MEECHING'S "15 MINUTES OF FAME"

50 years ago - 20th to 23rd October 1968 - The Sitakund Incident

By Andy Gilbert

Monday 21st October 1968. If you'd turned on the radio and listened to the morning news bulletins (there was of course no 'breakfast TV' to wake up to in those days) or caught a later edition of the daily papers, two stories were grabbing the headlines. The Mexico Olympics were in full swing and later in the day you would be able watch some of the highlights in gloriously fuzzy (and knowing Newhaven's miserable TV reception in those says, probably rather 'snowy') black and white TV pictures, or read about the results in the papers  - the day after they'd happened, of course! But the other story was rather more dramatic and much closer to home. In fact, it is still one of the biggest ever local maritime stories. On this Our Newhaven page I'll try to convey some of that drama in words and illustrate it with just some of the many pictures from my archives.

Photo:Sitakund blazes while under tow off Eastbourne. One of just two colour photos I have of the incident.

Sitakund blazes while under tow off Eastbourne. One of just two colour photos I have of the incident.

Andy Gilbert collection

The incident started at around 8.00pm on the evening of Sunday 20th October 1968, when doors and windows from Eastbourne to Newhaven were rattled by two large explosions way out in the English Channel. The 15,500 ton Norwegian tanker Sitakund had been almost torn apart by these explosions around 17 miles off Beachy Head and was burning fiercely just forward of her after accommodation and the engine room. A group of French trawlers were first on the scene, closely followed by the Royal Navy frigate HMS Mohawk which then took charge of the situation. Crew members who had abandoned Sitakund and been picked up by the trawlers were then transferred to HMS Mohawk, ready to be taken to Portsmouth, the frigate's next port of call. Sitakund's Master, Captain Ole D Terjesen, and a handful of brave crew members remained on board for a while trying to fight the fires but they too were soon forced to abandon ship, leaving the tanker ablaze and drifting in the channel's busy shipping lanes. Both Newhaven and Eastbourne Lifeboats were launched at around 9.00pm to render assistance to a 'tanker on fire' and would be on the scene throughout the early part of the operations, initially looking for missing crewmembers. Newhaven Lifeboat would then tow Sitakund's two empty lifeboats back to Newhaven on Monday 21st October.

Photo:HMS Mohawk. She handled the early stages of the incident.

HMS Mohawk. She handled the early stages of the incident.

Andy Gilbert collection

Photo:Some of Sitakund's crew being transferred from a French trawler to HMS Mohawk.

Some of Sitakund's crew being transferred from a French trawler to HMS Mohawk.

© Imperial War Museum

Sitakund had recently discharged her cargo of oil at Wilhelmshaven in Germany, and was now sailing outward bound down the English Channel, heading for Libya. She was unladen, but carrying sea water in her deep ballast tanks. However it transpired that her cargo tanks had not been properly vented of flammable gases after her discharge, and the explosions resulted from this oversight. Both Niton Radio (the Post Office Maritime Radio station which was then based on the Southern tip of the Isle of Wight) and HMS Mohawk were repeatedly warning all shipping to keep clear as it was feared that her other tanks could explode in a similar fashion.

Photo:Operators at Niton Radio, which broadcast mayday relay messages and warned shipping about the risk of further explosions. They also co-ordinated inter-ship messages on 2182 KHz during the incident.

Operators at Niton Radio, which broadcast mayday relay messages and warned shipping about the risk of further explosions. They also co-ordinated inter-ship messages on 2182 KHz during the incident.

Wooton Bridge IOW Historical

The first I knew of the incident was around 9.30 on that Sunday evening. My Dad, Captain Frank Gilbert, was relaxing with the family, watching TV after spending much of the day laying turf in the front garden, when there was a very loud and urgent knock on our front door. It was a 'runner' (who most likely would have actually been on a pushbike!) from the harbour Watch House telling Dad to get on board the tug Meeching immediately and to proceed to sea to render assistance to a ship in distress. Why a knock on the door from the 'runner'? We'd only just moved house and there was no phone installed yet. You often had to wait ages for a phone in those days, but strangely enough one was installed extremely quickly after this incident - some strings were obviously pulled!

