Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Old Lady and the Sea

In October 1829, the schooner Mermaid, Captain Samuel Nolbrow, master, and 18 men aboard left Sydney, Australia, from Raffles Bay. In Torres Strait, a stretch of water alive with reefs and shallows, between Australia and New Guinea, the ship struck a coral reef and foundered. The crew scrambled to a rock above and there spent three days waiting to be rescued. They were taken aboard the by bark Swiftsure which happened to pass by. Two days later the Swiftsure was ran ashore and wrecked. Eighteen men of the Mermaid and 14 crew members of the Swiftsure swam ashore and were stranded till the schooner Governor Ready with 32 aboard hove into view. The castaways were taken off and its ship was on its way to Papua when disaster struck for the third time. The Governor Ready caught fire and was a total loss within a few hours. Three sets of survivors now numbering 64 took to the longboats and drifted in the open Pacific. A new ship came to their rescue. It was the government cutter Comet which took the shipwrecked men aboard. But not for long. The Comet's end came in a sudden storm and the long suffering company, now enhanced by 21 men of the Comet, was cast adrift again on the immensity of the Pacific. The clung to the latest wreckage for an agonizing 18 hours until they were sighted by the Jupiter bound for West Australia with 38 men of her own. There must have been some dark murmuring aboard the Jupiter about jinxes and jonahs but the 85 men were picked up and rescued. They had hardly settled down when the Jupiter in turn ran on a reef and stove a hole in her keel. There were 123 castaways now with their five separate sets of captains and officers. The huddled miserably upon a slippery rock in the ocean until a sixth and final ship delivered them. This time it was the City of Leeds, a passenger schooner with 100 passengers aboard.

Passengers and crew were goggle-eyed with astonishment at the experiences of the survivors. Dr. Thomas Sparks of the City of Leeds walked awhile among the saved men, listening to the hubbub of their voices. Suddenly he spoke:

"Are there any Yorkshiremen among you?"

There was no answer and the doctor continued: "I require a Yorkshireman about 35 years of age. I need him to prolong the life of a very sick old lady. She is unconscious and calls for her son whom she has not seen in ten years. Unless we can find someone to impersonate the lad, we may soon have to bury her at sea."

One of the rescued deck hands, a survivor of the Mermaid, spoke up: "There are Yorkshiremen and Yorkshiremen.What part of Yorkshire does the old lady come from?"

"She is from Whitby."

"Then I think I can be of service. I am from Whitby, myself."

"How old are you, son?"

"I am 34, sir."

"You'll do perfectly. Come with me now."

"What is the name I am to take, sir?"

"Peter Richardson. Repeat the name a few times so that you will not forget it."

"No need of that," was the hushed reply. "I am Peter Richardson."

Peter Richardson saw his mother and her joy was so great that she recovered and lived 18 years longer. It was as if the hand of Providence had arranged five shipwrecks in succession--without the loss of a single human life--in the most treacherous waters in the world--so that a seafaring son could meet his dying mother.

This story--unbelievable as it sounds--can be verified in the archives of the Maritime Office of the Australian Commonwealth in Canberra.

--from Ripley's Believe It Or Not!: 4th Series (1954)

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