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The Marques disaster: 40 years on

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As the 40th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the tall ship Marques approaches, a former police inspector recalls the first-hand account given to him by one of the young survivors.
David Barber, a former police inspector, holds up a framed photograph of the Marques, which sank in 1984 (Photograph by Sarah Lagan)
Hours from doom: Bermudian photographer Ann Spurling leaps off the deck of the tall ship Marques, which would sink 13 hours later (File photograph)

The chilling moment the tall ship Marques and her crew were sunk by a rogue wave resulting in significant loss of life has been recollected 40 years after the tragedy struck off Bermuda’s waters.

A former police inspector, who interviewed one of the nine survivors at HMS Malabar at the Royal Navy Dockyard, dug out documents and items he kept after disaster struck on June 3, 1984.

Among them was a copy of the police statement he took down, The Royal Gazette’s coverage of the event, and a pack of Marques-branded playing cards gifted to him by the first mate.

As the 40th anniversary of one of the island’s biggest news events approaches, Mr Barber said more should be done to commemorate it.

Journalists involved in the reporting of the rescue operation to the world’s media also recounted their experiences.

The British-registered, square-rigged barque set sail from Bermuda as part of the Bermuda-to-Nova Scotia leg of the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race on Saturday, June 2, 1984.

At about 4am the next day, close to 80 miles north of Bermuda, a freak wave enveloped the vessel.

In as little as 30 seconds, the whole ship went under.

Of the 28 people on board, one body was recovered and 18 others were missing, among them the American captain, Stuart Finlay, his wife, Aloma, and their 15-month-old son, Christopher.

An original copy of The Royal Gazette from June 4, 1984, after the sinking of the Marques (Photograph by Sarah Lagan)
David Barber, a former police inspector, was gifted a double pack of playing cards from the Marques (Photograph by Sarah Lagan)

David Barber was among police officers called upon to take down statements from the nine survivors.

He spoke with sail passenger John Morgan Ash, a 23-year-old lifelong sailor who wanted to gain experience on a square-rigger.

Warm embrace: Bob Cooper, a Marques survivor, embraces Captain J. Sauer of the Polish vessel that saved him after the sinking (File photograph)

Mr Barber, who was then 42, said that while the young man may still have been in shock, he remained composed and gave a detailed account of events, including how he was smacked by “wall of water” as the ship was taken down by the sea.

Mr Barber said: “On the Monday morning when I got to work, I got a phone call from the commanding officer at Malabar. He told me there were nine survivors who would be brought to Malabar, where they would be accommodated.

“We had to interview them, me and other police officers. It was very subdued. They were still in shock, some of them.

“They were picked up by a Polish ship [the schooner Zawisza Czarny] and brought to Somerset. I spoke to a young man and chatted to him for about 30 minutes before the interview started to get him relaxed.

Survivor: Oswald Coles, who struggled underwater to open a hatch as the Marques went down (File photograph)

“I said, ‘Give me as much as you can’ and he started by giving me all his experiences of sailing through his father. I was very lucky — he was a very intelligent guy, a geologist with a lot of sailing experience.

“He was able to give me a really good statement about everything from the word go, right to the end. It took about 2½ hours, and I wrote it all down by hand.

“He had trouble getting out because of the way the water came in. He was trapped, so he went through quite an ordeal.

Life savers: police and crew from the Polish schooner Zawisza Czarny unloading one of three inflatable life rafts that saved eight of the nine survivors from the ill-fated Marques (File photograph)

“It was terrible for the people down below but it sank quickly. They would have only struggled briefly. It was very sad.”

The sailor’s account was gripping. He said it took no longer than 30 seconds from when the ship began taking on water to the moment it was completely submerged.

The Governor, Viscount Dunrossil, speaks with survivors of the Marques at HMS Malabar (File photograph)

Mr Ash had just finished his night watch at 4am and was heading below deck to get some rest, but third mate Robert Cooper ordered all hands on deck as the weather conditions deteriorated.

Mr Ash said in his police statement: “As I got to the top of the stairs, Bobby, the third mate, called ‘all hands’. This means everybody on the deck. At this point I was at the top of the stairs and a wall of water knocked me down into the cabin.

“I knew we were capsizing. Water was pouring in through the hatchway.

“When I say water, a solid wall of water. I held my breath and pulled myself up the stairs by my arms, through the wall of water. The ship had stopped and had settled at an angle of 30 degrees, and was still taking on water.”

Crew from the Zawisza Czarny pay tribute to the tall ship Marques at HMS Malabar (File photograph)

As Mr Ash emerged on the deck, the ship began to capsize further to the starboard and the rigging took him under — but not before he managed to grasp the “rubber duck”, an inflatable life raft, with one hand.

