At the eastern end of the bay was a mountain 2038ft in height and less than a mile away. “If the Old Man gets any closer we’ll hit this island!”
Five minutes later at 1710 we did!
I had just taken the hold temperatures and was in the chart room entering them into the log book. Just as I stepped out into the wheelhouse there was a tremendous crunch and the bow reared up and the ship rolled heavily to port. My first instinct was to dive for the wheel as at the time she was on the Arkas auto-pilot. No sooner had the ship bounced off the rocks than two things happened. The Captain bounced onto the bridge and the ship took on a permanent list to starboard.
The Carpenter was ordered to sound all the tanks, peaks and bilges to ascertain the likely damage. Twenty minutes later “chippy” announced to an interested audience that holds two, three and four each had about 30ft of water in them. By some miracle the rocks had missed the engine room and we still had full power available. The list has now increased to 20º and it was clear that we were sinking.
Now that little bay was remembered and Captain Macmillan ordered the ship about and we headed for the bay, now about 4 miles away. The objective being to run the ship aground to stop her sinking. We had not gone much more than half a mile we it was realised that we were going down a lot faster than we at first thought and the order was given to clear away the lifeboats. Shortly after the order was given to abandon ship and three of the four boats with all available provisions and lowered away with all the passengers and nearly all the ship’s company.
A handful of us were left on board, the Master, Chief Officer, myself, a couple of engineers and the Second Carpenter. Once we were in the bay the carpenter and I were ordered forward to prepare both anchors for letting go prior to beaching. There was always going to be an element of guesswork about when to let them go as we were unsure of both the rate of shelving of the beach and or rapidly increasing draft. The anchors were both let go and as soon as the bow struck the beach full ahead was ordered and Ayrshire was driven firmly aground.
We were safe! Where were the lifeboats? For it was now dark and they were out of sight. We were to learn later that they, unsure of our fate, were firing distress rockets at the Blue Funnel liner Pyrrhus without any response. We still had the motor lifeboat aboard so that was launched and we set off to locate and tow the other three back to the ship. By 2300 all were back on board and time for a beer!
The next day head office radioed to inform us that Clan Mactaggart was on its way to stand by us and would be followed shortly after by Clan Malcolm to whom we would transfer our passengers and they in turn would transfer four cadets to assist us. They also asked for our assessment of the damage.
After a thorough inspection we found the generators to be fully operational although the starboard diesel tank had been holed 64 tons of diesel remained in the port tank. The rate of ingress of water in holds 2, 3 and 4 was found to be greater than the ship’s pumps could deal with while keeping the engine room dry. The duct keel was full of water and the starboard freshwater tank had been breached.
Left intact was 70 tons of boiler water and 100 tons of domestic water, all on the port side. In addition there was 150 tons of fresh water ballast in reserve in the fore and after peaks.
Later in the day another message arrived informing us that the company had agreed to salvage operations being conducted by Smits of Rotterdam under Lloyds Open Form “No Cure- No Pay”. The tug Oceaan would arrive on Sunday or Monday followed on Tuesday or Wednesday by the tug Poolzee. A coaster, Seiyun, was chartered to come and receive cargo and HMS Anzio would come by the following Friday to render assistance. Two Superintendents; Captain Mitchell – Marine Superintendent and Mr Colson – Engineering Superintendent were flying to Aden the next day in order to assess the damage for themselves. (did they think we were making this up?)
By the 25th we had resigned ourselves to a long stay away from civilisation and time to get to work! The derricks were topped and we started jettisoning 150 tons of bagged salt and No.5 tween deck. This was back breaking work, officers and cadets were not spared stevedoring duties, specially the cadets. It was painful work as salt in large quantities stings.
On the 26th an RAF Shackleton flew low overhead several times taking photographs of the ship and the sea around us. In the afternoon HMS Anzio arrived alongside but she was not able to offer much assistance apart from giving us some fresh water and placing her diving team at our disposal. Two divers went down and located a tear 40ft long and 3ins wide down the starboard side of No2. Another slightly small tear was found in No4. This one was successfully plugged with a cork filled dracone.
In the evening Clan Mactaggart informed us that Clan Malcolm would arrive the next day to embark the seven passengers and six dogs.
27th March, In the morning the transfers to and from Clan Malcolm were effected and in the afternoon Oceaan arrived. The Dutch salvage team under the leadership of the Salvage Master, Captain Rom Colthoff, starting rigging salvage pumps in the three breached holds. An unpleasant task as the rocks had penetrated the double bottoms and the water in the lower holds had a thick layer of fuel oil over it.
A few days later the coaster Seiyun arrived from Aden and we commenced filling her with rolls of lino, ceramic tiles, carpets, machinery and cars. Once she had gone we turned our attentions to discharging No 1 tween decks. From the upper we jettisoned chemicals and from the lower, palettes of fire bricks. At first we were just jettisoning them but soon found that we were grounding ourselves on them so they were loaded onto Poolzee for her to dump at sea.
