Nantlle Valley History

Gyrn Goch


Epic Landfall for Shipwrecked Sailors at Gyrn Goch ~ 1927

An explosion and fire on board the Fortuna, a South Atlantic-bound whaling supply ship, off the southern coast of Ireland on Friday, 28th October, 1927, had unexpected repercussions for Gyrn Goch and the nearby village of Clynnog.

An ageing, three masted, iron hulled sailing vessel, manned by a Norwegian crew of 26 under the command of Captain Olav Larsen, the Fortuna belonged to the Argentina Whaling Company, the Compania Argentina de Pesca (PESCA). This was an Argentine financed Norwegian venture based in the British dependency of South Georgia, 800 kms south-east of the Falklands. Established in 1904, following a prohibition on whaling in Norwegian waters, and functioning until 1965, the enterprise initially proved wonderfully profitable and provided seasonal employment for 300 workers at its whaling station at Grytviken.The Fortuna which was shipwrecked near Gyrn Goch

Image: The Fortuna.

Since her purchase by PESCA in 1916, the 1793 ton Fortuna had regularly plied between Grytviken and England, with an average each way journey time of under 70 days. Inbound, she carried whale oil and guano, and on her return voyage coal, food and empty oil barrels.

On her final, diasterous, journey, having discharged 11,400 barrels of whale oil at Liverpool, and taken on 3000 tons of coal and 1000 empty oil containers, the Fortuna set sail from the Mersey on Sunday, October 23rd. Five days later, some 10 miles south of the Irish coast, in extremely rough weather, a violent explosion blew up the main cabin and the seamen's mess-room and set the ship aflame. The fire spread quickly and could not be extinguished. The cause of the fire was probably the accidental ignition of calcium carbide, a highly flammable chemical that was used to produce acetylene gas for lighting.

Soon, the Fortuna capsized and sank, taking with it one of her lifeboats that was in the process of being launched. A second boat, having managed to get clear, picked up survivors from the sunken boat, including the captain and the first and second officers. Five others, including the kitchen boy, did not surface and were presumed drowned.

The boat at the mercy of the rough sea drifted for 18 hours. Two of the men, including the officer of the watch who had been injured by flying debris in the explosion, had a broken leg. By Saturday afternoon the wind and the currents had brought the boat close to the north coat of Caernarfonshire, an incredible 250 kilometers from the scene of the disaster. Eventually, in heavy swell, the crew managed to effect a landing at a small jetty belonging to the Gyrn Goch limekiln at Grafog, directly below Tyddyn Hen Farm.
The Norwegians found shelter at Tyddyn Hen and were well looked after by the communities of Gyrn Goch and Clynnog until such time as when W.S.Jones, the local secretary of the Shipwrecked Mariners Society, managed to arrange their repatriation to Norway.

Those rescued from the Fortuna Image: Those rescued, in the gardens of the Saint Beuno at Clynnog (Captain Larsen is sitting next to the lady wearing fur).

Prior to her conversion into a whaling supply ship, the Fortuna had had a colourful history as a 'coolie' carrier. Built in 1893, for the Nourse Line, a shipping company established by James Nourse, a Glasgow sea captain, and named the Ems, she joined her sister ships, all sailing vessels, in what was known as the 'coolie trade'. This involved the transportation of Indian and Chinese labourers to work as indentured workers on the sugar and cotton plantations of the Americas that had suffered severe labour shortages following on the abolition of slavery. These oriental workers were hired on five year contracts and given a free passage to the New World.

The Fortuna's lifeboatThe Ems, plying both the Calcutta to Europe and the Calcutta to New York runs, was noted for its speed. In 1898 she only narrowly missed equalling the time of a rival company's fast clipper, the Brenda, reaching Calcutta from England in 87 days.

Image: The Fortuna's lifeboat.

A decade later, with a marked downturn in the coolie trade, the Ems was deemed redundant and was sold to a succession of Norwegian companies, in 1908 to the Tonsberg Whaling Company, four years later the Sandefjord Whaling Company and, finally, in 1916 to PESCA. On her aquisition, the Ems was then renamed the Fortuna, the same name as the PESCA's first whaler that had been wrecked earlier that year and who's remains still lie on the shores of Cumberland Bay, South Georgia.

Based on an article by Dafydd Williams published in Llafar Gwlad, No 84, p.p. 19-20.
Gwasg Carreg Gwalch Press External link: Opens in a new window

Many thanks to Eric Jones of Llanrug, for taking the time to translate this story from the original Welsh version.

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