Largely forgotten tale of survival against the odds
How 34 out of the 44-strong crew of the SS Trevessa reached safety after the 5,004 ton freighter sank in the Indian Ocean is one of the great stories of human survival in the face of seemingly impossible odds. The story has been likened to the 2010 Chilean mine rescue, but it has faded from public awareness to the extent that it even lacks an entry in Wikipedia.
The Trevessa was launched as the Imkenturm at Flensburg, Germany, in 1909. Throughout World War I, she was interned at Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies, and in 1919 she was seized by the Ministry of Shipping. Her hull was by now in poor condition, but after scratch repairs in Singapore she sailed to Scotland, where she was dry-docked at Leith. In 1920, she was purchased by the Hain Steamship Company of St Ives, Cornwall, and was substantially refurbished at a cost of £36,000 by Messrs. John Redhead & Sons of South Shields. Hain was an operator of worldwide tramp services that had been acquired by P&O in 1917, although it continued to be run by its former directors.
Work on the Imkenturm, now renamed Trevessa, was completed in January 1921, and after being duly certified by Lloyds, the ship entered service with her new owners and put under the command of Captain Cecil Foster. Born in 1890, Foster had served with Hain since the age of twelve. The company had a policy of bringing youngsters through the ranks right up to command level. During World War I, he was serving as a First Officer in a supply ship. The ship was torpedoed by a U-boat and the survivors were soon rescued by a patrolling Royal Navy warship – only for this in turn to be sunk by the same U-boat. The 36 survivors were adrift for ten days before washing up on the Spanish Atlantic coast, by which time only 16 remained alive.
Foster realised that there was a problem with the survival rations placed in lifeboats. These were similar to the usual shipboard diet, and consisted mainly of tinned and/or salted meat. This was very difficult to digest for men dehydrated by lack of sufficient drinking water. After the war, at Foster’s insistence, the emergency lifeboat rations in Hain ships were changed to condensed milk and hard biscuits, which have a high calorific content and are easy to digest.
On 2 January 1923, the Trevessa left Liverpool in ballast on a voyage that took her to ports in Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia. On board were Foster and 43 British and Indian crewmen. At Port Pirie she took on a cargo of zinc concentrates destined for Antwerp. She then coaled at Freemantle before sailing for Belgium on 25 May.
Ten days out of Freemantle, on 3 June, she ran into a storm and began taking on water. The bilge pumps were started, but no water came through. The zinc concentrates in the hold had the consistency of half-set cement, and had been stowed on caulked pallets. This meant that the water entering the hold was not reaching the bilges, rendering the pumps ineffective. Innumerable freighters loading zinc concentrates at Port Pirie had previously used the same method of stowage without experiencing problems But the Trevessa was going down by the head in heavy seas, and soon the water was up to the top of No.1 hold.
By the early morning of 4 June, it was clear that there was no option but to abandon ship. All 44 hands successfully boarded the two starboard lifeboats: 20 men including Foster and in one and 24 men including First Officer Stewart Smith in the other. There had been time to load extra rations into the boats and put out a distress call, which was picked up by two of Trevessa’s Hain fleetmates, the Tregennaand and the Trevean. Unfortunately, these ships were hundreds of miles away and by the time they reached the scene, all that could be found was an empty lifeboat. It was accordingly concluded that the Trevessa had gone down with all hands.
In the meantime, Captain Foster and his crew were very much alive, but their plight was serious. The two boats had managed to keep together throughout the storm, but by the evening of 4 June they had drifted so far from the point where the Trevessa had sunk that the rescuers would be unlikely to find them. They were 1,600 miles from Australia and 1,700 miles from Mauritius. Although Australia was slightly nearer, they ran the risk of being blown off course by prevailing winds. Accordingly, Foster and Smith decided to try for the island of Rodriguez, which was slightly nearer than Mauritius. They calculated that the voyage would take three weeks and that with strict rationing, they could just make it.
Each boat had 130 tins of condensed milk, 550 biscuits, and about fifteen gallons of water. There was slightly more water in Smith’s boat, but he also had more men aboard. The rations issued daily were one biscuit per man, four teaspoonfuls of condensed milk, and less than a quarter of a pint of water.
The two boats kept together at first, but Foster’s boat, with fewer men and a larger sail, was significantly faster and on 9 June it was decided to separate. They parted at 08:00 and were lost from each other’s sight within six hours. On 22 June, with no land in sight, both Foster and Smith independently reduced rations in the hope of prolonging survival by another week.
On the afternoon of 25 June, by which time two men had died, Foster’s boat came within sight of Rodriguez, reaching the island soon after nightfall. A fisherman came aboard and piloted them into harbour, where they were promptly brought ashore to receive urgent medical attention. All eighteen who had survived the voyage recovered. Four days later, Smith’s boat, having missed Rodriguez, made landfall in Mauritius. Smith’s men had not fared so well: seven men died, an eighth was lost overboard and a ninth died shortly after landing.
A Royal Navy ship collected Foster and his men from Rodriguez, and a few days later they were reunited with the rest of the Trevessa survivors at Port Louis, Mauritius. The British crewmembers sailed for the UK on 16 July, and returned to a heroes’ welcome at Tilbury. The Daily Telegraph wrote, “We may think with pride that our British sailors can match in daring, resolution, and loyalty those who won for their flag the realm of the circling sea”. Foster and Smith were awarded the Lloyds Silver Medal for saving life at sea and had an audience with King George V at Buckingham Palace. Foster’s lifeboat was brought back to the UK and went on show at the British Empire Exhibition.
Little is known of Captain Cecil Foster’s subsequent life. He died in Barry, Wales, in 1930, aged just 40. His grave in Merthyr Dyfan Cemetery remained untended following the death of his wife Minnie in 1982. The couple had no children. In 2011, Keith Greenway, a researcher for the Merchant Navy Association in Wales, raised around £1,000 to restore the grave.
Just when this remarkable story began to fade from the public eye is not clear: it is mentioned under the topic of ‘Shipwrecks’ in the 1960 edition of the Children’s Britannica, and this is where I first encountered it. That the Trevessa is mentioned at all suggests that the story was still widely known at the time. The Children’s Britannica coverage of maritime matters was patchy to say the least – I recall being very frustrated to find that there were no entries for such topics as Ferdinand Magellan’s round-the-world expedition or the mystery of the Mary Celeste. A detailed account of the Trevessa story was provided in another book I read in my childhood, which featured long voyages in small boats. Other chapters detailed Joshua Slocum’s single-handed voyage around the world, and the survival of William Bligh and his men after they were cast adrift from the Bounty by their mutinous shipmates. Such stories were devoured by boys of my age in the 1960s and it is unfortunate that this is apparently no longer the case.
1. Prior, N., Restored grave for Barry sailor who survived shipwreck, Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-14070955 (2011).
2. Disney, H., Report of Court, 1923.
3. Greenway, K., Her name was Trevessa, Available at http://www.ss-tregenna.co.uk/Pdf/Her%20Name%20Was%20Trevessa.pdf (2010).
4. Perkins, M., The Trevessa lifeboat at Wembley, Available at http://www.studygroup.org.uk/Archives/41/THE%20TREVESSA%20LIFEBOAT%20AT%20WEMBLEY.htm (2014).