Eric Whittaker, c.1950
The Swift in Newlyn Harbour
Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance
©The Photographer's Estate
It’s 9.15 of a Tuesday morning, and the Swift – with Captain John Jacka at the helm – is heading out to sea. Captain Jacka is proud of the Swift: she’s a long-liner, only seven years old, with a proper motor. He’s made an early start – it was barely light – and as he passes Penberth Cove he casts a weather eye at the running sea; notes the wind from SSE and the ebbing tide. And then he notes something else: a distress flag, flying from a trawler lying dangerously close to the Runnelstone.
It’s a rock that has claimed many a vessel, large and small. Perhaps Captain Jacka remembers the fate of the City of Westminster, six years ago. Before that, the rock had been visible above water – a navigational hazard, yes, but easy, to spot. Now, the top’s sheared clean off. And the 6,000 ton ship, they say that’s nearly 100 foot down. Stuck in a gully – no hope of salvage.
At the mercy of the sea today is the Auriel Lilien, a Brixham trawler. Unless someone takes a hand, it could well come to grief like others before it, blown helplessly towards the Runnelstone. “There was a nasty sea running,” Captain Jacka will tell the newspaper man later, “and I found that his mainsail had gone and that he was at the mercy of the sea and tide.”
The Brixham skipper – Mr Bowles - asks for a tow into Newlyn. Captain Jacka, of course, obliges, no question about that. He throws a rope onto the Auriel Lilien and uses his powerful motor to tow her in. They’re back home, safe and sound, in plenty of time for a spot of lunch.
Skipper Bowles is a youngish chap – in his thirties. He’s been fishing off Tenby, and they left there on Sunday night – him and his two crewmen - after waiting out heavy rain and a gale. Ran into trouble off Land’s End yesterday, with a heavy sea as they passed the Pendeen light. “Wind and sea continued to rise,” he will explain later, “but we kept on.” Kept on towards Land’s End, and the very teeth of the gale.
In the depths of the night, the mainsail was snatched away by the wind. And then, as day dawned and the crew thought the worst was over, the wind swung round against them. “We were not more than a hundred yards from the Runnelstone,” the skipper will remember, “towards which both wind and tide were driving us.”
Right now, he’s just thankful to be back on land, safe in Newlyn. He’s especially thankful to John Jacka. The Auriel Lilien has taken a “nasty buffeting,” withy the twelve hours of gale force wind and angry sea off Land’s End, but it doesn’t look as if there is any serious damage.
He’ll be out again, he’s sure. And so, of course, will John Jacka. “At the Mercy of the Sea and Tide”? That’s a fine headline for the newspaper. But in the fishing trade, it’s just another day.
Cornishman 10th October 1929 page 7
For more information on the Westminster and other Runnelstone wrecks, see Cornish Shipwrecks vol 1 the South Coast, Richard Larn and Clive Carter, 1971 edition, pp 219-230
The whole reef of which the rock is a part is now included in a Marine Conservation Zone: Marine Conservation Zones: Runnel Stone
Further information courtesy of Penlee House Museum and Gallery: ‘Previously AFY405, the Swift PZ84 had been built at Looe in 1922. She was owned by Newlyn up-country owners, Atkinson and was no longer fishing by 1962 when she was sold for pleasure purposes. Otherwise smartly painted, her 'leg' became detached and was allowed to float outside the boat.’