Heroic feats from 1977 recognised

An annual award for heroism at sea was presented earlier this month for a feat of seamanship performed more than 30 years ago.

The Lady Swathling Award, for an outstanding feat of seamanship and navigation, was presented to Gordon Cook from Gloucestershire in recognition of his outstanding seamanship and navigation when he successfully sailed and navigated a severely damaged 30 ton yacht to safety saving the lives of all six people onboard.

Rear Admiral Sir Jeremy de Halpert KCVO CB Ex-officio Vice President of the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Royal Benevolent Society presented Gordon with ‘The Lady Swathling Trophy’ at the Annual Awards for Skill and Gallantry ceremony in Fishmongers Hall, London on 14th October 2009.

Gordon received his award over 30 years after the incident in 1977 following many years living and sailing overseas. Following his return to the UK Gordon was oblivious to the fact that he had been awarded ‘The Lady Swathling Trophy’. The Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society has been searching for him to receive this award for his outstanding seamanship and navigation which saved the lives of his family and crew.

The 70 foot schooner Wavewalker skippered by Gordon with his wife Mary, two very young children, Suzanne and Jonathan, and two crewmen was on passage to Australia halfway through ‘The Captain James Cook Bicentenary Voyage 1776 – 1976′. They had sailed from Plymouth and, after calling at Madeira, Canary islands, Rio de Janeiro, Tristan da Cuna and Cape town, they then sailed nearly 3,000 miles through the ‘Roaring Forties’ from Africa with Australia still 2,000 miles away when disaster struck.

After many days of unrelenting westerly gales with seas forty to fifty foot high, storm force 11 winds from the south-south-west whipped up a second wave train and in the treacherous confused seas on 2nd January 1977, produced by the worst weather in the area for many years, Wavewalker was overwhelmed by a huge wall of water as the two wave systems combined. The schooner capsized – a more accurate but less nautical description would be to say “buried”. Fortunately, Gordon was the only person on deck steering the schooner, he was thrown overboard and only his lifeline saved him. The crew below deck escaped with a variety of minor injuries apart from Suzanne who suffered a serious head injury.

Wavewalker had been badly damaged, the obvious signs of which were a large section of the deck completely missing and all of the hatch covers swept away, she was also taking in water at an alarming rate. The ships engine and all electrical systems were under water. It was a race against time. While the crewmen pumped, Gordon crawled on deck in the storm force 11 winds covering the hole in the deck and hatches as best he could by nailing sails and carpets over them, but it soon became apparent that there must be serious damage below the waterline. Inspection revealed that many of the starboard hull planks and main frames were smashed and were only being held together by the ship’s internal fittings.

There was no response to repeated Mayday calls and the nearest bits of land were the two tiny French islands, Ile Amsterdam and St Paul, a few hundred miles to the east, Wavewalker’s present position was by dead reckoning as with no sun visible for over a week the last sextant sight had been taken over a thousand miles to the west.

After 36 hours of continuous pumping in moderating seas the huge leaks were at last brought under control, but then the weather started to deteriorate again with another build up of huge waves. Gordon decided to heave-to with the undamaged port side of the hull facing the oncoming waves. This was achieved but not without considerable difficulty and with the assistance of a makeshift sea anchor. Without mainsail, foresail or jib making for Ile Amsterdam was going to be challenging enough but this was compounded by the lack of an accurate position and the prospect of being swept past the island with little hope of sailing back against the Westerly winds and the very real possibility that the schooner would break up and sink before covering the remaining 2,000 miles to Australia.

Allowing for all the variable factors Gordon estimated that the actual position of the schooner was somewhere in a rectangle five hundred miles long by two hundred miles wide, an area of one hundred thousand square miles –  Ile Amsterdam was barely two miles wide.

The first brief break in the cloud cover for over a week enabled Gordon to snatch a single sextant sun sight with Mary holding him upright against the foremast. This gave an approximate position line but, with no chance of any more sights, no accurate position. Nevertheless it enabled Gordon to recalculate his position and to adjust course. To add to their predicament the spare compass on which they were now reliant had not been corrected for deviation.  After a further recalculation of the schooner’s position Gordon estimated that they would see the island ahead at about 5pm – it was some time after 6pm that they actually sighted the island through the falling snow.

Determination, seamanship and navigational skills of a high order together with the sterling support of his family and crew and, I’m sure he would agree, an element of luck enabled Gordon to reach Ile Amsterdam for temporary repairs before Wavewalker could be sailed on to Australia.

For those of you who are regular sailors talk of sextants may seem somewhat dated or an attempt to turn the clock back before GPS just to add to the challenge and excitement. Your first instinct would be right, for this incident occurred in 1977 and won that year’s Lady Swathling Trophy, but the trophy was never awarded because, after rebuilding Wavewalker in Australia, Gordon and his family remained sailing in the southern hemisphere for a total of seventeen years and attempts to contact him were unsuccessful. This only came to light recently and it gives us great pleasure to be able to award the trophy to him personally today with his family present.     

Gordon attended the award ceremony with his wife Mary and daughter Suzanne who were with him for the full journey. Gordon said; “I am honoured to receive this award but credit should also go to Mary, Suzanne,  Jonathan and our crewmen Larry and Herbie who all played their part in keeping Wavewalker afloat long enough to reach Ile Amsterdam. I would also like to thank the Shipwrecked Mariners Society for its recognition of the incident and for this presentation over 30 years later.

Chief Executive of the Shipwrecked Mariners Society, Commodore Malcolm Williams CBE RN said: We had some exceptional award winners this year. Gordon’s determination, outstanding seamanship and navigation skills were incredible, especially considering this occurred before the use of satellite navigation. The survival of his family and crew is a testament to Gordon’s ability – he truly deserves this award”

A full account of the full voyage from England to Australia can be found in Gordon Cook’s book, ‘Schooner to the Southern Oceans: The Captain James Cook Bicentenary Voyage 1776 – 1976′.to be published in February 2010 and available from www.ibuk.com.