May 17th, 2016
The Beer Tanker
The city of Bristol, wedged between England’s Southwest Peninsula and South Wales, has been a seafaring town since as far back as anyone can imagine. It was from Bristol in 1497 that an ambitious Italian expat rebranded as John Cabot set off to make the first recorded European landing on North America since the Vikings went home 500 years earlier. (Various fishermen had gotten there earlier, but they weren’t about to talk it up and share the richest fishing grounds on the planet, so Cabot has taken that spot in the history books.)
Four centuries later, in the 1970s, the Empire on which the sun never set was staring twilight in the face and so was the Bristol shipbuilding firm of Charles Hill and Son. The very last vessel they launched was christened the Miranda Guinness after a legendary beauty who’d married the Count of Iveagh several years before. Now, it turns out that the Count ran a family business in Dublin, Ireland, at a place called St James’ Gate Brewery. As you may have guessed, their signature brew was Guinness Stout.
The Miranda Guinness was a tanker, but instead of living her life as a wallowing steel balloon of toxic petroleum, she was — glory-be — a beer tanker. Her hull enclosed fifteen massive stainless steel tanks and when fully laden the Miranda Guinness could carry 6,500 barrels of beer equalling almost two million pints. She was a creature of habit, looping between the Dublin brewery and bottling plants in Liverpool, Manchester, London and her own birthplace of Bristol.
In Dublin, Miranda would tied up at a wharf on the River Liffey. Liquid-carrying barges called lighters would raft up alongside her and hoses would be passed. Once the connections were made, workers would operate the pumps and lager, ale, porter and stout would flow into their respective tanks. They would fill her to brim, but this would be different amounts in different seasons; the loading boss had to take care not to submerge the ship’s Plimsoll mark, lines welded to her side which showed how deeply she rode in the water. After loading, they would fire up her two diesel engines and depart Dublin, passing the lighthouse that marks the dangerous sandbank called Kish. In a way, she was like a 1500 ton, self-propelled tap.
After discharging her cargo in England, Miranda would return to Ireland, using the voyage to wash down and steam sterilize her tanks as she went. The story goes that once, when Miranda’s predecessor the Lady Patricia was steaming her own tanks, she had a following wind, so the cloud of steam traveled with her, causing a passing airplane to report a “ship on fire.”
Miranda Guinness, the eleventh and last ship of the Guinness fleet, made her rounds for sixteen years, and every time she came or went from Dublin Bay, she passed within a mile or so of the first of Guinness’ ships, the W. M. Barkley. Miranda’s crew never saw the Barkley, though, because the Barkley was, and still is, 190 feet below, resting on the sandy floor of the sea.
The story of how the W. M. Barkley came to be there began sixty-four years and two world wars before Miranda Guinness was launched. The year was 1913 and a shipping strike at the Dublin docks meant that beer was stacking up at St James’ Gate Brewery while pub-goers were running dry in England. In frustration, Guinness bought a used coal freighter, cleaned her out, and loaded barrels (“hogsheads” by name) into her holds.
The Barkley was nothing special, a fifteen-year-old, steam-powered “coaster,” one of hundreds of small freighters that chugged and puffed to and fro along the shorelines of the British Isles, leaving broad trails of coal-smoke on the breeze. By becoming ship owners, Guinness had outflanked their labor troubles, but not imperial ones. Two years after the First World War broke out, the Royal Navy requisitioned W. M. Barkley for their own purposes, which included carrying broken stones to build roads in the battlefields of France.
But the RN gave her back in 1917, (muttering something about how she was more fuel-hungry than other ships) and Guinness returned to packing her with hogsheads of good things to drink and sending her across the Irish Sea, now in the company of three other ships (Carrowdore, Clareisland, and Clarecastle) that Guinness had bought to keep the English properly hydrated. The problem was, the war followed W. M. Barkley.
In the days before October 12th, 1917, the port of Dublin had been closed because a number of ships had been sunk in the Irish sea; it was clear that U-Boats were hunting between Ireland and England. Every day, the Barkley’s master, Captain Gregory, would visit the Guinness office to see if sailing restrictions had been lifted. On Thursday, he was told that they would likely to be lifted the following day. I suppose Captain Gregory was not a superstitious man, because he told his crew to prepare, in spite of the fact that maritime lore is quite insistent about never leaving harbor on a Friday.
