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Guernsey has seen more than its fair share of shipwrecks over the years; at least 800, it is estimated. The Bailiwick is comprised of four main islands and many more smaller islands and islets, all surrounded by rocks and reefs, which when combined with the large tidal range and their proximity to the busiest shipping lane in the world have created a recipe for shipwreck over the centuries. Whilst modern day developments in navigation and maritime safety has significantly reduced the regularity with which ships founder upon Guernsey’s rocky coastline, accidents have none the less occurred. One particularly famous shipwreck from living memory happened on the night of Thursday July 13th, 1967, and is memorable because the ship in question struck the cliffs of Guernsey’s south coast rather than running aground on an offshore reef.
The 10,826 ton cargo ship President Garcia of the Philippine President Lines shipping company, was en-route to Rotterdam from Freetown (Sierra Leone) with a cargo of copra when disaster struck (Copra is the term for dried coconut kernels which are processed to extract coconut oil, with the remaining “coconut cake” being used as livestock feed). Reportedly, the ship’s master Captain Frederico Guererrez had retired to bed having left members of his crew on watch and the ship on autopilot, when a navigation light was mistaken for the lighthouse on the treacherous reefs at Les Hanois, off Guernsey’s south west coast. With the (mistaken) light closer than anticipated the President Marquez was turned hard to port with the belief that this would turn it back out to open water, but because of the navigational error it struck the rocks at the base of the cliff close to the harbour slipway at Saints Bay at a speed of 12 knots.
The grounded ship drew significant crowds of curious onlookers over the coming days, both from the cliff tops and from the water as local boat owners visited to take a closer look. On the following day, Friday 14th, two Dutch tug boats, the Utrecht and the Willem Barendsz, arrived on the scene part of what would become a much larger salvage operation and offered their assistance on the basis of Lloyd’s Open Form that meant that if they could not affect the salvage of the vessel then no fee would be incurred. The President Marquez had run aground with such force that even at high tide she was still sat too high on the rocks to be re-floated. As each cycle of low tide came around, further damage was incurred as the huge vessel was left resting on the rocks; the hull was damaged significantly in at least four places but repairs were made, in one case by frogmen when the damaged area could not be reached from inside the ship. As well as the cargo of copra the holds also contained some hitchhikers in the form of bright blue copra beetles that made their way to shore and plagued the local area for several days. Eventually a third tug boat, the Stentor, arrived with a large pump that was used to offload around 300 tons of the ship’s cargo so that she could be refloated on the next high tide. Seven days after striking the rocks at Saints Bay, on Thursday July 20th, the three tug boats managed to pull the President Marquez from the rocks. They proceeded to tow the disabled vessel stern first to St Peter Port, and then on to Rotterdam for discharge and possible repair. It was reported by The Guernsey Press however that the President Marquez may have been sent to the breaker’s yard after her misadventure.
There have been less than ten shipwrecks in Guernsey waters since the President Marquez episode, not all of which had such happy endings. Whilst our coastline is beautiful, it can also be treacherous – particularly during winter storms. We hope that we’ll never see a ship in distress or wrecked off our coast again, and that the attention-grabbing image of a shipwreck can be confined to historical stories with happy endings such as that of the President Marquez.
To read a first hand account of the salvage operation from Hans van der Aar, who worked aboard the tug boat Willem Barendsz, and to see more images please visit www.zeesleepvaart.com. All images shared with permission.