Chapter 3

Man the Lifeboats!

Captain Pinkham ordered provisions, water and navigation equipment to be stowed in the two lifeboats.  The boats were manned and carefully manoeuvred over the side and lowered into the sea; Captain Pinkham in command of the starboard boat with 15 men aboard and Chief Officer Meikle with 15 men in the other.   The lifeboats were secured alongside the “West Point”, under the lee and clear of the fire, where the crew spent a quiet night.

The next day, shortly after dawn had broken, the burning vessel was boarded again.  The fire was still burning and the water in the holds had risen, causing the ship to list heavily to port.  The flood of water was due, in part to the gallons of water played onto the fire in the hold and also due to the buckling and straining of the vessel's shell plates.  With great difficulty, the men managed to get steam up on the main boiler, and continued to blow steam into the after holds.  The fire still had control of the ship and had burned into the cargo.  In the storeroom all the provisions had been burned, but on the floor were found 30 hams, the outside burned black, but the inside baked perfectly.  These were loaded onto the lifeboats and would prove to be invaluable as events unfolded.

At 1 p.m. the steam failed, as the men were unable to remain below, owing to the heat, the ammonia fumes and the increasing flames. It was clear that the ship could not be saved and after consultation between the officers she was abandoned at 3 p.m.  However, before leaving the “West Point”, all bulkheads, portholes and all connection with the sea were opened, with a view to sinking her to prevent her from being a hazard to other shipping.

For a second night the lifeboats were kept under the lee of the “West Point”.  Throughout the night the men could see smoke and flames breaking out fore and aft.  At daylight the boats were pulled to windward and towards the vessel.  The fated “West Point” was now listing heavily to starboard, the bulwarks being awash and water pouring over the shelter deck. In the afternoon she was boarded for one final time to replenish the fresh water, and to secure further provisions from that which had not been destroyed by the fire.  The men also opened up the bunker hatches and the holds, in order to sink her quickly, so as to be able to get away from her as soon as possible whilst the weather was fine. The raging fire had heated the decks and moving around was almost unbearable.  The engine room was now full of water and steam was being forced out of number four hold. The situation was now hopeless and the ship abandoned. Sixteen men and provisions were aboard each lifeboat.  Each boat also had a feline passenger, the pets of the ship.

At six o’clock in the afternoon the ship sunk with a last gasp as her crew looked on from the safety of the lifeboats. When the water rolling over the resting place of his steamer had settled, Captain Pinkham noted her final position as 45° 31’ North and 40° 42’ West. The weather was fine and the seas smooth as the two small boats raised their small sails and headed north in good spirits, the plan being to reach the eastbound steamer lane where they should have a good chance of being spotted and picked up. By the following day the boats had sailed 95 miles and were about 12 miles south of the seam lane when the sea anchors had to be deployed. The weather had closed in and the seas had become dangerously heavy.  The crews sheltered from the squally conditions as best they could. However considerable merriment was caused by the antics of a Negro crewmember in Chief Officer Meikle’s boat. Every time a wave caught the small craft on its crest, he yelled at the top of his voice

“Oh, Lord, look down on this boat”.

Both boats remained together with no further progress until 5 o’clock on the morning of the 31st August when the anchors were raised and they, once again, set sail, heading towards the northeast.  After having sailed for 21 miles, Captain Pinkham judged that they were in the path of the steamers, and at 3 o’clock in the afternoon both lifeboats were again stopped using their sea anchors.  The weather closed in once more and became very stormy. Time after time drenching seas broke over them. The men were continually bailing out water to keep afloat.  Provisions were in short supply and the cold was intense. By the following morning the two boats had lost sight of each other.

Friday morning, the exhausted crew of Miekle’s lifeboat spotted a distant steamer, one day after parting company from their crewmates. This was the Leyland liner “Devonian”, heading to Boston from Liverpool.  By quarter past eight the lifeboat had been pulled up by the davits of the “Devonian”, and all sixteen men taken on board. The rescued men were wet through, cold and distressed, but after brandy and rum had been administered they soon recovered.

There was no word of the men in the other boat and the rescued men on board the "Devonian" were greatly concerned.

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