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Well, it’s that time again! For the next two weeks the usually somnolent landscapes of the Isle of Man will be infused with a surfeit of testosterone, as thousands of bikes descend on the island for the 2015 Isle of Man TT Races. Not for the faint-hearted, the 37.73 mile long circuit is an adrenaline-filled mix of unyielding drystone walls, unforgiving bends and the occasional suicidal rabbit, making it probably the most dangerous road race anywhere in the world.

But don’t just take my word for it…

Over a hundred years old, the TT was born in a time when English suffragettes were storming the British parliament and Tzar Nicholas II still occupied the imperial Russian throne. During its 108 year history only three events have interrupted it – two world wars and an outbreak of foot and mouth – and, in spite of the best efforts of some to get it banned, it is still here, still thriving and still getting faster.

Last year, New Zealander Bruce Anstey, produced an average lap speed of 132.298 mph…over 212 kilometres per hour…average! He managed to complete the 37 mile course in a little over 17.06 minutes. And that is just one lap people. During the course of the Superbike race, they will do that six times, covering over 226 miles in a little over one hour and 45 minutes. That equates to travelling from London to York…along a body numbing collection of roads that will throw bends, curves, cambers and manhole covers at you…and that’s before you even get onto the mountain course!

In an age of ‘nanny’ states and EU health and safety mandates, the Isle of Man TT continues to buck the trend it started in 1904, when the government passed a road traffic act allowing racing on the public roads. No one would dispute that the TT is dangerous, it is, but then so is crossing the road and, as far as I am aware, European legislation hasn’t tried to ban that yet…

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At around 11.00 am, on the morning of May 7, 1915, the British ocean liner, the RMS Lusitania broke through a thick blanket of fog. In the distant lay the indistinct smudge of the Irish coast. The world’s largest passenger liner at the time, the Lusitania had some 2,000 people on board, making the crossing from New York to Liverpool. It was to be her last journey.

At about 14.00 that same afternoon, she was struck by a torpedo from a German U-boat and sank within 18 minutes. Her last message gave her position as 10 miles south of Old Kinsale, off the southeastern coast of Ireland. It would take another two hours before the first steamer could reach the scene.

About three miles to the north east of the Lusitania’s final position was a small Manx fishing boat, the Wanderer. She had been fishing for mackerel in the calm waters of the Irish Sea, when her crew had seen the Lusitania suddenly list in the water. Undeterred by the possible dangers from the lurking U-boat, the Wanderer raced for the stricken vessel, arriving on scene in time to pluck 160 people from the water. The first casualty they took on board was a two month old baby, but hundreds more lay dead around them. Over the next two hours the crew did what they could for the survivors. The boat was filled to overflowing and, in spite of the dangers to themselves, the crew also took two full lifeboats in tow. The skipper of the boat, William Ball, in a letter that he later wrote to the Wanderer’s owner, described the scene with typical Manx pragmatism…

“…We picked up the first boats a quarter of a mile inside of where she sunk, and there we got four boat loads put aboard us, We couldn’t take any more, as we had 160 – men, women, and children. In addition, we had two boats in tow, full of passengers, We were the only boat there for two hours, then the patrol boats came out from Queenstown. We had a busy time making tea for them…and all our milk and tea is gone and a lot of clothes as well…and the bottle of whisky we had leaving home.”

The Wanderer finally managed to hand her pitiful cargo over to the Admiralty tug, Flying Fish, who took the survivors on to Queenstown, in southern Ireland. In total, nearly 1,200 people lost their lives that day, but the sinking went on to have far reaching consequences for Germany. In firing on a non-military ship without warning, she had breached international law (in spite of the fact that it is believed that the British had been flouting the rules by carrying war munitions). The outrage across the Atlantic in America helped to shift public opinion and went on to be instrumental in America’s eventual entry into the war two years later.

As for the Wanderer, well little remains of her role in the events of Friday, May 7. The Manchester Manx Society organised for the men to receive specially struck medals to mark their pivotal role in the events, but the only permanent reminder of what happened is a plaque adorning a wall in their home town of Peel. The boat itself continued to fish the waters of the Irish Sea until the 1930s, eventually ending her days in Ireland, all but forgotten except for a few letters home and a plaque on a wall in a small fishing port on the western coast of the Isle of Man.

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On the 3 May 2015, the Isle of Man will mark the centenary of the sinking with a commemoration service and a flotilla of boats, which will be led out by the Peel Lifeboat to the haunting lament of a lone piper. For more details see – http://www.thewanderer100.com.

