It is difficult to imagine one moment watching the elegance and beauty of a transatlantic liner passing you and the next to see explosions and, 20 minutes, later to see the vessel swallowed by the sea.
The sinking of the Lusitania resulted in the loss of 1,198 lives. William Ball, skipper of a mackerel rugger out of Peel in the Isle of Man, was one of the first vessels on the scene.
He recalled the events of the day in a letter home to the vessel’s owner Charles Morrison.
“We had rather an exciting experience on Friday afternoon, about 2-30pm, he wrote.
“We were coming in with about 800 mackerel, the wind light and ahead, and we put off to sea again for another shot, rather than lose the night.
“When we were six or seven miles off the Old Head we saw the Lusitania sink, after being torpedoed by a submarine, about three miles SSW [south-southwest]outside of us.
“We made straight for the scene of the disaster. We picked up the first boats a quarter of a mile inside of where she sunk, and there we got four boat loads put aboard us.
“We couldn’t take any more, as we had 160 men, women, and children. In addition, we had two boats in tow, full of passengers.
“We were the only boat there for two hours. Then the patrol boats came out from Queenstown. We had a busy time making tea for them — and all our milk and tea is gone and a lot of clothes as well, and the bottle of whisky we had leaving home.
“The people were in a sorry plight, most of them having been in the water. We took them to within two miles of the Old Head, when it fell calm, and there was a little air ahead.
“The tug boat Flying Fish from Queenstown then came up and took them from us.
“It was an awful sight to see her sinking, and to see the plight of these people. I cannot describe it to you in writing.”
The Wanderer, a 13.7m lugger of about 20 tons, was fishing a few miles away.
Crewman Thomas Woods was alone on deck, on watch and steering — he had sent Johnny Macdonald below to make tea — when he saw the Lusitania listing.
He gave the alarm, and the crew quickly tumbled up on deck.
The skipper’s first words to Woods at the helm were: “Go for her, be British.”
The Wanderer, undeterred by the danger of lurking submarines, was quickly within a quarter of a mile of the scene of the disaster, where she took on board 160 people-men, women, and children.
One of the rescued, James Brooks, of Bridgeport, US, wrote: “I even had to sit with my leg hanging over the side because there was no room to put it on the inside.”
Another Wanderer crewmen, Thomas Woods, recalled: “The saddest sight I ever saw in all my life. I cannot tell you in words, but it was a great joy to me to help the poor mothers and babes in the best way we could”.
His colleague Harry Costain had remembered: “We saw an awful sight on Friday. We saw the sinking of the Lusitania, and we were the only boat about at the time. We saved 160 people and took them on our boat. I never want to see the like again.
“There were four babies about three months old, and some of the people were almost naked — just as if they had come out of bed.
“Several had legs and arms broken, and we had one dead man, but we saw hundreds in the water.
“I gave one of my changes of clothes to a naked man, and Johnny Macdonald gave three shirts and all his drawers”.
Stanley Ball, another crewman, had recalled: “We saw the Lusitania going east. We knew it was one of the big liners by her four funnels, so we put the watch on. We were lying in bed when the man on watch shouted that the four-funnelled boat was sinking.
“I got up out of bed and on deck, and I saw her go down. She went down bow first. We were going off south, and we kept her away to the SSW.
“So we went out to where it took place — to within a quarter of a mile of where she went down, and we picked up four yawls. We took 110 people out of the first two yawls, and about fifty or sixty out of the next two; and we took two yawls in tow.
“We were at her a good while before any other boat. The first person we took on board was a child of two months. We had four or five children on board and a lot of women.
“I gave a pair of trousers, a waistcoat, and an oil-coat to some of them. Some of us gave a lot in that way.
“One of the women had her arm broke, and one had her leg broke, and many of them were very exhausted.”
The full crew list comprised skipper William Ball and his son Stanley, of Jurby; William Gell from Ramsey; and Thomas Woods, Robert Watterson, John Macdonald, and Harry Costain, all from Peel.
The Manchester Manx Society voiced the sentiments of everyone on the Isle of Man and beyond by rewarding the Wanderer skipper and crew with medals design by Mr F. S. Graves, and inscribed: “In remembrance of the fortunate act of charity and courage.”
Lord Raglan presented the medals on Tynwald Day, the Isle of Man national day — July 5.
However, the rewards were not over when William Ball, who had been an employee of the Wanderer’s owner, received word that funds had been lodged with a lawyer in Peel on behalf of one of the American survivors he had rescued.
The money was to be used to underwrite the building of his own fishing boat, to be built in Peel to his personal specifications, and the result was his dream ship, the Aigh Vie, launched in 1916.
Michael Craine is a writer for The Skipper
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