The sun was long down the following evening at five o’clock when the Barkley slipped her lines and began steaming down the River Liffey, making for the open sea, bound for Liverpool with a cargo of stout. She passed the lightship marking the north end of the Kish Bank, the lights of Dublin faded behind her and the Barkley headed into the darkness of the Irish Sea. Liverpool was 112 nautical miles ahead of her. But much closer, only 300 yards away, was another vessel, a U-Boat under the command of Oberleutnant zur See Johannes Lohs.
In the galley of the Barkley, a 35-year-old steward with the wonderful name of Thomas McGlue was waiting for a kettle to boil. Also waiting for hot water was Barkley’s gunner. The Barkley had a gunner because she’d recently been armed to deal with any U-Boat she might encounter. But at this particular moment the gunner was not at his gun, but waiting for hot water to wash up. He ended up getting water all right, but it wasn’t hot.
McGlue — who’d been sent to make tea for the officers — was just reaching out for the kettle when the torpedo exploded beneath the ship. “The kettle capsized and shot boiling water up my arm to the elbow,” McGlue later reported. “The galley was filled with steam, and I said a few hard words,” (I’ll bet they were hard words!) “but apart from that, there wasn’t much noise. Not a murmur, in fact.”
Maybe that’s because it was already over. The blast had broken the back of the ship, splitting the hull and sending seawater flooding in. Captain Gregory and four others never made it off.
But McGlue and several others did — including the gunner he’d last seen in the galley — and they desperately rowed a lifeboat away from the suction of the sinking coaster. Once they had got clear, they saw the silhouette of another vessel. It was the U-Boat, UC-75.
Oberleutnant Lohs hailed the lifeboat alongside and — shades of a very different era — asked McGlue and the others about their ship. What was her name, her owners, her cargo and destination. In McGlue’s words, “He spoke better English than we did. We answered his questions and then asked if we could go. He told us to wait a minute while he went below and checked the name on the register. Then he came up again and said ‘I can’t find her.’” Three times Lohs went down to check his book of merchant ships before he finally found the Barkley and “ticked her off.”
Lohs pointed out the course for the nearest shore to the men in the lifeboat and then the U-Boat vanished. McGlue and the others rowed, but the current was against them, and in the end, they rigged a sea anchor and waited, adrift on a sea filled with bobbing casks of stout, until a Dublin-bound coaster plucked them out of the sea.
They were back where they had started on the docks of Dublin before the sun even came up. As they warmed themselves by a fire, a superintendent from Guinness appeared, with a bottle of brandy and dry clothes. McGlue caught a cab, (a horse cab) hurrying 20 miles north to where he lived in Baldoyle. His wife, you see, was sick, and McGlue was worried she’d hear about the torpedoing before he could get home.
It was a long trip, that ride home in the growing light of day and I’m sure it gave McGlue a lot of time to think about those minutes when it seemed like he’d never see daylight again. That’s because, in the seconds after the torpedo struck, McGlue had discovered that the door from the galley onto the deck was either locked or jammed. So McGlue had to go deeper into the foundering ship, through the engine room, to find a way onto deck. By the time he did, the Barkley was more sunk than afloat and he could feel her settling under his feet with each passing moment.
A lifeboat, still roped to its davits, had survived the blast. There was no need to lower it to the water, because the water had come to it. In fact, the sinking coaster was going to drag it under. McGlue’s only chance was to climb up and cut the boat free. Beside him, the after hold was full of surging water and the carefully stowed hogsheads of stout were afloat, jostling and fighting their way up through the shattered hatch. And here’s a funny thing: on its own, stout is heavier than freshwater. But it’s lighter than seawater, and put it in a wooden barrel and it’s significantly lighter. The Barkley was trying to go under, but the cargo of stout slowed her sinking just enough to McGlue to free the lifeboat. In his words, the beer was “the reason any of us got out of her.”
As they say, Guinness is good for you.
Night Passage via Travel Poster from the London and North Western Railway
Miranda Guinness on the Ways in Bristol by Paul Townsend
Guinness is Good for You by Nils Merker
Plimsoll Mark by cjb300zx
Miranda Guinness on the River Liffey by Wikipedia
Plans of the W. M. Barkley by Ailsa Shipbuilding Company
Grave of the W. M. Barkley by Infomar