The following story is based upon real life accounts of men washed overboard. They appeared in the Scarborough Daily Post in 1920 as part of the 'Sea Dogs' stories by Forrest Frank.
Twenty days out, when only a couple days from home, we had been running with the main top-gallant sail on the cap from midnight till 4am, when I took it in. At eight oclock the gale began to moderate, and I was going to set the sail again.
All hands were on deck at the time, when owing to faulty helmanship of the man at the wheel, she took a sea right over her, and nearly buried herself. Before she freed herself everything movable was torn from position, and a number of the men were washed along and jammed against the spars being seriously injured.
One man reported to me at once that he and another had been washed overboard clasped together, that in the boil of the water they had been seperated, and that with the recoil of the wave he had alone been thrown back upon the deck.
Instant inquirey showed that a man was missing, and I went myself into the mizzen cross trees to see if any trace of him was visible, but I could not see nothing. With the sea the way it was it would have been impossible to bring the ship to without taking all the sails off her. Even if we had seen him he would have been five or six miles astern by that time - for the Mercia was racing through it.
Thus, with the sad knowledge that nothing could be done to save him, we set the main top gallant sail, and went away.
The poor fellow was none other than the Frenchman whom I had given passage to from Rockhampton to Timaru, and whom I had there signed on in place of the lad Webber, killed at Rockhampton.
When Captain Sutton came on deck he kept the ship away, and all hands went forward. We hauled the jib down. It had been stayed to a clamp in the martindale, and when the mate and I went over the bows we found that the shackle of the Martindale had broken. We had taken a couple of reef earrings for our own protection to laah the martindale till we got it inboard, but had first to come up or release the lanyards of the back ropes. When we got the shackle on we set up the back ropes again, and put things in position, the other man working inside with a tackle. When this had been done, there was no call for the mate to remain outside, for I was only just stopping to rack the lanyard on the back rope, and finish it off - a mere moments work - but, as I say, he was a good sailor, and liked to see the end of everything and everything done right.
Thus whilst I was finishing this outside in a good position, and with a good leg purchase, he remained outside also, lying with his stomach over the bowsprit, but with no foothold. During all this time the ship was being kept away to save us from the seas. Another minute and we would both have been in board again.
The Captain evidently believed that we had regained the deck, for he had come forward to see how we were getting on, and seeing that the back ropes had been set up, thought the mate and I were amongst those in the bows, for as he went aft he let go the forbrace, and told the man at the wheel to put the helm down. The ship had been running to leeward all this time, and he naturally wanted to get her on her course again as soon as possible. With that act the ship came up to the wind, and charged into the sea like a wild bull. The water knocked me flat on to the boom, where I lay pressed against it.
When I recovered my breath and climbed in board I asked
"Is the mate in board?" and was answered "No", then I said "Then he has gone".
Then we began a vain but perilous search. Tom Maw had a plank on which he used to do his work, and he and I picked it up and threw it overboard, in the hope that the mate would see it and get to it for support. It was a moonlight night with passing clouds, and as we looked over we could see the old mans bald head shining in the water as fair as could be, and there was no doubt that he had hold of the plank, but a bank of storm clouds had shut out the moon, and we lost sight of him.
We had a little dinghy, and she was thrown over the side, and four men got into her - George Plews, Tom Maw, the German and one of the Scotchmen - and they went away in search.
A big squall came up and covered the moon once more, and it became pitch black. We let go the topsail halyards, and wallowed in the sea like a paraffin cask, rolling rail under, with us all up the the waist in water. We burned flares for the guidance of the boat, which was a long time away, and of which we could see nothing. Captain Sutton, who was a fine man in every way, and who knew the fault had been his, got into a terrible state, crying "Oh Dear, Oh Dear, theres four more of them gone!"
Finally the boat hailed up. She had had a very hard struggle, but returned without having seen anything of the mate, for the moon had kept hidden all the time.
When coming alongside it seemed certain that the little dinghy would be swamped, but as the brig rolled we seized the boat with all the men still in her, and dragged her over the rail, the four seamen jumped out of her, and the boat, such was the rush of water, floated right into the poop.
The above story appeared in a series of articles by Forrest Frank in 1920 in the Scarborough Daily Post based upon interviews with Master Mariners