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Wrecking of the
Lady Kennaway

Keith Tankard
Updated: 7 October 2009
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The Lady Kennaway was an aging ship at the time of her fateful last voyage. In her early years, her anchor cables had been made from coir rope but, by the time of her expedition to East London, these had been replaced by 1½ inch chains -- some of it really old.

She carried three anchors. The one on the port side weighed 23 cwt, while her starboard one weighed 27 cwt. Each was attached to 105 fathoms of chain. Nothing is known about the third anchor except that she had one. It was stowed away somewhere -- possibly in the cargo bay below decks.

The ship dropped anchor in the roadstead in 12½ fathoms of water and at a distance of just over a mile from shore. The Captain immediately rowed with a small crew to pay a courtesy call on their nearest neighbour where he ascertained that their berth was a good one.

Almost immediately the three Commissariat surfboats from East London made an appearance, their crew hauling their way out along the warp. They began disembarking the immigrants immediately, each boat making several trips till the last person stepped ashore late Saturday afternoon.

No work would have taken place on Sunday but, on Monday, the cargo was taken ashore -- the task being completed early that evening. With the work nearing its end, the Captain himself went ashore.

There was nothing exceptional about that. Captains often left their ships for a night in the town and, in any case, he had to find the immigration officer and have him sign the documents verifying that the charter had been successfully carried out.

He had intended to return to his ship that very evening so that they could weigh anchor and set sail immediately. He had therefore left no specific instructions to his Chief Officer about what to do in case of an emergency.

Unfortunately he could not get the papers signed and was forced to spend the night on land. The Lady Kennaway could therefore not leave as had been intended. By Tuesday morning, however, the wind was so strong that it was dangerous for him to return to his ship.

In the meantime, the Chief Officer had begun to fret. As every fisherman knows, one has to extend the line when catching a truly large fish or one runs the risk of snapping the cable. He therefore ordered that another 10 fathoms be played out on the anchor chain.

He was aware that the chain was old and he did not trust it. To be on the safe side, he decided to drop the starboard anchor as well, and thereupon extended the port cable to 90 fathoms -- almost to its maximum. The bow of the ship was kept facing into the wind.

At 10h00 the port chain broke.

Relying on only one anchor, it was now difficult to control the precise angle of the ship to the wind. The Chief Officer signalled to the Captain on shore, "I am afraid of parting", to which the Captain responded, "Get ready another anchor; if part, go to sea."

The Chief Officer recorded the message in the ship's log book but he didn't prepare the third anchor. Instead, he concentrated on hauling up extra chain for the starboard anchor and it was paid out till the anchor was at 90 fathoms.

The First Officer then ordered the crew up the fore-mast to set the topmast staysail in case the anchor started slipping when, quite suddenly, the windlass to which the chain was attached disintegrated. The remaining chain payed out to its maximum -- and then snapped.

The Chief Officer roared his command that the staysail be set. The men worked feverishly. The canvas unfurled and billowed in the force of the wind but a monstrous wave hit them from the side, pushing the bow towards the shore.

All hands were called aft and it was explained to them the danger they were in. The Chief Officer warned that every man would be expected to do his utmost to save the ship. The Second Mate added that the first person he saw not pulling his weight, he personally "would make an example of him".

The Midshipman was a young man, possibly still in his late teens. This was his first voyage. The command he received was, "Stand by the spanker head outhaul!" -- the spanker being the large square sail to the aft of the ship -- but there was no-one to keep him calm.

He panicked. Without awaiting further orders, he went ahead and hoisted the spanker. The Chief Officer saw immediately what he was doing and ordered him to bring it in again. It was already too late. The wind had caught the sail, and its weight was too much for just one person to control.

The Second Mate heard the First Officer bark the order to cut the outhaul. He sprinted aft, picked up a convenient axe and parted the rope with a single blow. The remaining rope unravelled from the block, and the spanker was now adrift, banging away at the mizen rigging.

Nobody appeared to have noticed in the frenzy that the mizen sail itself had been partially set and was aiding the wind in its diabolical game. The Lady Kennaway was hopelessly out of control.

They were in the breakers already. The First Officer was attempting to beach the ship on the eastern shore of the Buffalo River but he could not control their frenzied passage. The current and the breakers were pushing her broadside to the shore.

They could have washed up anywhere -- and everywhere were the deadly rocks of the East London shoreline. It was a matter of chance that they rode into the river itself and there they grounded temporarily on a sand-spit alongside the Blinders Rocks.

The Second Mate then made an heroic attempt to launch a lifeboat to take a line to the shore but the current sweeping into the river on the wild flooding tide immediately washed the little boat away. Eventually he had to slip the line and take care of himself and his small crew.

The waves and wind were battering the ship mercilessly, and the sails were still billowing. The force of wind and surf was causing the masts to buckle. At any moment, one could snap and come crashing down, wreaking death and destruction in its wake.

As soon as the ship struck, therefore, the First Officer ordered that the masts be cut "to ease the ship". The men grabbed at axes and some hearty blows saw the masts topple safely into the water alongside the ship.

The ship "beat heavily" on the beach all night and was driven relentlessly further into the river until it came firmly to rest at last on a sand bar where it would remain.

A total of just twelve minutes had passed between the moment when the starboard anchor chain parted and the ship had come to rest in the Buffalo River mouth. There she lay for months, blocking all access into the harbour even by smaller coasting vessels.

What could be saved was subsequently sold by auction but the Lady Kennaway's teak hull was slowly dismantled and used to construct buildings at the port. Even today, several houses on East London's West Bank have inner walls that were plundered from the wreck of the Lady Kennaway.

[Abridged from: Keith Tankard, Broken Promises]

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