So Dad put on his uniform, said goodbye to us and was off in a hurry. My Mum, my sister and I didn't realise at the time that we wouldn't see him again for several days, or that he and the rest of the Meeching's crew would be in some considerable danger for part of that time!

Photo:Meeching's Joint Masters in 1968. Captains Frank Gilbert and Alex Pringle

Meeching's Joint Masters in 1968. Captains Frank Gilbert and Alex Pringle

Andy Gilbert collection

As soon as my Dad, along with Captain Alex Pringle, Meeching's other joint Master (both Masters would have to be there for any salvage 'shout'!), Mate 'Sally' Flowers and the rest of the crew were all aboard, the tug set sail from Newhaven at full speed for the area where the 'casualty' (the maritime term for a ship in distress) was located. On the way to the scene, Sitakund suffered another explosion that Alex Pringle described at the time as being 'like a nuclear blast' - they could feel it as well as see and hear it, even though they were some miles away. As my Dad later recalled in a BBC radio programme marking the tug's 15th birthday, this third explosion was the ship's fuel bunkers igniting, causing major structural damage and sealing the ship's eventual fate.

Meeching was not the only tug on the way to the incident. Presumably unaware that Sitakund had been abandoned, the famous Dutch salvage tug Zwarte Zee was making repeated radio calls to the tanker on the maritime calling frequency of 2182 KHz, saying that she was proceeding at her maximum speed of 20 knots to the area and would be there in just a few hours. She offered her assistance under the well-known 'Lloyds Open Form' salvage agreement with its famous tag line of "No cure, no pay."

However, Meeching also had a saying, "First come, first served!" and, after spending some time using her searchlight, looking for any more survivors and analysing the situation, my Dad put Meeching right up against the stern of the blazing Sitakund. A rope ladder was hanging there, where the crew had abandoned ship (seen clearly in one of the photos) and it was AB Graham Ware who climbed aboard to fasten a tow line. From that point on, Meeching was in sole charge of the incident, with my Dad and Alex Pringle effectively becoming the Salvage Masters. My Dad then called HMS Mohawk and told its radio operator that the casualty had been taken in tow. This obviously surprised him, given the warnings he had recently been giving out, and there were a few seconds of silence before he eventually replied "Roger...out."

Photo:Meeching with Sitakund under tow off Eastbourne.

Meeching with Sitakund under tow off Eastbourne.

Andy Gilbert collection

Photo:A reverse view of Meeching towing Sitakund, heading Westward.

A reverse view of Meeching towing Sitakund, heading Westward.

Dutch National Archives

Photo:Sitakund's Master, Captain Ole Terjesen, pictured a few days after the incident. He was on board Meeching for much of the operations.

Sitakund's Master, Captain Ole Terjesen, pictured a few days after the incident. He was on board Meeching for much of the operations.

Eastbourne Gazzette

As my Dad and Alex Pringle told me shortly after the events, Meeching's intention was to tow Sitakund slowly towards Pevensey Bay, beach her on soft sand off Langley Point, put the fires out then refloat her. However, while there was some talk in the press of 'communications difficulties', the fact is that towing a blazing, badly holed tanker is not an exact science and Sitakund had her own ideas about where she was going. After some to-ing and fro-ing off Eastbourne, she eventually grounded on rocks off Dukes Mound. 

Photo:Fighting the fire at (very) close quarters. This is where Meeching was for much of the time spent firefighting.

Fighting the fire at (very) close quarters. This is where Meeching was for much of the time spent firefighting.

Eastbourne Gazette / Newhaven Museum

Photo:The only other colour photo I have, showing Meeching fighting the fires.

The only other colour photo I have, showing Meeching fighting the fires.

