Owen Hughes

    1906~1972

Owen Hughes, from Min y Don, Rhiw, sailed as able seaman on the “York City” from Cardiff on the 18th June 1935, this was his first voyage on this vessel, although he had been with the same company since 1930, having sailed on the “Leeds City” Quebec City” and the “King City” William Reardon Smiths, the owners were from Bideford, Devon, although they were known as “Smiths of Cardiff”. It had a reputation for being a “Tramp” company, that is, none of their ships had a regular route, and they would sail the world, looking for cargos. It was not uncommon for them to spend up to two years away from home, and in fact, Owens first voyage with them on the “Leeds City” was eleven months long, and the others were not much shorter either. By mid July the “York City” was in a Russian, Black Sea port, loading 8.500 tonnes of Manganese ore for the States, and she duly sailed for Baltimore in early August. The first three weeks of the voyage was pretty uneventful, save for the discovery of two stowaways, which were dropped off at Gibraltar. The Atlantic ocean at that time of the year is normally very pleasant, with light winds and a warm sun on your back, but with the sea temperature to the south creeping up and over the magical 26deg C figure, the Hurricane season was well and truly in "full swing", and sure enough, news came from the radio room of a nasty one, building up to the south. But no one on board was unduly worried, because once one of these monsters hit the coast they normally "run out of breath" so to speak.

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"Owen second from the left"

On the 4th of September the “York City" was a 100 miles north of the Bermudan Islands, and making good headway in a gentle Atlantic swell.  But concern was growing on the bridge “The Labour Day Hurricane” as it was now known, had veered unexpectedly north and was hurtling up the eastern seaboard of the United States, and on its present course would be a major headache for Capt Llewelyn Thomas, and his crew.

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"Track of the Labour day Hurriecane"

The "Labour Day" Hurricane was the most powerful hurricane ever known to strike the United States. It was a category 5 hurricane, and they pack sustained wind speeds greater than 155 mph. The storm moved west from the Atlantic and across the Florida Keys, killing 400 people on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the victims drowned, some swept into the Gulf, others sucked back into the Atlantic, after the 15-foot wave had passed. Some people were literally sandblasted to death, there were so many dead people, and no place to take them, so they stacked them up and burned them in pyres. As it passed over the north end of Long Key, it became a record low for a land based station. The system recurved into Tampa Bay, and crossed through Georgia and the Carolinas before sweeping back into the Atlantic near the North Carolina / Virginia border.  Now on Friday the 6th with the winds over 150mph, and with the steamship “Fannie Mae” already foundered one mile east of the Windmill Point lighthouse. The hurricane bore down on the “York City” which by now was only 130 miles off the coast. Up to 4:30am on Saturday the 7th, the ship had weathered the sea well, but then a mountainous wave struck the vessel, and she nose dived into a trough, and was completely submerged by the huge sea. 

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"York City at the height of the storm"

On the bridge Capt Thomas, Glen Williams the mate, and Quartermaster Campbell Roberts, were so over come by the sheer force of the sea, that it took them some time to compose themselves. The damage to the vessel was considerable, most of her port holes had been broken, vents were buckled, handrails were torn away, but worst of all her two lifeboats had been smashed to pieces, making survival in the event of the vessel foundering pretty slim. Capt Thomas ordered the radio room to send out a mayday, but it was discovered that the ships aerials had been blown away in the storm as well.

 

"Baltimore News"

Ship battles Hurricane on the way here

Radio gone, whistle gone, lifeboats smashed to splinters, rails twisted into fantastic shapes by waves and wind, her cabins in utter shambles, the British steamer York City struggled into Baltimore today, barely victorious from a 15 hour life-and-death battle with the recent hurricane.

Her officers said that so grave was the ship’s plight at the height of the battle that her skipper, Capt Llewelyn Thomas, decided to send out a “stand-by” call. Then it was found that the aerials had been blown away.

Lashes loose booms

Meanwhile two booms from a derrick had got loose and were swinging wildly about with imminent likelihood of ripping away the hatch covers and admitting the sea to the hold. The vessel was saved from this danger by the heroism of Able Seaman John Wright, who volunteered to lash the booms. After great peril of being crushed to death or blown overboard he succeeded.

The York City, out of Cardiff, Wales, docked at Cottman’s pier, in Lower Canton, with a cargo of 8,500 tons of manganese ore from Russia.

Hurricane Strikes

Save for the discovery of two stowaways near Gibraltar the voyage was uneventful until last Friday when dense black clouds began to pile ominously on the horizon. The vessel was then some 300 miles northwest of the Bermudan coast.

Late Friday the hurricane struck, its violence increasing hourly. The ship, its officers said, weathered nicely until about 4:30am Saturday when a mountainous wave struck. The vessel, diving nose down into the trough, was completely submerged. On the bridge were the skipper, First officer Glen Williams and Third officer Robert Moore. Quartermaster Campbell Roberts was on the flying bridge as lookout. But so dense was the darkness, they said today, they could not see the wave nor even the deck.

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Swept Across Deck

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At that moment Chief Engineer Glen Harding was climbing the companionway from the engine room to his cabin. He was knocked down and swept outside and across the deck and saved himself only when he managed to clutch a piece of broken rail.

Practically all the damage to the York City, her crew related today, was dealt by the hurricane in that one body blow. Lifeboats were splintered against the cabins. All the portholes were broken. Engine room ventilators were ripped away. Panels were ripped out from the cabins. Chartroom windows were blown away, and in the dining cabin water was waist deep. Companionways were wrecked and doors blown overboard.

The lanyard of the ship’s whistle got entangled in the wreckage and throughout the struggle the whistle sounded until it too, was blown away.

 

 

Over the next 15 hours the ship was battered continuously, and the crew went through the worst possible nightmare. One of her derricks broke loose, and an able seaman, John Wright, volunteered to go out on deck to lash it, as it was in danger of ripping the canvas cover on one of the hatches, he managed the task in hand alone, and with great courage and strength.

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"Owen ashore with his shipmates (he's on the right)"

Three days later the “York City” limped into Baltimore much to the relief of her weary crew, but it was going to be another six months before Owen and his shipmates would be back home in the U.K., and the “York City” finally arrived safely in the river Tyne, and docked at South Shields, on the 2nd of March 1936.

"Owens discharge from the York City"

Many thanks to Mr & Mrs R Williams for their help with this article.

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