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Hera: A Cornish Shipwreck Tragedy by Kevin Patience

One of the delights of running a website like Isle of Dogs Life is it brings you in contact with people who have their own fascinating story to tell. An example of this is the story of the Hera sailing ship that came to a tragic end in 1914.

Kevin Patience got in touch with Isle of Dogs Life earlier in the year with a query about when Hera was in the London Graving Dry Dock having repairs, unfortunately we were unable to place a date but the ship’s presence in the dock led to some curiosity about the ship and its fate. Kevin at the time mentioned he was writing a book about the Hera and when completed he kindly sent me a copy.

Kevin’s book begins by placing Hera in context of its time, when the ship that would become the Hera was launched in 1886 named Richard Wagner in Geestemunde near Bremerhaven, the age of sail was coming to an end and the age of steam ships was gaining dominance.

In 1889, the ship was bought by the Wencke Shipping Company and renamed Hera after the Greek Goddess, whilst not a goddess, the Hera was certainly an elegant four masted barque with square sails on three masts. Many sailing ships travelled the world picking up cargoes and transferred them to their destination and then picking another cargo and so on. They were the workhorses of their time and often encountered heavy seas especially around Cape Horn. The head of the Wencke Shipping Company died in 1905 and Hera was sold to Rhederei Actien Gesellschaft.

The book illustrates that many sailing ships were involved in the Nitrate trade, Sodium Nitrate or Saltpetre was discovered in Northern Chile and was used globally as a fertiliser and a prime constituent of explosives. For a time, it was a massive operation in Chile employing 300,000 people and producing four million tonnes annually.

Since her launch, the Hera travelled the world and had experienced captains and crew who had worked in many extreme conditions. As it began what was to be its final voyage, the Hera followed a well-travelled route. The Hera left Germany in 1913 before calling at Port Talbot in South Wales to pick up coal then made its way to Chile to offload the coal and pick up the nitrate. Her next port of call was due to be Falmouth before heading back to Hamburg.

The book goes into considerable detail about what happened on 31st January and 1st February 1914, approaching Falmouth the weather was rough with a gale blowing, and Captain Lorentz of the Hera was unsure as to his exact position. As night fell, the weather worsened, at about midnight the second mate reported land ahead. The Hera turned but it was too late, and the Hera struck Gull Rock, a small island. Realising the ship was sinking Lorenz ordered the firing of rockets to alert anyone on shore. The majority of the crew made it into a lifeboat, but the Hera moved and created a swell that capsized the lifeboat.

As the Hera sank deeper the crew had to climb further up the rigging, but due to the freezing cold and terrible conditions, crew began to fall off into the sea and died. Eventually the lifeboat from Falmouth came alongside the wreck of the Hera and pulled five exhausted crewmen to safety. Nineteen men died that night and their remains were buried in Veryan churchyard.

The tragedy was reported nationally and internationally, and the book includes many reports from newspapers. Many of the reports paid tribute to the Falmouth lifeboat crew and those on shore who tried to get to the ship. There were also reports that illustrate how treacherous the seas are around Cornwall and how many ships had similar tragic results. Many on shore and around Britain sent tributes to the crew in recognition of the strong bonds between those who work on ships and the realisation of the dangers they undertake.

Soon the First World War would take everyone’s attention and the Hera was consigned to history and largely forgotten.

But this is where Kevin’s part of the story begins, Kevin served in the Royal Air Force and became a member of the RAF Sub Aqua Club. He was sent to RAF St Mawgan where as Diving Officer of the local sub aqua club he helped to locate the wreck of the Hera. In 1970, Kevin wrote a piece about the Hera and interest in the ship has grown and grown and it is now one of the most popular diving sites in Cornwall.

Anyone who has written about historic events will know that facts are often distorted over time and this book not only includes Kevin’s extensive knowledge but brings together reports, photographs and historical documents to tell the fascinating story about Hera. The book never forgets the human tragedy of the ship and the foreword is written by Rita Agius who is the granddaughter of one of the survivors, Josef Cauchi.

I am sure that nobody associated with the Hera would think that over a century after her demise, she is still the topic of interest. Kevin’s book illustrates that the romance of the sailing age had a darker side with danger from the weather, the seas and rocks lurking below the water. The Hera is a reminder that even ships that conquered the dangers of Cape Horn and travelled around the world many times can come to grief in unexpected ways.

This fascinating and well researched book is available direct from Kevin at saburi@hotmail.com for £10 within UK and elsewhere at cost

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