Night of the George Robb
December ’59. Sunday. Night. Rising wind.
Dark wheelhouse. Shadows. Cigarette flares. Face glows red.
Skipper Ryles peers out; black night, black sky, black sea streaked white. “In for a rough night.” Mind flash: wife and kids. “Home for Christmas.”
Saborowski, legs splayed; dipping deck. Eases into sea. Compass tilts, swings. Mind sees Teddy, pet spaniel, smiles.
Duffy, deckhand, pauses; false-leg firmed on pitching deck – accident when five. Flash: mother. “Week on Faroe Bank... Presents for sisters.” Duthie, sea-cook, nods. Secures pans. Tends stove.
Mackay, chief, grips bar, checks dials. Engine purrs. Flash: shore job... wife and bairns.
Mess-room men talk. Brace against motion. Sip cocoa. Engine throbs. “To a fair catch.”
Satan rides the eastern wind,
night as black as hell.
Menace in the powerful surge,
lumps leap from the swell.
Combers charge with snarling tops,
all in a chasing sea.
Ships pooped by waves the like of these
can’t rise or shake them free.
Storm roars. Rollers charge, break, race... spray, spume.
Ship rises; plunges. Seas thump!
Deck buried; millrace; deadweight.
Ship labours, shakes, rises; rolls... over... shudders... creaks...
Harbours closed. Seas pound; leap walls.
Skipper pensive. Radar cluttered. Beacons swamped.
Navigation gone. Boltholes lost.
Steel-bound coast. Caithness... Duncansby!
Corkscrew motion, “Undertow!”
Saborowski, instinct, wheel hard over.
Ship lifted, driven.
Raven black... “Cliffs!”
Breakers explode; surf, spume, fangs... “Rocks!”
Impact – crash! Men hurled; ship flung.
Combers thunder; seas rage...
Crunch! Blood. Cries! Broken bones.
Decks leap, buck, yaw. Metal screams; grates; crunches; grinds...
“Mayday!” Airwaves fill... Urgent voices...
Blast-bang! Sky flares red. Men leap from bed...
Saborowski fought the Germans in the wicked Nazi war.
Blood, death, fires of hell, seen it all before.
Faced with overwhelming odds, bitter lessons learned.
Plots writ in fate’s grim sacred-book are never overturned.
No shame, when faced with certain death, for men to run away.
Retreat, regroup, regain your strength to fight another day.
Into the roaring frenzied surf, the fisherman must leap.
Cold... Cold... So bitter cold... Saborowski longs for sleep.
Torchlight. Rocky slippery path. Wind-lashed crags.
Villagers: knowers of coves, rocks, reefs.
All aid each; storm-driven rain.
Siren pleads; wind-snatches...
Coastguard: weight-laden; breeches buoy, shackles, ropes, posts.
Moorland, bracken, bog, walls, fences, swollen-streams...
Cold, numb, breathless, drenched, blinded, ache, pain.
Ship... there... far below – smashed!
Seas crash, swamp, batter. No life seen.
Rope-rocket fired. Wind flings back.
Once, twice... Five times they fail.
Lifeboats: Wick, trapped in port –
Longhope: rocks, reefs, death-hungry seas...
“Campbell’s dead! Yomp exhaustion!”
“No more lives! Stand down!”
Dying now on cliff bound beach,
so close to help, yet out of reach.
At home a dog pines through the night,
aware maybe, of master’s plight.
Grey dawns the morn on many lives;
fatherless bairns and widowed wives.
George Robb, lost with all hands, 6th December 1959