apprentices and any boys that he might have on board. Many a first-class sailorman, including some of the senior officers in the New Zealand Company, has good reason to be deeply grateful to ‘Jock’ Sutherland for all he did for them.
As long as things went smoothly and his instructions were carried out he was as light hearted as a boy, his great rumbling laugh being always near the surface, and he wanted all his hands to feel like laughing too, especially the youngsters. One point on which he was always very strict was that no work was to be made merely for the sake of keeping the men’s noses to the grindstone, and under Captain Sutherland the Piako was a thoroughly happy ship.”
An Orkney welcome
Captain Sutherland was not the only Orcadian lucky enough to hear a first-hand account of the Shackleton expedition only four years after it ended; 300 people attended an illustrated lecture in Kirkwall. Everyone else could read about it in the Orcadian, as Frank Worsley gave them an extensive interview. He mentioned a visit to Kirkwall in 1918, with Sir Ernest Shackleton. The two men were on their way to Murmansk, to fight with the White Russians against the Bolsheviks in the Civil War. It seems that Orkney had a visit from one of the most famous men in the world but didn’t know about it.
When he returned from Russia, Worsley tried his hand at commercial freight but this went badly and he was almost penniless when he arrived in Orkney in 1921, with a load of salt fish from Iceland. He gratefully recalled the welcome he received here.
Even our reception in Chile [on the return from the Antarctic] was outdone by the amazing treatment which was given me in Kirkwall. I told the true state of affairs to my friends there, and I give one lecture free and one for myself – which meant the ship – which netted me fifteen badly-needed pounds.
When the tradespeople realised my difficulties those who could possibly manage to do so refused to present a bill at all. Those who could not afford to do this, with great self-sacrifice, cut their bills by half. I was forced, in the interests of the Insurance company, to repair my rigging before proceeding, and riggers employed on this, whose rate was one-and-ten pence an hour, volunteered to do the work for a shilling, and they worked with a will. The harbourmaster, Captain Cooper, who had to inspect this work, proved himself a true friend. He went to the trouble of having my breakfast cooked of a morning and sent on board to me. I have never forgotten Mrs Cooper’s curried eggs!”
The journey of the Kathleen Annie
This story only came to light when reading the reports of Frank Worsley’s more famous visit to Orkney, in September 1924, when his schooner, the Kathleen Annie, ran aground. The story of the wreck was remembered for a long time, mainly for the cargo – wood alcohol. The Kathleen Annie was sailing from Bremen to Newfoundland but the cargo’s ultimate destination was the United States, during Prohibition.
The ship had come into Kirkwall for repairs but bad weather drove her onto the Muckle Green Holm off Eday. All the crew managed to get onto the Holm but spent eight hours in heavy wind and rain before they managed to attract the attention of the ferry St Magnus. Frank Worsley set about salvaging what he could, heading out a few days later on a chartered ship, the Countess of Bantry, with men recruited from the Labour Exchange.
It was relatively straightforward to get the Kathleen Annie off the holm but it proved impossible to tow her against the tide. This was perhaps unsurprising, as the area is now better known as the Falls of Warness, site of the first test beds for tidal energy machines.
The two ships were heading for the open sea when another ferry came to the rescue: the Orcadia on her way from Stronsay. She towed them to Kili Holm, off Egilsay and came back the next morning to help tow the Kathleen Annie to Kirkwall. A large crowd gathered to watch the slow progress to Crowness. A low-water inspection the following week revealed why the schooner was quite so hard to tow. 70 fathoms [420 feet or 128 metres] of anchor cable had slipped through a hole in the bottom but was still attached to the ship.
The fate of the cargo
In early November, two small boats were used to transfer the remaining 17,000 cases of alcohol to the steamer Leaside. As work was ending on the second day, the engineer of the Busy Bee, John Leslie, went to stoke the boiler fire. When he opened the furnace door, fumes leaking from damaged cans caused a loud explosion. Amazingly, no-one was seriously hurt but the flames quickly took hold.
The Orkney Herald takes up the story:
All this time the Busy Bee was lashed to the Kathleen Annie, and the nature of the cargoes contained in both vessels gave rise to considerable fear. The situation was a precarious one. 9000 gallons of spirits in the hold of the Busy Bee, and double that amount in the schooner, left ample room for speculation as to what might happen any moment.”
The thirty men on board were soon rescued unhurt and hundreds of people gathered to watch the show.
Not all the alcohol went up in flames or was carried back to Bremen. A lot was washed ashore in Orkney and Shetland. Brian Alexander’s father Douglas and his brothers were playing near the shore on Egilsay, when they saw their neighbours loading cases on the horse-cart. When they went to say hello, they were firmly told to go away. Kath Gourlay wrote an article about Frank Worsley and the Kathleen Annie for the magazine Living Orkney in November 2006. Allan Taylor told her:
In its neat state we used it [the wood-alcohol] for fuelling the Primus stoves and Tilley lamps. Then we realised we could drink it, if we were very, very careful what you mixed it with. It was pure firewater but as long as you remembered how to dilute it, you could get off with it. We used to mix it with that Ministry of Food orange juice the bairns were issued around the 1950s. It was pretty horrible but it hit the spot.”
Frank Worsley ended his book with Shackleton’s death in the Antarctic in 1922, so did not include the story of the Kathleen Annie, but the help he received then can only have reinforced his view of Orcadians.
To this day it warms my heart to recall the generosity and sincere kindness of all my friends in Kirkwall. I felt then, and feel now, that so long as Great Britain continues to produce such types as these the country has nothing much to worry about. People of such sterling quality are bound to make good whatever the circumstances.”