Family feared for their lives as ferry was pounded by great storm of 1987

Mention of the recent anniversary of the great storm of 1987 brought back uncomfortable memories for a number of readers who were caught up in its terrible grip.

Friday, 26th October 2018, 2:13 pm
Updated Friday, 26th October 2018, 2:23 pm
David Bage on board the ferry Corbiere during the height of the storm. The horizon in relation to the angle of the ship can just be seen through the window.

Among them was South Shields man John Bage and his family, who were on board the BCIF ferry Corbiere, heading from Jersey to Portsmouth, when their “nightmare” began.

This is John’s account of that day on October 15.

“After a lovely holiday in Jersey my wife and I, and our children, aged seven and nine, made our way by car to the port, where we had a meal before boarding the Corbiere,” said John.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“The captain announced over the speaker that there had been a mention of a storm out at sea, but he reassured everyone, saying he didn’t think we would have any problems.

“My son and I went up onto deck to watch the departure, but no sooner had we left the harbour than the ship began lurching about and we could hardly keep on our feet.”

John said they made their way back to their cabin, where his wife and daughter were already beginning to feel very sea-sick.

“The conditions just got worse,” explained John, “and they were both violently sick.

“I worked out that the ship was moving about 20 degrees to each side and also bucking up and down like a crazy stallion. Leaving the ladies in their bunks, my son and I toured the ship.

“It was almost impossible to walk about. It looked like almost everyone on board was ill apart from the two of us and a Welshman and his son, whom we met on our rounds.

“My shipbuilding background caused me to go look for the ship’s safety and evacuation plan, which I found hanging on a wall.

“I was more than a little relieved to see that the ship had been built in Germany, and therefore presumed that it would be strongly made and capable of withstanding the pounding it was taking.

“We went to look at where the lifeboats were ‘just in case’, but on seeing the angry state of the sea I decided there was no way that I was going out in a little boat on that.

“We went back to the cabin, where my wife insisted that if we had to abandon ship then we were to leave her behind, as she couldn’t move from her bunk.”

There they remained for hours on end “praying that we would survive this dreadful nightmare”.

“We were surrounded by awful noises of the ship groaning under the strain and of the crashing against the hull of the anchors as they swung back and forwards.

“When I thought we must be getting close to Portsmouth, the captain announced that he had in fact been sheltering behind the island of Guernsey for the past seven or eight hours, but he now thought they could attempt to turn and head for home. We were devastated to hear we still had many hours to go before we would get back on dry land.

“As the ship turned, it went over to one side and it felt as if it wasn’t going to straighten up. There was a huge crash on the deck above us and we really did think that was it.

“It seemed like it took several minutes before we began to return to a vertical position.”

Many hours later they sighted land.

“I noticed the carpet in the passage was soaking where sea water had been getting in through the window seals. We seemed to have a five degree list to one side, but by now I was too tired to give it much thought.

“The whole of the ship reeked of petrol fumes from the cars below. An announcement said the duty free and the restaurant were closed, as they had been badly damaged during the night – that would have been the crashing we heard as the ship turned.

“Once the ship was tied up the captain asked the non-drivers to walk ashore and said he wanted to meet with the drivers before they went to their vehicles.

“I hadn’t even thought about the car and what might have happened below decks.

“A very white-faced captain and his officers met us to tell us that there had been damage to vehicles and that we must wait for the fire brigade to come aboard to inspect the car decks, to make sure it was safe for us to go down.

“Eventually we got the all-clear, but to our horror we found that all the cars had been moved to one side – they hadn’t been lashed down.

“We couldn’t get in the doors, so we had to man-handle each vehicle enough for the driver to get in before he could drive it away.

“Some car bumpers were over the towing balls of other vehicles, preventing them from being moved.

“There was no crew to help us, but fortunately there were a couple of Americans who took control and soon we were driving off the ferry.

“On shore there were TV cameras filming as the cars drove off. Many of them looked like they had been in a demolition derby.

“One elderly man we had befriended showed us his car, his ‘pride and joy’.

“He was almost in tears because every single body-panel looked like it had been hit with a sledge-hammer and all the glass was smashed.

“He didn’t know how he was going to get to his home in London.

“We were more fortunate, as our car only had a wing dented and was drivable. We set off after photos and details had been taken for the insurance claim.

“The lovely memories of our Jersey holiday were completely wiped out by the terrifying events of our journey through the storm – and even now my wife is extremely reluctant to go on anything that floats on water.”

Meanwhile, Kevin Rutherford, who lives in the south but still has family in South Shields, got in touch with his recollections of the storm.

“I was on HMS Nottingham waiting to come into Portsmouth harbour on the night of the storm.

“We were supposed to enter the harbour the next morning at 10am, but the skipper ordered that we kept the engines running whilst in the outer harbour during the night.

“We never got any sleep due to the storm and in the morning, expecting to sail into Pompey after our six-month deployment to the Gulf, we found out we had drifted to the Channel Islands.

“We eventually entered Pompey at 4pm.”