10th April, Clan Maclean arrived on her way to India and to on board seven of our ratings for repatriation. Clan Maclennan and Clan Menzies called by to offer good wishes and to have a little look!
11th April early evening two helicopters approached from the over the island. To our astonishment one hovered over the poop and an officer was lowered on a wire. He delivered the morning papers and then went. Both had come from HMS Albion. We were told that she was to lend “valuable” assistance. In reality she anchored on the other side of the island, the crew had enjoyed a game of football on the beach, and a party of sailors came and “borrowed” 80 gallons of petrol. She then sailed for the Far East. It is comforting to know that the Royal Navy is always there to lend a hand at time of adversity!
12th April a magnificent piece of oceanic splendour appeared around the headland. The 3,000 ton Panamanian freighter Ais Nicholas, Built in 1916. After very little help from a very unco-operative Greek crew we got her alongside and for the next three days filled her with much the same sort of cargo as Seiyun had taken.
17th April an attempt was made to refloat the vessel so that a decision could be made about where she would be taken. Several options were available: Tow to Bombay as this was the nearest drydock large enough. This option had to be taken up very soon as the Monsoon season would start shortly. Secondly to tow her to Durban but the same monsoon argument applied. Third was to tow her to Malta but this meant going through the Suez Canal on a sinking ship, something the Canal Authorities where not overly enthusiastic about. So that left options one and two and time was running out.
The attempt to refloat was unsuccessful and the company was told that unless the salvors provide much greater pumping resources the vessel will become a constructive total loss.
700 tons of accessible cargo remained and it was felt that another coaster could be profitably employed.
Arrangements were made for a very valuable piece of deck cargo, an oil refinery cracking tower, bound for Brisbane, to be floated and towed back to Aden for transhipment.
19th April the 45 ton cracking tower was lowered into the water and taken in tow by Poolzee to Aden. Before floatation 107 holes had to be sealed. It floated well with good stability and a draught of about 3.5ft. Whilst in Aden Poolzee would pick up five more 6 inch pumps. Later that day the tug Mississippi arrived with six further pumps of various sizes.
During this time we discharged 1500 bags of Naphthalene (moth balls), 29 tons of bulk Dutrea and 29 tons of Napthenic Acid.
The pending Monsoon was beginning to show signs of arrival, the wind had veered to SW force 3 and the sea had a long low swell. We were now aground on a lee shore.
21st April weather and sea conditions deteriorating. No 4 double bottom and No 4 fresh water tanks had breached. No 4 hold was now considered unpumpable.
Pumping and subsequent refloating was now paramount but paper packing from the cargo was continually blocking the pumps. The divers were sent down around the ship and reported heavy siltation sand near the bow where a sandbank had formed on either side. There was also evidence of significant quantities of sand in the breached holds.
25th April another attempt was made to refloat but all this revealed was that a rock had penetrated the hull under No 4 hold and that that ship was pivoting on it causing further severe damage. That evening a rather despondent crew gathered on the boat deck to hear what the Salvage Master had to say. The next day would have another try at refloating, all the tugs would be utilised and a kedge anchor would be streamed to add a bit more pull.
26th April Mississippi and Oceaan made fast aft. All 34 pumps were started. By 1500 Ayrshire moved, at 1600 she was afloat. The tugs held her in position until Captain Colthoff, for whatever reason, ordered them to stop towing and the vessel was “allowed” to drift ashore on the west side of the bay. The ship’s position was now very grave, she was far more exposed to the sea and her after body was bumping heavily on the coral.
27th April Smits in Rotterdam sent this message to British and Commonwealth in London. “Tugs efforts in last 12 hours unavailing and position utmost seriousness as two knot current pinning ship on reef and vessel bumping and labouring with some evidence of deterioration. No 6 tank now leaking and engine room leakage increased slightly. Understand salvors now considering abandonment and if so crew will be removed.”
28th April we were informed that the game was over and we were abandoning Ayrshire. Very sad but we were going home to very anxious relatives.
The Master was instructed to bring all ship’s document; charts, log book and bridge movement book back to the UK and to deposit Admiralty secret papers with the naval authorities in Aden. The funnel was blacked out so as not to be a bad advertisement, the salvage pumps were taken back aboard the tugs and the crew distributed amongst the tugs.The agents in Aden were to book us hotels and an aircraft to repatriate the crew to Bombay and the officers to England.
29th April I and the other cadets arrived in Aden aboard Poolzee and the rest of the crew arrived on Oceaan and Mississippi.
30th April an Argonaut aircraft of Air Links took 51 crew members to Bombay and on May 4th the officers took off from Aden for Gatwick via Cairo and Brindisi.