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hist_theoldhamBeautiful and terrifying in equal measure, the sea can be an unforgiving mistress. The coastlines around the British Isles are littered with wrecks that have fallen prey to her unpredictable moods and these Islands are no stranger to the power of the sea’s unrelenting fury. The early part of the nineteenth century saw some 1,800 vessels a year being wrecked along our coasts. Death and the sea became an integral part of life amongst coastal communities, who could only watch helplessly as ships foundered in the boiling seas.

In 1824 that all changed…

That was the year that Sir William Hilary founded the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, later changed to the much racier, Royal National Lifeboat institution. This year marks the charity’s 190th anniversary and from its humble beginnings, amongst the treacherous waters off the Isle of Man, the RNLI today has around 1,000 lifeguards and 236 lifeboat stations dotted around the coasts of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Isles, rescuing on average some 22 people a day. In real terms that equates to more than 140,000 lives saved, countless vessels rescued and nearly two centuries of dedicated and selfless service by its volunteer crews.

(c) Manx National Heritage; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThe RNLI today has come a long way since the night of November 19, 1830, when a 60 year old William Hilary took to a lifeboat to rescue the crew of the St George. That night, in the fierce waters of the Irish Sea, the lifeboat lost its rudder and had six of its oars smashed. Its crew were washed overboard on more than one occasion and Hilary himself suffered six broken ribs and a shattered chest bone. But the crew of the St George were saved and the legacy that is the RNLI was born.

The words, ‘With Courage, Nothing is Impossible’, are inscribed on the RNLI memorial in Poole, Dorset. They are testimony to more than 800 lifeboat crew and others who have lost their lives endeavouring to save other at sea…And nearly two centuries on, the sight of the famous orange and blue livery crashing through the waves can still reduce even the most hardy sailor to tears of relief.

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img663After 14 long, painful and contentious years, the last voyage of the Solway Harvester is finally coming to an end. The boat’s sinking, in storm force winds off the Isle of Man on the late afternoon of the 11 January 2000, still remains the worst maritime disaster to ever occur in Manx waters. All seven crew were lost including two brothers and two 17 year old friends. The effect of the tragedy on the small Scottish community of Whithorn was profound, but what set this incident apart was what happened next.

Over the days and weeks that followed, the Isle of Man government went to extraordinary lengths to recover the boat and her crew. In the face of stiff opposition from the British government, the Manx Parliament set in motion a series of events that were to have emotive and far reaching consequences on both sides of the water. For weeks the island lay at the centre of a huge media circus, as a growing army of salvage crews, divers and support craft lay siege to the waters off the coast. Huge lifting cranes were brought in, the Royal Air Force conspired with the Manx government to help bring the families across in secret and a plan of almost military precision was undertaken to implement the job of raising the boat and recovering the crew.

Four years ago, photographer Phil Kneen and myself set out to document in words and pictures the circumstances behind the Solway Harvester’s tragic sinking. Our intention was to pay tribute to the extraordinary efforts that had been made to return the crew to their families and to highlight the human story behind the tragedy. To that end we attempted to tell it from the perspective of those most deeply affected. To let the people who had lived through those few emotive weeks tell the story in their own words.

That was how we found ourselves sat in a pub in Whithorn, on a crisp winter’s day in the late December of 2009. We had come to meet up with some of the families of the lost crew and, frankly, I think it was just sinking in what we had taken on. How do you ask someone about their dead son, or introduce yourself to a woman who was heavily pregnant when her husband drowned, and then look into the face of the nine year old boy who had never even met his father? Our first meeting was with the parents of Davy Lyons, a 17 year old lad who, at the time of his death, hadn’t even been big enough to join the army!

Over the course of that weekend we were to meet up with other families with similar tragic tales to tell. Two of the boys had been just 17, inseparable friends, who had a lifetime of experiences ahead of them. Another had been 22. A combined age of 56, all gone in a matter of minutes. From the time of the last known communication from the boat, to the time that the Solway Harvester’s emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) had been activated, just 18 minutes had passed. Most of the crew hadn’t even had time to get on deck.

It was in the early hours of the 10 January 2000 that the scallop dredger Solway Harvester slipped her moorings and pointed her bow south, heading towards the rich fishing grounds lying off the Isle of Man. Over the next 24 hours the weather in the Irish Sea began to deteriorate, as the water around the boat turned from a dark foreboding mass into a screaming cauldron that threatened to engulf them. With the storm growing worse, the decision was made to haul in the gear and make for the shelter of Ramsey Bay. It was the last journey they would ever make. At 17.47 on 11 January 2000, a polar orbiting satellite picked up the signal from the EPIRB, indicating that the boat had lost its battle with the growing storm and battering waves.

