Plym (1903-1945)

Early in 1903, the Falkland Islands Company decided it needed to replace the Stanley Harbour tug boat, Sissie, which was worn out after more than 20 years’ service.  She needed a new boiler and the replacement cost was just too great.  In October 1903 the directors’ purchased the Plym for a little over £1,500 from Willoughby Brothers of Plymouth.  She was a little bigger than the Sissie and was described as a “new type of steel boat”. A twin-cylinder engine enabled her to do eight knots. 

She was brought to the Falklands as ‘deck cargo’ on a steam mail ship from Liverpool, the Inca, arriving in Stanley on 13th February 1904.  Apart from towing broken down and distressed ships into harbour, the Plym was also used to deliver fresh water to anchored shipping and to act as a fire auxiliary to the harbour’s main tug, Samson.

Key Facts:

steam-tug icon

Steam-powered tug

Built: Plymouth, England
Size: 51 feet long, 11 feet wide
Launched: October 1903
Fate: Blown ashore in a storm

In May 1905, she became involved in a major incident when one of the most famous ships in the world, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain, caught fire in the harbour.  A month later the Plym was caught up in another drama, when a mail. Steamer, the Victoria, arrived in the Falklands under quarantine after an outbreak of smallpox.  Passengers for Stanley were held on board the tug for a while, before being transferred to The Cottage on Naval Ridge.  It turned out that six of the Victoria’s passengers had the disease and one died.

Reliability became an issue with the Plym and she broke down a number of times, spending four months out of the water in 1910/11 under repair.  But she was working just fine when the Pacific Steam Navigation Company’s 3,300 ton mail and passenger steamer, Oravia, ran into the Billy Rock on the easternmost point of the islands close to the lighthouse at Cape Pembroke on the wild and windy night of 12th November 1912, en route from Liverpool to Callao in Peru.  The Plym and the Samson were the only rescue tugs in Stanley at the time. 

Thanks to swift work by the Oravia’s radio operator, who managed to contact the newly installed Wireless Station in Stanley, the Plym and the Samson, were able to speedily work together, to save the 411 passengers and crew who were on board the stricken vessel before she sank.  The rescue was carried out in the teeth of a South-South-West gale at 12:20 a.m.  According to newspaper reports, rescued passengers said “the night was dark and blinding snow was falling”.

The Plym had a crew of nine, including her captain, H. Jones.  While the Samson pulled alongside the starboard side of the grounded Oravia, and took off the majority of the 261 passengers and 150 crew, “without fuss or panic or loss of life”, the Plym tied up against the port side, to allow the manager of the Falkland Islands Company, William Alfred Harding, who was on board the tug, to jump aboard the liner.  He had sailed to the wreck to see if he could save any of the ship’s papers or the mail that was on board.

His bravery was fortunate for one Oravia passenger: 410 had been rescued by either the Samson or a whale catcher from Stanley, which had picked up those who had taken to the Oravia’s lifeboats when she struck the rock.  Only one was missing.  As William Harding was searching for the ship’s registered papers and the mail, he came across a young male passenger, who he found “asleep”.  The man was quickly woken and hustled aboard the Plym, which headed back to Stanley, before again heading back to the wreck to collect yet more baggage and valuables before she finally sank. 

The running aground of the Oravia was very nearly a major disaster and an official board of inquiry, held in Stanley, blamed the vessel’s Master, Walter Croker Poole, for making ‘mistakes’ and ‘errors of judgment’ and he was ‘severely’ censured and ordered to pay “one half” of the costs of the investigation into the incident.  The loss of life could have been horrendous had the tugs not acted so quickly and decisively.

The ‘Oravia Incident’ was reflected in two Falkland Post Service stamps: an eight pence stamp that recognised mail ship itself, and its service between 1900 and 1912, and one at £1.20, which showed the stricken vessel on the night of November 12th with the tug Samson in the foreground.  There is also a rowing lifeboat full of people, but no sign of the Plym.

Eight years later, in January 1920, the Plym itself was in the news, as it emerged that the authorities in Stanley were so concerned about the condition of her boiler, engine and bottom plates that she was no longer considered fit for purpose and she (and the Samson) was replaced by the Kelp.  The Plym was downgraded and designated as a ‘lighter’, to be used for unloading and loading ships offshore.

In March 1918, as the First World War was nearing its end in Europe, the tiny tug was being hired out for £3 a day to a British 4,000 ton cargo ship, the SS Ooma, which was delivering coal to the islands.  Plym ferried the coal from the Ooma to the Naval Wireless Station.

In 1926 the directors of the Falkland Islands Company put her up for sale and on the 28th September decided to accept the best offer they had received – £20.  On the 16th February, 1929, the official registration of the Plym was changed from ‘tug’ to ‘lighter’.  She continued to operate in and around the harbour for another 16 years, until she was caught up in the huge 1945 Easter Monday storm that struck Stanley and other parts of the Falklands.

On 2nd April, 1945, the Plym, along with the Samson and the Afterglow were blown down the harbour as their mooring lines were severed by the fierceness of the wind that hit the islands.  Afterglow grounded opposite the entrance to the Narrows, the Samson fetched up on the north side of the harbour and the Plym was beached at the north end of Whalebone Cove, not far from the Lady Elizabeth.  It is also reported that 40 chimney pots were also blown away by the wind.

120 years after she was built in Devon, England, Mark Spicer’s dramatic aerial drone footage shows us all that is left of the tiny tug boat.

In March 2019 the Falklands Post Service finally honoured the Plym as part of a four-stamp set of shipwrecks, which also included the Philomel, the Lily and the Protector.  The picture of the Plym’s skeletal remains would have cost you 76p.

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