PERTHSHIRE… seamanship and nightmare



seamanship and nightmare







PERTHSHIRE was the first permanent front-line store ship to serve as an RFA – when in 1925 she completed fitting out as a ‘fleet supply ship’. She was attached to the Mediterranean Fleet where, with her Maltese crew, she lead a relatively peaceful life until it became too costly to physically maintain her. She was replaced by RFA RELIANT. She had actually earned this peaceful period in her career. Why? Because when still a youngster, in the days before the availability of radio and radio navigation aids, she underwent a stressful event… and achievement.

Built in 1893 by Hawthorn Leslie, Hebburn the SS Perthshire was a 430ft passenger reefer cargo ship of 5,800 gross tons. She was registered in Glasgow for The Elderslie Steamship Co. Ltd.,  with Turnbill, Martin & Co. as managers.

Under the command of Captain Peter Wallace and with Chief Engineer J Blair, she left Sydney NSW on 26 April 1898 bound for London via The Bluff, New Zealand (previously known as Campbeltown). She had a few passengers and a crew of 60.



This leg of her trip should have taken 4 to 6 days and her non-arrival at The Bluff caused anxiety. On 16 May 1898, Whankaroa, a 153-ton scow, arrived Sydney from NZ reporting distress signals seen on 12 May – blue lights and rockets. She altered course saw Perthshire and stood by her until daylight having learned that Perthshire’s prop shaft had broken ‘clean off’ and she was helpless – her spread of canvas was too limited to give steerage way. The scow continued to Sydney.

Sighted 25 May by a barque Northern Chief at approximately 33°S 164°E drifting northwards towards reefs and islets right off the established steamer routes. She then disappeared for a further 18 days. With general apprehension in Australia, steamers of Union Steamship Co running between Australia and NZ had all searched off course without success.

Then on 9 June the 2,000-ton Union Steamship Co’s Talune left Wellington NZ – her Master, Captain Spinks, had detailed knowledge of the Tasman Sea and the ocean currents in NZ waters. The Talune had taken on extra supplies of coal, rockets and towing hawsers.  As she set off on a north-easterly course a temporary ‘crowsnest’. In the shape of a coal basket it was slung up to the foremast and two hour watches were kept. An electric beacon light was rigged at the masthead with twelve electric lamps providing an estimated 300 candlepower and a range of up to 22 nautical miles in either direction.

On 12 June 1898, at 30°.20S Lat, 167°.19E Long and 600 nautical miles off the shipping routes. Captain Spinks decided to run within 50 miles S of Norfolk Island and then take a zig-zag course from there to Lord Howe’s Island.

At 0300 13 June – the Second Officer of Talune was attracted by the blue light on Perthshire, course W-by-N-½-N Lat 29°.38, Long 163°.38E, 750 n.miles off course.

Perthshire’s highly relieved Master boarded Talune at 0700. He stated “she had broken down on 28 April – terrific crash – propeller hard up against rudder post. Decided repair impracticable and prepared to wait to be picked up. Drifted towards South Sea Islands and hope began to fade. A gale followed and unable to fight against the current. Tried to repair her fractured shaft but found this extremely difficult and dangerous. The shaft had broken in the after tunnel, with little space to move and danger of drowning – fourteen days work – broken shaft secured after cutting through 3-inch stern tube. Patched up by immense couplings sufficient to let ship steam very slowly in calm weather. Unable to face the headwind or sea”.

 A 14-inch tow line was connected and at 0840 the tow commenced with Perthshire 100 fathoms astern. Wind freshened on beam and finally dead ahead – lumpy sea, anchor cable added to the tow to lengthen it and ease tension. That took one hour.

By noon following day covered 120 n.miles, travelling 5-6 knots, sea increased and speed dropped to 2-3 knots. Forenoon 15 June brought no improvement to weather. 0830 heavy sea lifted Talune like a cork and snapped the 14-inch hawser. Perthshire tightened couplings, and Talune waited, cut off steam. 1500 Perthshire ready but drifting at 2 knots. Half a gale blowing and tremendous seas. Talune was brought close to and tried to fire line by rocket. This went on for about twenty minutes when a rocket from Perthshire was eventually received. At times the ships were within 40ft of each other. Perthshire’s with hawser on board by 1600 towing recommenced. Heavy sea and head wind continued. 74 n.miles covered in next 24 hours. By 17 June another 130 n.miles and the gale spent. Shortly after wind veered and Perthshire cut canvas to relieve strain on the Talune’s engines. Next 24 hours 194 n.miles covered. Couplings then broke and brought operation to a standstill. It took seven hours to tighten couplings and then the tow was resumed.

In the meantime the ships were spotted by a pilot boat that took the news to Newcastle – 30 miles distant. Sydney Hards was reached on the forenoon 19 June. Talune towed Perthshire to moorings at Port Jackson – the tow of 710 n.miles was over. Her drift was credited as 1,400 n.miles for 45 days – quite something!

Her Master and Chief Engineer were both awarded the Lloyds Silver Medal for Meritorious Service.