Next month marks the centenary of the sinking of the German barque Hera at Gull Rock, a tragedy in which 15 brave German sailors lost their lives.
The Falmouth lifeboat Bob Newbon, under the command of Samuel Hingston, managed to rescue five crew members from the ship in tough conditions. The remaining mariners, whose bodies were recovered from the coastline, are buried in a mass grave at Veryan Church. The grave is more than 30 metres long.
On the weekend of February 1 and 2, the loss of the Hera and her crew, and also the part played by those involved in the rescue, will be commemorated in Veryan Church with a requiem mass and re-dedication of the graves.
There will be an exhibition of photographs and artefacts. The exhibition will be open from 10am to 4pm on Saturday, February 1, when visits to the graves will be arranged. There will also be a concert that evening featuring Du Hag Owr, Philleigh Shout and members of other local choirs. Du Hag Owr’s latest CD is called The Hera and includes an original song, written by members of the group, about the tragedy.
The requiem mass will take place on February 2, at 11am, and the re-dedication of the memorials will take place at 3pm that afternoon.
Descendants of the crew and those involved in the rescue, together with representatives from Germany and the local organisations who were involved, have been invited to the mass.
Hidden away in a tranquil corner of Veryan Churchyard, near Portloe, is an unusually shaped grave, almost 120 feet in length and three feet wide, where the German seamen were buried “on a foreign shore” in February 1914 following one of the worst sailing ship wrecks in the Falmouth area. The grave has been fully restored and for anyone interested in shipwreck stories is well worth visiting.
A steel barque Hera, 1,994 tons and fully laden with nitrate, was making a landfall off the Lizard following a 91-day passage from Pisagua, Chile.
For three days, her tired master had been relying on dead reckoning navigation. Without a precise position due to poor weather conditions and a faulty chronometer, he deliberated as to when he should alter course towards the land.
Somewhere off Lizard Point, heavy weather forced Captain Lorenz to shorten sail as he altered course to pick up St Anthony’s lighthouse – a course which would ultimately take him and a majority of his fine crew to a watery grave.
Shortly after midnight, the young second officer reported “rocks ahead” and, despite valiant efforts to turn the ship, she struck the rocks. The Hera had overshot Falmouth by several miles before coming to grief on Gull Rock, off the pretty fishing village of Portloe.
Minutes later, after distress rockets had been fired, the four-masted barque settled by the head before rolling over to port, capsising the lifeboats and throwing crew members into an icy sea.
Heavy seas swamped the ship’s deck forcing the first mate into the rigging where he climbed onto a jigger mast and remained there for three hours.
Falmouth lifeboat coxswain, Samuel Hingston, and his 15-man crew were towed to the scene of the disastrous shipwreck by the harbour tug Perran.
Numb with the cold the mate of the Hera succumbed to the terrifying ordeal. Just before he slipped from the rigging to his death he handed his pea whistle to a young able seaman called Bessier.
Samuel Hingston later described the rescue, saying: “On the way we encountered heavy seas. When about a mile offshore we slipped the Perran and went in between Gull Rock and Nare Head to speak with the coastguards who were on the shoreline.
“All at once I heard a whistle blowing. We heaved in our anchor and got underway. Then we saw a speck on our lee bow and later we made out five men hanging on a spar. We experienced considerable difficulty in rescuing the men because of the heavy seas. Our bowman, William Leuty, badly crushed his finger in the rescue.”
In gale force winds and a rough sea, five men were rescued from the topmast in what was later described by the RNLI as “a commendable rescue.”
Coxwain Sam Hingston.
*The lifeboat crew were S Hingston, coxswain; G Jones, second cox; N Leuty, bowman; N Allway, J Gibbons, A Jones, T Pollard, E Snell, J McClusky, R Toms, J Banks, J James, J Snell, R James, N Tonkin and F Capet.