The wreck of the ‘Comely Bank’

From his series Records of a Bygone Age by Ian Cooper and republished in The Orkney News with the kind permission of The Stronsay Limpet.

While attempting to enter Papa Sound during a period of prolonged south easterly gales in February 1923, the Yarmouth registered steam drifter Comely Bank struck a reef on the north east side of Papa Stronsay and broke her propeller. She then drifted on to another shoal in that same area, named the Ebenezer Reef (or Ebenezer Skerry), and went hard aground in a very dangerous situation. The sounding of the ship’s steam whistle and the burning of flares very quickly attracted the attention of the Papa Stronsay residents to her situation and a plea for help was relayed to Stronsay. With no lifeboat on Stronsay at the time, the Stromness lifeboat was called to the scene but was subsequently recalled and tasked to another emergency when off St Mary’s in Holm. Meanwhile the drifter Glen Albyn, which had been moored at Stronsay pier, got up steam and headed out to try to offer assistance. During a brief lull in the storm she was able to approach within hailing distance of the Comley Bank but could do nothing to help as heavy seas were breaking all over and around the stricken vessel. The Glen Albyn returned to Stronsay where the skipper reported that the crew’s lives were in danger and they were requiring immediate rescue by any means possible. This quickly led to several local boats and drifters heading out to wait on the lee side of Papa Stronsay with ropes and lifebelts hoping for a break in the weather. A large rowing boat was also landed on Papa Stronsay and a team of local volunteers pulled and carried this boat right across the island to the nearest point of land to the stricken vessel from where they hoped to be able to carry out a rescue.

On the arrival of the rescue party, a buoy with a line attached was set adrift from the Comely Bank to try to establish direct contact with the rescuers but, due to tidal conditions and heavy breakers, failed to reach shore. At low water, local man David Miller, at great risk to his own safety, made a tremendous effort to struggle through the breaking waves and managed to retrieve the buoy and line from the Comely Bank, thus establishing a link with the vessel.

An attempt was then made to launch the boat which had been taken across Papa Stronsay but this was twice capsized while trying to leave the shore, leaving no alternative but to abandon the attempt for a time. As conditions moderated slightly, the whole crew were successfully rescued although it isn’t quite clear how this was carried out. A newspaper report at the time indicated that the crew may have been rescued by means of rocket apparatus but that would appear unlikely and it would seem probable that they were eventually got off by small boat.

The crew, all from the Moray fishing village of Portknockie, were taken to the farm house on Papa Stronsay and cared for there by Mr and Mrs Scott, the tenants of the island at that time, until they could make their way across to Stronsay and onward to their homes in Portknockie.

A report at the time gave high praise to those who had risked their lives to carry out this rescue and called for public recognition of their gallantry. The report also called on the local Lifeboat Committee to take steps to ensure that a lifeboat should be again placed on call at the Stronsay Station. It seems that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution at that time was indeed willing to place a boat on station if a crew could be guaranteed but it was to be over thirty years before this was to materialise.

These events all took place on 8th February 1923 and the Comely Bank was declared a total wreck at the time but it appears that wind and tide carried her to a more favourable and less exposed position on the Papa Stronsay shore. With a spell of reasonably good weather in the following weeks, she sustained little more damage and a team from P. W. Stanger of the Ness Boat Building Yard in Stromness were able, with some difficulty, to carry out a salvage operation which enabled her to be refloated. After then being towed into Whitehall harbour, her propeller was replaced and running repairs made to her hull. Then, on 19th March that same year, she made the journey to Stromness under her own steam, to be put on the slip there for repair, following which she successfully resumed her vocation as a fishing boat.

Thanks to Google and some kind gentlemen on the ‘Yarmouth and Lowestoft Steam Drifters’ Facebook page, I discovered some more information about the eventful life of the Comely Bank which may be of interest. 90’ long and of wooden construction, she was built in 1914 by William Geddes of Portgordon for Geddes and Company of Aberdeen and was originally registered in Aberdeen as the A31. She was launched in June 1914 and then, after only a few months engaged in fishing, she was requisitioned by the Admiralty, fitted with a six pounder gun and put into use as a submarine net vessel (could this have been in Scapa Flow?) throughout WW1. When she was decommissioned in 1919, she was bought by Bloomfields Ltd, who owned a small fleet of boats fishing out of Yarmouth, was registered as YH202 and returned to the trade for which she was built.

With the onset of WW2 and the airborne threat to the country from Hitler’s forces, in December 1939 the Comely Bank was again requisitioned by the Admiralty, this time to act as a Barrage Balloon ship based at Sheerness on the Thames Estuary. The RAF made several short promotional films at the time, some of which featured the Comely Bank in this role, some footage of which can be found by following the link shown below: https://film.iwmcollections.org.uk/record/759

The Comely Bank returned to fishing after the end of the war but the era of the team drifters was drawing to a close and she was eventually sent to the breaker’s yard in 1949.

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