South Goodwin disaster
By David Chamberlain
The lightships crews were normally made up of ex-Merchant Navy men, who had served on deep sea voyages, along with ex-North Sea and Arctic fishermen. These men were used to being afloat for long periods of time without the comforts of home. They were a breed of men who could live in confined quarters and mix with their compatriots without falling out. Their only differences were the brand of tobacco they used in their pipes and cigarettes.
The six crew and Master of the South Goodwin Light vessel, LV 90, were looking forward to Christmas on that bleak night of 27th November, 1954. Their conversation in the cramped quarters of the lightship would have been of the size of the turkey that the townsfolk of Deal would donate. Just before every Christmas, a local beach boat would pull alongside the LV 90 laden with gifts and food; to make the crews life more bearable over the festive season. If the weather was too rough for the small Deal boats to get afloat, then the Walmer Lifeboat would tender the service.
There was an extra person on board the lightship that night. Ronald Murton, a soft spoken scientist for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. His job was to count and identify the migrating birds that rested on the superstructure of the light vessel. His concern was the weather forecast that the skipper of LV 90 had informed him and the crew to expect. He had been notified, via the radio telephone, of south-west winds increasing to storm force.
Throughout the night the lightship pitched and tossed as the wind screamed; Waves hitting the vessel, showering volumes’ of seawater over the bow and out through the scuppers along the deck. Unnerved and unable to sleep, Murton spent the night in the warmth of the ships galley, with an old army greatcoat over his pyjamas. The crew had tried to reassure him that the lightship’s four ton mushroom anchor would hold in any seas.
However, it would not be the anchor that dragged that night, but one of the links in its chain that napped under the strain. The ‘heel and toe’ motion of the tethered ship was lost as she was swept across the Goodwin Sands on the tide and wind. The captain and crew were powerless to do anything as LV 90 finally went aground and rolled over on her beam ends.
Over six miles distance to seaward, the crew on watch of the East Goodwin light vessel noticed the absence of the 6000,000 candlepower beacon, flashing twice every thirty seconds, from their sister ship LV 90. When they did not get any response from her on the radio – they alerted Trinity House and the coastguards.
As dawn reluctantly broke, the lifeboats from Dover, Deal and Ramsgate viewed the remains of the South Goodwin lightship on the Sands. As the lifeboats could not get any closer than 700 yards to the hulk, the crews could not see any life onboard; and the sandbank had already started to consume her. Miraculously, a survivor was found, clinging to the lightship’s lattice tower. Ronald Murton was barely alive and was winched to safety by a helicopter, still in his greatcoat and pyjamas.