The winds by now had increased to severe gale force 9, gusting to storm force 10, and the search for the missing boat pitted man and machine against the unrelenting fury of the Irish Sea.

The conditions and the heavy rain made it increasingly difficult for the lifeboats, with visibility down to nothing and the heavy seas making life uncomfortable for the crews manning the searchlights. Over the next few hours Mother Nature’s unbridled power held sway, in spite of the best efforts of the Coastguard, the RNLI, the RAF and the Royal Navy. The boat and her seven man crew failed to materialise though and the rescue effort was finally abandoned at dusk on the evening of the 12 January, after the discovery of two unopened life-rafts had shattered any last vestiges of hope that the crew would be found alive.

It took three more days to locate the Solway Harvester and a further three weeks to recover her crew. The bodies were finally brought up on the 4 February 2000 and escorted into Douglas Bay to the haunting lament of a solitary piper. The families were waiting on the quayside that night and, as the bodies were placed on Victoria Pier, the final chords of Ellan Vannin drifted out across the harbour. It took another five months before the Solway Harvester finally made it into Ramsey. There were no pipers that day, just an eerie silence from the thousands who lined the harbour as the shattered wreck entered the bay.

Over the coming days the final chapter of this tragedy will be played out, as the last remnants of the Solway Harvester’s rusting hull is cut up and scrapped. The journey has been a long and painful one, due primarily to a drawn out and bitter legal dispute. Fourteen years ago the Isle of Man went against every previous maritime precedent, overcame countless bureaucratic obstacles and even faced down the British government to raise the Solway Harvester and recover her crew. It is a decision that not everyone agreed with at the time, but for the people of Whithorn and Garlieston it meant they could bury their sons and move on. And for that they will be externally grateful.

John Jolly was the father of Wesley, the youngest member of the Solway Harvester’s crew. I shall let him have the final say…

“If it hadn’t been for Donald Gelling and the Isle of Man we would have been facing a long fight. The British Government wasn’t interested; it wasn’t in their agenda. The Scottish Government as well. They think that’s where a fisherman should lie. In my mind there was only one fisherman on the boat that night and that was Craig, the rest were just there to try and make some money…My son wasn’t a fisherman.”

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To the memory of the crew of the Solway Harvester…Rest in Peace…

Photographs copyright Phil Kneen

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To be wrenched from your sleep at four in the morning is never a good thing. To be wrenched from your sleep at four in the morning by your Lifeboat pager going off though, that injects a foreboding sense of dread into the proceedings.

This is no time to find yourself in trouble on the Irish Sea, even during one of the best summer’s in years.

In the early hours of Saturday 27 July, the Peel Lifeboat launched into the predawn calm of what was promising to be yet another glorious day on the Isle of Man. For the families of two missing fishermen though it was to prove far from glorious. Over the course of the next 15 hours a massive air and sea search was carried out along the western and northern coasts of the island, covering an area of some 930 square kilometres. Throughout the day, four lifeboats, as well as helicopters from RAF Valley and RNAS Prestwick and a fixed wing aircraft belonging to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency combed the area in search of the two men. Their capsized boat was found relatively early on, but it took us until later that afternoon to come across the first of the bodies. We’d known once we found the boat that there was probably little chance of finding the men alive, but we knew that giving up without finding the bodies was not an option. Families just a few miles away were relying on us to bring them home. And we were determined not to let them down. It came with an almost tragic sense of relief therefore when we found the second of the two friends.

Since its foundation in 1824, the RNLI has saved over 140,000 lives in the seas off Britain and Ireland. This, unfortunately, was not to be one of those times. In spite of the tragic conclusion to the day though it did highlight one thing, that selfless sacrifice is not a thing of the past. Since the founding of the RNLI nearly 200 years ago its volunteer crews have never shirked the call to help. What these events proved though was that it isn’t just the crews that race to the call. Throughout that day the members of the Lifeboat committee also stepped up, keeping the boat and shore crews fed and watered during the day, and for that we were eternally grateful. This island has a long and proud connection with the RNLI. Its founder, Sir William Hilary lived here and it was in the storm tossed waters of the Irish Sea that the service first cut its teeth.

After the events of the past weekend, and in spite of the tragic outcome, I don’t think I have ever felt prouder to be a part of it.

