Captain Courageous

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archive photo of a  man in naval uniform

Captain Thomas Jones. Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

I know of no other situation which unites seafarers more than when a ship is in distress and calling for help.

This is an inspiring story when a ship came to the rescue just in time and saved a crew from almost certain death.

As the ship battled through mountainous seas something happened that all seafarers dread – the cargo shifted, threatening to capsize the vessel. The Italian cargo ship Monte Grappa had left Montreal for Venice loaded with grain in November 1922. At first everything went to routine for the crew of the new vessel.

Things turned sour when the southerly gale blew up in the mid-Atlantic sending the ship plunging and lurching. For two days she struggled onward until the shifting boards (portable bulkheads) gave way and the grain moved.

The ship immediately took a heavy list until her rail was under water. It seemed she was about to turn turtle and sink. Frantic efforts were made to right the vessel by filling the ballast tanks and pumping out the boilers – to no effect.

Crew members then worked feverishly to jettison the cargo but water cascaded into the stokeholds until the firemen were working up to their waists. Both port lifeboats were swept away and the starboard boats could not be lowered.

The Monte Grappa’s SOS call was picked up by the White Star liner Pittsburgh commanded by Captain Thomas Jones (pictured) who was 185 miles away. He immediately responded and raced through the storm to the stricken vessel.

A distress rocket flared and the Monte Grappa loomed into sight. Two boats were lowered by the Pittsburgh and fought their way through the churning waves to reach the sinking ship.

While passengers watched from the liner, every member of the Monte Grappa’s crew was brought to safety and their ship left to her fate.

This was just one incident in the long career of Captain Jones, whose cabin has been recreated in Merseyside Maritime Museum. Among the exhibits is a Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society medal awarded for his involvement in the Monte Grappa rescue.

Thomas Jones (1869 – 1957), from Cardigan in Wales, became a steamship master at the young age of 24. His distinguished career spanned the age of sail and steam. As well as the Pittsburgh, he captained the White Star liners Haverford and Canada.

Many of his personal items are on display including his dressing gown, chair and concertina – one of his numerous hobbies while on voyages.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1 p&p UK).