Andy Gilbert collection

Once Sitakund was aground, tackling the blaze became the first priority and Meeching set to work fighting the fires using the powerful fire fighting water cannon on top of her wheelhouse and high pressure hoses powered by her salvage pumps. This required her to be positioned just feet away from the tanker for almost the entire operation. In fact, as you can see from the overhead photo, at times she was literally inches away, tucked right under Sitakund's stern. Pinpoint manouevering was called for and Meeching's twin screws and twin rudders, ably controlled by her Masters, allowed her to be kept just where she was needed. Meeching also engaged her nearly identical sister tug Dominant, from Dover to provide invaluable assistance. Equally as manoueverable as Meeching, she too was working at very close quarters much of the time.

Photo:Meeching and her near sister Dominant, from Dover.

Meeching and her near sister Dominant, from Dover.

Dutch National Archives

As well as firefighting, Dominant would also act as a vital ferry for men and equipment from Eastbourne's Fire Brigade, using Eastbourne Pier as a makeshift terminal. These firefighters then worked around the clock from both Meeching and Dominant and, in the later stages, went on board Sitakund itself to damp down the last of the flames.

Photo:Firefighting equipment being loaded on board Dominant at Eastbourne Pier. You can see the high pressure water cannon on top of her wheelhouse. Meeching was similarly equipped.

Firefighting equipment being loaded on board Dominant at Eastbourne Pier. You can see the high pressure water cannon on top of her wheelhouse. Meeching was similarly equipped.

Eastbourne Gazzette

Photo:Firefighting continued for two days. There is a towline visible from Sitakund's bow and, from other photos I have, it appears that Meeching requested that Dominant held the tanker in place at this point.

Firefighting continued for two days. There is a towline visible from Sitakund's bow and, from other photos I have, it appears that Meeching requested that Dominant held the tanker in place at this point.

Dutch National Archives

What of Zwarte Zee, which had proceeded all the way from Holland at full speed in hope of bagging the prize? Well, having learnt that Meeching had Sitakund in tow, her Master switched from 2182 KHz to VHF marine radio channel 16 and again offered his tug's assistance. Sitakund's Master, Captain Terjesen, was by then on board Meeching overseeing operations and was quite happy with what Meeching was doing, so these offers were politely declined. However my Dad is on record in that 1975 radio programme as saying that when Zwarte Zee eventually did arrive (several hours later than the ETA given in those earlier radio calls) she just got in the way, and he eventually had to call her Master on VHF radio and tell him to 'Get the Hell out of it!' (he told me that those were his exact words) and he threatened to turn high pressure fire hoses on the Dutch tug if she didn't withdraw - she did! (It's worth mentioning that Meeching had lost another blazing tanker salvage to a German tug three years earlier when Meeching's towline mysteriously parted not once, but twice, with the German tug hovering dangerously close nearby, despite having been told to stand clear.) Zwarte Zee stayed on the scene for a while but eventually left empty handed.

Photo:Zwarte Zee waits off Eastbourne. No valuable prize this time for the powerful Dutch tug.

Zwarte Zee waits off Eastbourne. No valuable prize this time for the powerful Dutch tug.

Andy Gilbert collection

Another British tug, the Kendal, from J P Knight's large fleet of tugs on the Thames and Medway, had also put to sea in the hope of a share of the prize. Photos show that she was on hand for some time, ready to assist if required, but I think she too had to sit this one out as I can find no record of her taking part in the operations. Alas, J P Knight's own files have no information on the incident as it was so long ago.

Photo:Dominant and Kendal stand by while Meeching (out of picture) tows Sitakund

Dominant and Kendal stand by while Meeching (out of picture) tows Sitakund

Andy Gilbert collection

When the fires were finally extinguished and damping down completed, there was some criticism from a few Eastbourne councillors saying that the decision to beach Sitakund off Dukes Mound was 'an error of judgement' and that she should instead have been beached off Langney Point. Questions were even asked in Parliament by Eastbourne's MP. Maybe they should have checked the facts about the original intentions first! Other local officials were quick to point this out and they also praised the crews of both tugs and the Eastbourne firefighters for risking their lives to put out the fires and bring a blazing tanker to shore and safely away from the busy shipping lanes.