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There can be few places in the British Isles more steeped in myth and legend than the ancient shores of the Isle of Man. Ruled over by a legendary Celtic sea god, our seemingly innocuous island is positively awash with malevolent spirits, faeries, salivating hounds and…vampires. Not for us though the pasty-faced anemics that haunt the world of Twilight. No, our vampires come with chains and spikes!

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In the grounds of a whitewashed church on the outskirts of the island’s old capital, Castletown, lies the grave of one Matthew Halsall, vampire of this parish. Now, the unfortunate Mr Halsall died in 1854 and, as is custom in these parts, his passing was commemorated with much drinking by those left behind. During his wake however, legend has it that the corpse emitted a haunting groan from within the coffin. Fearing that they were about to bury poor Matthew somewhat prematurely, the mourners rushed to open the coffin…to find a very dead corpse inside.

Obviously common sense soon prevailed…and Matthew Halsall was declared a vampire, promptly staked through the heart and sealed up again!

Today he lies under a heavy slate slab in Malew Churchyard, in a grave crossed with heavy metal chains and staked on all four corners with iron spikes. No-one really knows the reasons for the chains, although the legends that abound in these parts declare them to be deadly to the fairy-folk and those of a…supernatural persuasion. It is also rumoured that when the spikes were once removed, the ghostly form of Matthew Halsall rose from his grave to haunt the graveyard.

Suffice to say, common sense prevailed once more, the stakes were driven back in and Matthew Halsall has not been seen again to this day.

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With less than two months to go before I head out to Canada with Phil Kneen, I have been casting my mind back to our last collaboration together. The Harvest project occupied our thoughts for some nine months on and off and the finished result is something that I am still immensely proud of. At the time I wrote a piece about the project and, whilst I realise that it is a little out of date now, I still think it worth a second airing, if only to give Canada some idea as to what it is in for!…

We sat in the bar of the Steampacket Inn on the Isle of Whithorn, contemplating death and gazing out across a tranquil harbour bathed in late December sunshine. The scene before us had probably changed little over the past ten years. That same, somnolent setting would have been the last view of home that the crew of the Solway Harvester had seen as they sailed out to meet their fate on that still January night.

It was in the early hours of the 10 January 2000 when the scallop dredger Solway Harvester slipped her moorings and pointed her bow south, heading out towards the rich fishing grounds lying off the coast of the Isle of Man. There was little to indicate what lay in wait for them out there that night and the crisp winter air foretold nothing of the horrors that lay ahead. For the families of the seven men on board though, it was to be the last time they would ever see them alive.

Over the next 24 hours the weather in the Irish Sea began to deteriorate, as the water around the boat turned from a dark foreboding mass into a screaming cauldron that threatened to engulf them. Eventually conditions became so bad that the boat’s skipper, Craig Mills, decided the time had come to head for shelter and so, on the afternoon of the 11 January, the crew hauled in their gear and the Solway Harvester headed for the safe haven of Ramsey Bay. It was the last journey they would ever make. At 17.47 a polar orbiting satellite picked up the signal from the boat’s emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), confirming that the vessel had finally lost its battle with the growing storm and battering waves.

The ensuing search for the missing boat pitted man and machine against the unrelenting fury of the Irish Sea. Over the next few hours Mother Nature’s unbridled power held sway in spite of the best efforts of the Coastguard, the RNLI, the RAF and the Royal Navy. Douglas, Ramsey, Port St Mary and Peel lifeboats all launched into the foaming maelstrom and even the Isle of Man ferry, the Ben-my-Chree, was diverted from its scheduled sailing to help in the search. All to no avail. In spite of an exhaustive search the boat and her seven man crew failed to materialise and the rescue effort was finally abandoned at dusk on the evening of the 12 January, after the discovery of two unopened life-rafts had shattered any last vestiges of hope that the crew would be found alive.

It took three more days to locate the Solway Harvester, but she was eventually found lying like some slumbering leviathan 11 miles off the coast of Douglas. The Royal Navy minesweeper, HMS Sandown, seconded from operational duties to help in the search for the boat, sent down a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and, as it became evident that they had found the final resting place of the boat, the mood aboard the naval vessel changed dramatically. Her captain, Ben Key, remembers vividly the silence that descended on the Operations Room as the trawler came into view. As the name Solway Harvester emerged from the enveloping gloom they were all struck by how a vessel that had been so alive and animated just a few days before could now be so silent and still. From the time of the last known communication from the boat, to the time that the EPIRB had been activated, just 18 minutes had passed. Most of the crew hadn’t even had time to get on deck.

