Mormacmail—In Thrilling Rescue
An Exclusive Story by Captain S. S. Pardoe
("The Mooremack News," Autumn 1957)
(Courtesy of John-Paul
We sailed from Port of Spain, Trinidad, on 30 June bound for Rio de Janeiro. At 1202 (Zone plus 3) on the 7th
July in position—Lat. 13-33S,
Long. 36-33W, we received an S.O.S. from the Swedish MV. La Plata, 7,373 gross tons, bound from Recife to Rio de Janeiro with 10 passengers and 46 crew, including the Master,
and said to have on board about 5,000 tons of cargo, mostly newsprint.
The La Plata's position first given was—Lat. 15-00S, Long. 35-20W, making the
distance between us 87 miles. At 16 knots, our estimated speed, it would have taken us 5 ˝ hours to arrive at her position.
In answer to the S.O.S. our course was immediately altered from 200° true to 173° true. Our Radio Operator was then in
communication with the Del Ore, which advised him that he believed a Brasilian ship was closer than either the Del Ore or the Mormacmail. Our Operator then communicated with the Brasilian tanker,
Bittencourt Sampaio, which advised him that he could arrive on the scene in three hours, or about 1500 hrs.
Having shortly thereafter been advised that the La Plata had been abandoned, we continued on our course toward her and
planned holding to this course until the Brasilian ship arrived on the scene and advised us if she required our assistance.
Arrival on Scene
Visibility being excellent, at about 1300 smoke could be seen on the horizon, it was first thought to be a ship underway, then at
about 1400 it was thought to be the La Plata, though according to the position given us it would still put her about 45 miles away. At 1515 the smoke was definitely recognized as that coming from the La Plata, and
a few minutes later we could identify the type and color of the vessel, definitely identifying the vessel as the La Plata.
At about 1530 our Operator received from the Brasilian tanker a corrected position of the La Plata, which was—Lat. 14-37S,
Long. 36-29W. This position made the original distance between us 23 miles less. Or the original distance of 64 miles instead of 87 miles, and at 16 knots, that would put us at her position in exactly 4 hours, or at 1600.
This difference in distance accounted for us arriving earlier and the Brasilian ship later than the original estimate.
Prior to arriving on the scene lifeboats were made ready for lowering, ladders rigged over the side, boat ropes rigged all along
the lee side and arrangements made to provide for the survivors.
At 1607 arrived on the scene and found the La Plata's midship section all ablaze. A tanker was also approaching, which proved to
be the Bittencourt Sampaio; she arrived about ten minutes later.
Two lifeboats and one motorboat with passengers and crew were close together about 1,000 yards from the La Plata, where
they were taken alongside. One lifeboat was tied to the stern of the La Plata with the Master and some of his officers and crew. It was reported to me that this boat was overloaded.
At 1621 boats Nos. 1-3 and 4 alongside with survivors, they commenced embarking immediately. All of the passengers were among
these three boats.
At the time rescue operations commenced there was a gentle to moderate SE breeze, moderate SE sea and swell.
Among the passengers were five women and two children, age one and five years. Some of the passengers, both men and women, could
not come up the rope ladders which had been rigged over the side. It was thought we could best get them on board by lowering our lee lifeboat, transferring them from their boats to ours, then raising our boat. But because of
the swell, this plan was abandoned after we damaged our No. 1 lifeboat slightly.
We then decided upon trying using our accommodation ladder. This was also hazardous in the swell, but was forced to try it in
order to get those on board who could not come up the rope ladders. However, the accommodation ladder worked out very well, getting the women, the children and some of the elderly men on board this way.
After we had taken on board the passengers and crew from the motorboat, it returned to the lifeboat tied to the stern of the La
Plata and returned to the Mormacmail with some of the crew from this boat. After these were taken on board, the motorboat returned again for the Master and the remainder of the crew. In the meantime we maneuvered up
to about 500 yards of the La Plata, to make the run as short as possible for the motorboat, as it was now getting dark.
At 1736, Captain Ebbe Lieberath, Master of the La Plata, came on board; he was the last one to come on board, coming with
his Chief Officer, Chief Engineer and some of his other Officers. He immediately reported to the bridge and informed me that we had rescued all of his passengers and crew. That there was no living thing on board the La
At 1759, the motorboat was abandoned as had the three lifeboats previously. At 1800 the rescue was completed, we proceeded at
full speed on a direct course to Rio de Janeiro. The air was cleared of the S.O.S. by our Operator, normal traffic was resumed.
The fire had started in the engine room. It was now dark, and from
our 500 yards distance we could see that fire had broken out in Nos. 3 and 4 holds. The whole midships house, including these two holds, were ablaze; the stack which was up when we arrived, had not disappeared. An unidentified
ship stood off for a few minutes and then went on her way. The Brasilian tanker Bittencourt Sampaio, which had stood by during the rescue, also left.
It did seem a sad thing, for everyone to leave the La Plata there in the darkness, ablaze, abandoned, and fighting alone
against a ravaging fire.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Suecia, a sister ship of La Plata, and a Brasilian corvette attended the stricken ship thereafter, towing her to the beach near Salvador. There La Plata now lies, the
fire extinguished after extended burning, a lonely hulk.
* * *