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'MEECHING'S

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'MEECHING'S

Photo:The operations drew onlookers to the pier, the the beaches and the overlooking cliffs

The operations drew onlookers to the pier, the the beaches and the overlooking cliffs

All 3 images: Andy Gilbert collection

Photo:With the fires nearly out, Meeching damps down the Sitakund

With the fires nearly out, Meeching damps down the Sitakund

Andy Gilbert collection

Meeching returned to Newhaven a few days later, with the crew having had little rest during the incident. However, it was only a day or two afterwards that she was back to her more mundane duties of towing the mud barges from the dredger out to sea and working with the ferries and freighters in the harbour.

Photo:Back to the day job. With her '15 minutes of fame' now over, Meeching is back at work, bringing in another mud barge!

Back to the day job. With her '15 minutes of fame' now over, Meeching is back at work, bringing in another mud barge!

Wilson photo collection, held by Andy Gilbert

It's often said that the marine salvage business offers rich pickings and I'm sure that's sometimes very true. However, Meeching's crew certainly didn't earn a fortune for putting their lives at risk for those few days. It wasn't a full salvage claim, and Dominant's owners and crew would also have had an entitlement. So by the time that British Railways had taken a generous slice for themselves, not least to cover the costs of operating Meeching during the incident, what was left to be divided up between the officers and crew wasn't really that much. My Dad said that, once the taxman had taken his share, what he received was just about enough to buy a small used car - a Morris Minor, in fact! Had it been a full or greater partial salvage claim, with a patched up and  refloated Sitakund eventually being towed to somewhere like Rotterdam or Hamburg for full repairs, you could probably have added enough for a house and a garage for that car!

So what became of Sitakund, now an abandoned hulk on the rocks off Eastbourne? Well, she actually became something of a tourist attraction for some months afterwards (indeed she had drawn large crowds during the incident itself) and I can clearly remember going to see the tanker from up on the cliffs and from Dukes Mound. Eventually she was cut in two and the relatively undamaged forward section was towed away to Falmouth by the salvage tug Englishman in the summer of 1969. The scarred and twisted after section followed a few months later, towed away to Spain for scrapping.

Photo:The tug Englishman tows the forward section of Sitakund to Falmouth.

The tug Englishman tows the forward section of Sitakund to Falmouth.

Andy Gilbert collection

I'm pleased to say that there are now some black and white video clips of the incident on Youtube. This one from British Movietone News shows some very clear views of both Meeching and Dominant fighting the fires at close quarters, complete with the usual dramatic 'newsreel' music and slightly over the top commentary, while this one from Pathe News shows Englishman towing the forward section away.

Southern ITV took a lot of footage of the incident as it unfolded, much of it filmed and commentated on by Newhaven-based news reporter David Clitheroe and shown on the national TV news bulletins and Southern's own "Day By Day" evening news programme. However I'm afraid that, even after 50 years, ITN still want a rather large amount of money to release the footage, so I can't include it, or any stills from it, here. A shame, as David Clitheroe showed me some of it many years ago and it's excellent material.

Our good friends at the Sussex Express have kindly agreed to print an article marking the 50th anniversary of the events in the issue published on Friday 19th October 2018, so you can have a printed copy for the archives too!

Although Meeching was involved with several salvages in her eight years at Newhaven before the Sitakund incident, and would take part in many more such incidents until her decommissioning at Newhaven in January 2000, there's no doubt in my mind that if Andy Warhol was correct when he said that everyone would have their own '15 minutes of fame', then these few days in October 1968, some 50 years ago now, were surely Meeching's moment in the spotlight.

 

 

This page was added by Andy Gilbert on 18/10/2018.

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