A salvage tug goes 'seeking', 1966

By Andy Gilbert

In the autumn of 1966, I was a young lad at Southdown School. That school, sitting high over the cliffs, had a great view of the harbour and the approaches and I was mad about anything to do with ships and the port.

In late October I was surprised to go out onto the playing fields at breaktime and see a large tug anchored not far off shore. When I got home, I asked my Dad about her.

It turned out that she was the salvage tug Jacob van Heemskerck, owned by NV Bureau Wijsmuller, a famous Dutch salvage and towage company. But what was she doing a mile or so off Newhaven's breakwater? Well, she was 'seeking', a term used for a salvage tug sitting on station just waiting for a maritime accident to happen. Sounds a bit morbid, but that's the way the salvage business operated and tugs are still doing it, albeit often operated by Government Agencies and more with safety in mind. Sounds expensive too, having a tug do nothing for weeks on end, but the rewards for full salvage can be huge.

Photo:Jacob van Heemskerck

Jacob van Heemskerck

KInd permission of Jan H at Ships Nostalgia

So, tugs would be positioned at strategic ports all over the world. The English Channel had, at the time, the German tugs Seefalke and Hermes at Dover and the Dutch tug Utrecht at Penzance, but there was nothing in between and Meeching had been pretty active in the salvage and towage field since her arrival in 1960. I guess the Dutch saw something of an opening here and Jacob van Heemskerck was duly despatched.

Now, Meeching's crew, and British Rail as owners of both the tug and port, weren't too happy about having this fast, 5000hp powerhouse sitting outside the port ready to snap up any work. One of Meeching's skippers, Alex Pringle was reported to have said that he would ram her, given the chance, but this was vehemently denied by harbour boss Michael Sellars. But there was nothing that could be done and, to rub a little salt into the wound, Meeching was then engaged to take supplies out to the visitor!

However, any grievance felt by Meeching's crew was soon alleviated by the generosity of the Dutch tug's master (I now know that Wijsmuller's on-line records show it was her 'regular' master for many years, a Kapitein Van Dorp) and crew. Copious supplies of Dutch lager (Dad always called it 'varnish' but somehow still managed to drink it!), bulk packets of powdered Knorr soup, Omo washing powder, Deepio washing up powder, various cakes, biscuits and lots more goodies soon started making their way ashore. I think we were eating that Knorr soup for years afterwards!

Jacob van Heemskerck's stay was, however, relatively brief and she was assigned elsewhere, leaving the field clear once more for the Meeching. Despite more salvages for her in the years to come, no other company subsequently decided to go 'seeking' at Newhaven.

This page was added by Andy Gilbert on 24/11/2008.

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.