October 1898 was another bad time for shipwrecks and loss of life. In addition to seven men dying after a Norwegian ship was wrecked off the village of Collieston, a Danish ship sinking with the loss of six lives at Ferryden, Montrose, a third Scandinavian vessel suffered on the Kincardineshire coast between Newtonhill and Portlethen. This was the Swedish barquentine “Felix”, a vessel of 350 tons which was laden with coal and sailing from Hartlepool in England to the Swedish port of Malmo.
The Felix was first spotted off the coast of Stonehaven, apparently in distress, and being driven northwards in a storm. Most of the vessels masts had gone and those sails remaining were in shreds. The coastguards at Muchalls and Cove were informed and the life-saving brigades mustered to keep a watchful eye on proceedings although they could not put to sea because of the severity of the weather.
When the ship was off Newtonhill, it was seen that the crew had made the decision to abandon and they took to one of their small boats. Crowds had gathered on the shore and they flocked to the cliff tops to follow the progress of the small boat, although in view of the state of the seas it was thought that any help they could offer would be minimal.
The small boat laboured in the sea for about two hours before seeking safety in a small creek that seemed to offer their only hope of survival. Coastguardsmen, fishermen, farmers and farm servants along with a number of others from the nearby coastal villages followed the boat’s progress and although it disappeared from sight and seemed to get swamped by massive waves on several occasions it eventually managed to reach the opening of the creek.
From the creek, which was identified as Rams Hall opposite to Cranhill, midway between Newtonhill and Downies, the would-be saviours threw a rope towards the boat in attempt to guide them in to relative safety. After the first unsuccessful attempt to get a rope aboard a line was again thrown from the shore and landed in the small boat however rather than secure the rope to the prow of the vessel so it could be hauled ashore the crew appeared to panic and individually scrambled ashore frantically by means of the rope. In this way seven of the crew made it on to the rocks, however unfortunately, before all the crew were able to make their way off a large wave washed over the boat and overturned it, throwing Captain Gustav Andersen and two of his crew, one of which was his son, into the boiling sea.
Meantime the coastguardsmen and fishermen made their way across the rocks to where the surviving crew were situated and by doing so put themselves in peril because the waves were breaking over the rocks and threatening to sweep the would-be rescuers and the landed crew from their precarious ledge. Eventually all seven men were led to safety.
It was when the rescued crew were being led to safety that the small boat was swamped and the remaining three occupants were thrown into the water. The Captain sunk without trace immediately but the two younger men swam bravely for some time attempting to reach shore but were swept out to sea for some distance before being swept back into the boiling surf and being dashed against the rocks. The rescuers made every attempt to reach the unfortunate men that were still in the water and at one point they were literally a yard from rescue but still they couldn’t be reached. After ten minutes in the water both men were finally lost from view and further attempts at rescue had to be abandoned.
One of the would-be rescuers, Boatman T. Keightley, from Muchalls Coastguard Station had made a valiant attempt to secure the rescue of the men in the water. He grabbed a life-belt, and securing a line to his waist and without hesitating he rushed into the seething water in an effort to reach and rescue the men. He did succeed in grabbing one of them but the force of the waves separated them again, but he made a second and then a third attempt to reach the same man but his efforts were frustrated by the huge waves which kept rolling shoreward at regular intervals. Mr Keightley was then dashed against the rocks a few times himself and just had enough strength to find a rock ledge which he clung on to with tenacity until he could be rescued by his colleagues.
In an interview with a reporter from the Aberdeen Journal Mr Keightley explained how he found himself in the role as a would-be hero:
“When Fred Wood (the chief of the coastal brigade) handed me a lifebuoy with the remark ‘here you are Keightley’, I had nothing in my mind but duty but I would not care to do so again. Between you and me, sir, I was in a tight fix, and I did not think, as the waves were washing over me, that I would see my own ones at home again. The truth is, I don’t think I could venture into the water again when the sea was tumbling as it was doing”.
“No fear of you”, interposed his chief, “When you get another chance you will be at it again; but to tell the truth you were hard hit, and, I thought I had lost you. Never mind, old fellow, we have work in hand yet before this storm is over, and we will do it”.
“Well”, continued Mr. Keightley, “Mr. Fred Wood did well. Honour to who honour is due. It was those words ‘here you are Keightley’ that made me do it.
In the course of further conversation it was discovered that Mr. Keightley had been on duty for the greater part of the previous night, and that he was very much fatigued. In response to many inquiries he stated that he was none the worse for his ordeal despite being benumbed by the experience, and appeared ready to jump into the sea again and save any number of lives if he had the chance. “I am sorry for the poor fellow that went down” he added, “he was somebody’s lad and I did my best for him”
The Felix, after being abandoned by the crew, drifted north to Portlethen and was driven against the rocks there. The vessel went between two large ledges and remained there for about fifteen minutes before breaking up. Ironically, it was believed that, if the crew had stayed onboard until the vessel struck the rocks at Portlethen there would have been a good chance that all of them could have been saved by a rocket apparatus. The body of the ship’s captain was recovered soon after but it’s not recorded if the remaining crew members were found.
This was one of the more dramatic shipwrecks experienced off the Kincardineshire coast however the drama, or the controversy, didn’t end with the sinking of the Felix as there were reverberations in this case that lasted for some weeks after.
The reasons for the controversy were two-fold. Firstly, did the lifesaving brigade do all they could to save the men (which seems a strange charge given that one of the crew nearly lost his own life in the rescue attempt).
Secondly, there were the unusual circumstances surrounding the funeral of Captain Andersen, who was buried at Portlethen church. Was the funeral arranged properly and in accordance with the Swedish consul and the Christian church? Was the funeral rushed to avoid any religious references? Which official body was responsible for the arrangements? What time was the funeral arranged for? Did the Swedish crew members, who were staying at the seamen’s mission in Aberdeen, arrive in time to witness and participate in the funeral? Did the funeral cortege take place on the back of a lorry over a rough track to the churchyard? And finally, who was the person who played the part of the captain’s “ghost” some weeks after the event to frighten the local woman and children?
I have no idea of the answers to any of these questions however there is a selection of “Letters to the Editor” from the local press which puts a few of these points of view in writing. From these letters I’ll leave it up to you to attempt to work out what actually happened in the aftermath of the sinking of the Felix.