Mr Ash went on: “I saw the rigging coming down on top of me. I knew I had to get free but did not let go of the raft.

“I held on to the raft with my right hand as the rigging pulled me under. I managed to free my legs with my left hand, then I came to the surface.”

The Marques (File photograph)

The other survivors managed to get into rafts, barring one who was found in the open water during the rescue mission.

At approximately 7am, the survivors saw the Polish vessel that had spotted their flares and came to their rescue.

The young sailor said he believed more people would have perished had the sinking happened just before or after 4am, as the watches were in the process of changing shifts.

More would have been trapped below the decks, but the previous watch had been asked to stand by as the weather worsened.

Mr Ash added: “Everyone who survived acted extremely cool and it was probably that which helped us survive.”

Other sailors were interviewed on camera and appeared on ZBM recounting the terrifying ordeal.

Local coverage of the disaster

Broadcaster Al Seymour Sr said covering the Marques tragedy for ZBM was one of the most moving experiences he had in the field of journalism.

Mr Seymour said: “After all these years, I must confess I cannot remember the whole story. What I do remember is not getting any sleep while trying to stay on top of a tall ship sinking off Bermuda with loss of life.

“There were more questions than answers. Much of Bermuda was still in shock, with most people waiting to know what on earth happened.”

He said the station had heard about the disaster soon after it took place, and while Adrian Robson and Rick Richardson were able to get on board a naval vessel, they were not able to get back to the station to help ZBM get the story on the air.

“It was one of those situations where there was no time to fret, but simply to get on with the job and with great teamwork do the best we can,” Mr Seymour said.

Mr Robson, a former sports editor at The Royal Gazette, was news editor for ZBM at the time — and ended up on board a rescue vessel that rushed to sea.

He said: “We got wind of the sinking pretty quickly. As I recall, all of the tall ships gathered in the harbour prior to them setting off and the Marques was one of the most impressive.

“It was early Sunday morning when I popped into the ZBM studio and was informed there was a ship that had sunk.

“At that time, we didn't know which one. But I and Rick Richardson, the station manager, dashed to Ireland Island, where the Preserver, a Canadian supply ship, was setting off to find survivors. It had already set sail but we hitched a ride on a small boat and then got aboard.

“The captain was really nice and gave us a spare cabin. We later found out that if any bodies were found they would have been placed in the same cabin.

“During the search, we were inundated with calls from all of the major TV networks as we were the only journalists at sea, covering the search. I did a ten-minute interview with the BBC on a ship-to-shore line, although at that time we didn't know who had survived or who had drowned.

“We found out that compiling reports from a speeding ship in the rolling swell of the Atlantic was more hazardous and uncomfortable than we envisaged.

“The sea was rough, and Rick and I had to fight off seasickness. On the first night, we didn't sleep at all. I hadn't slept for 24 hours.”

Mr Robson said a Norwegian ship joined the search and reported a sighting of bodies — but nothing came of it.

“What we found was an overturned life raft, life jackets and other debris but no bodies.

“As hope faded, the captain of the Preserver, Bernard O'Reilly, prepared for military manoeuvres, he said they could last for at least a week, with Rick and me still on board.

“But luckily one of the helicopters decided to take the ship's padre back to Bermuda and put us on board. There were no seats and I think it was the most uncomfortable ride on any form of transport I had experienced.”

Reporting by Owain Johnston-Barnes and Jonathan Bell

David Barber, a former police inspector, at his Somerset home, where he invited a survivor of the Marques after its sinking in 1984. Mr Barber still lives in the same house (Photograph by Sarah Lagan)

After Mr Barber had finished conducting the interview, he invited Mr Ash back to his Somerset home for some respite.

He also took it upon himself to contact several businesses for provisions for the survivors, who had lost most of their possessions. They received shoes courtesy of Boyle’s and food from Butterfield & Vallis, as well as clothing.

The survivors were invited twice to the police club in Somerset for a barbecue.

Some stayed on the island for a couple of weeks while they awaited their travel documents, with Mr Ash remaining for about ten days before returning to the United States.

Mr Barber recalled: “I did send him a letter and the statement that had been typed up. I gave a copy of the letter to Dr Ed Harris because he did something about it in the maritime magazine. The first mate gave me a pack of cards with the Marques on them.”

The tragedy drew the world’s media to Bermuda and sparked an inquiry that took a year and a half.

The inquest report said: “It was not the fault of any person or persons that the Marques had insufficient stability to resist the squall, but if judged by the knowledge and experience now available, the stability of the Marques would be found to have been inadequate and the vessel unseaworthy for sail training in non-coastal waters.”

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Published June 03, 2024 at 9:05 am (Updated June 03, 2024 at 9:05 am)

The Marques disaster: 40 years on

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