The idea to do something to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the sinking had begun as a conversation between myself and Phil some four months previously. Sat in another pub, on another isle, the Harvest project had been born; conceived originally as a way of paying tribute not only to the crew of the Solway Harvester, but also to the incredible efforts made by the Isle of Man to find and then raise her. Over the intervening weeks though what had started as a flickering light somewhere in the dark recesses of our minds had grown into an unstoppable juggernaut, one that along the way had slowed only to pick up members of the RNLI, the Manx Government, the Royal Navy and an assortment of police officials, coastguard personnel and church ministers. The response had been incredible.

We were in Whithorn that late December morning to meet up with some of the families of the lost crew, and I think the reality of what we were doing was finally sinking in. How do you ask someone about their dead son? How do you introduce yourself to a woman who was heavily pregnant when her husband drowned, and then look into the face of the 9 year old boy who had never even met his father? Phil and myself had retired to the bar for a ‘planning meeting’. It was a lame excuse and we knew it. We were hoping that an infusion of strong liquor would steady the nerves prior to our first meeting with the parents of Davy Lyons, a 17 year old lad, who at the time of his death hadn’t even been big enough to join the army!

Parents shouldn’t have to bury their children, it goes against the natural order of things, but over the course of that weekend we were to meet with three families who had done just that. Two of the boys had been just 17, inseparable friends, who had a lifetime of experiences ahead of them. The other had been 22. A combined age of 56, all gone in a matter of minutes. Then there was Karen Jolly (nee Mills), whose husband Robin had been the brother of the Solway’s skipper. We sat and listened as she told us about their last Christmas together, her children, Sarah and Robbie watching from the sofa as she described the last days of the father they had barely known. The stories were heartbreaking, but it wasn’t a feeling of senseless waste that we came away from Whithorn with, but rather an indomitable mood of quiet dignity. Whilst the memories were still raw and the anger still palpable, the spirit that remained was undefeated.

Back on the Isle of Man we began the task of enlisting the support and help of those who had been involved in the recovery of the vessel from Manx waters. I think few people at the time realised what a Herculean effort it was going to be to raise the boat, but having given their word to the families of the crew that they would bring the boys home, the Isle of Man government spared no effort in making good on their promise. The Manx Parliament and the Council of Ministers gave unanimous approval, Chief inspector Dudley Butt was tasked with investigating the sinking and John Foster, who at that time was the government’s Emergency Planning Officer, was given the somewhat daunting responsibility of facilitating the recovery operation.

The determination of the Manx government to bring the Solway Harvester home incurred the furious wrath of the British government, with Whitehall and Tynwald clashing bitterly over the unprecedented decision to raise the boat. Manx fortitude won the day however and over the next few weeks the island lay at the centre of a huge media circus, as a growing army of salvage crews, divers and support craft lay siege to the waters off the coast. Huge lifting cranes were sailed around the Scottish coast, the RAF conspired with the Manx government to help bring the families across in secret and a plan of almost military precision was undertaken to implement the job of raising the boat. It took weeks of planning and organisation and some truly heroic efforts on the part of the dive teams involved in securing the vessel and searching for the crew and, in spite of the best efforts of the Irish Sea to thwart the operation, over the following months the boat and its crew were finally brought up.

The crew were eventually brought into Douglas on a cold February night, to the haunting lament of a solitary piper, but it took another five months before the Solway Harvester finally made it into Ramsey. The irony of the boat’s final journey couldn’t fail to escape many that day and, as the haunting vision of the Solway Harvester sailed into the bay, an eerie silence descended on the crowds that lined the harbour. The journey home had been a long and painful one, but despite the tragedy of the loss it was also one filled with hope. It saw men and women risk their lives in atrocious conditions that fateful January night. It saw politicians stand up for what was right, rather than what was expedient.

And it saw two communities come together in grief and remain together in friendship.

The Isle of Man went against every previous maritime precedent, overcame countless bureaucratic obstacles and even faced down the British government to raise the Solway Harvester and recover her crew. It is a decision that maybe not everyone agreed with at the time, but the people of Whithorn and Garlieston know that it was something their own government wouldn’t have done for them and for that they are eternally thankful. After 10 years maybe the time has come to finally lay the Solway Harvester to rest, but  in these days of greed and corruption, it is inspiring that a story can still be told of the inherent goodness of the human spirit.

All photographs copyright Phil Kneen.