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Sinking of the

mv Heron


Newspaper report of the disaster

This article is based on a report in the Jersey Evening Post in 2018, itself based on the newspaper's contemporaneous reports of the shipwreck and the book Shipwrecks of the Channel Islands

At 9.25pm on the cloudy and wet night of Saturday 16 September 1961, Jersey Harbours received a mayday call:'We have struck rocks and sinking fast. Get lifeboat.'

In the minutes before the crash, crew members on board the mv Cranborne had watched with horror and astonishment as the freight ship mv Heron inexplicably motored straight towards the Paternosters reef of Jersey's north coast.

Radio and Morse warnings

The Cranborne's master, Captain Bob Curtis, tried desperately to alert the Dutch cargo vessel of the impending danger as it bore down on the rocks, repeatedly radioing the crew and flashing a danger sign in Morse. But nothing worked.

Within minute the Heron which was carrying a cargo of fruit and vegetables, slammed into the reef, and ten minutes later its light disappeared as it plunged below the water.

By the following day the only remaining evidence of the tragedy was a scattered trail of tomato trays extending north into the Channel.

To this day, no one knows exactly what caused the accident, which left three of the 11 crew dead and the vessel lying unsalvageable on the seabed.


Last crossing

The Heron left St Helier for Portsmouth on its last crossing of the summer season about two hours before it hit the reef, carrying just under 57,000 trays of tomatoes, as well as sweetcorn and green peppers.

It was raining and there was a big swell. but the winds were light. Shortly after 9 pm Captain Curtis, which was also making its way to England, noticed that the Heron was taking an unusual and unscheduled route, putting itself on a collision course with the Paternosters.

Having failed to alert the ship he suggested to Jersey Harbours that a lifeboat be put on standby. Three minutes later the Heron issued its mayday. Ten minutes after this Captain Curtis reported that the Heron's lights had disappeared, indicating that it had dropped below the water.

Lifeboat upside down

In the chaos, both of the Heron's lifeboats were put out, but one crashed into the water upside down.

"It all happened so quickly", chief engineer Henrik Krans said later. "I was in the engine room when she struck. The water soon poured in. I tried to bring the auxiliary engines into use, but it was no use."

When he scrambled on to the deck he found the first officer's wife Elske van der Zee in a state of panic. Reports of what happened next vary, but as Mr Krans went towards Mrs van der Zee the stern rose and the vessel turned violently. The movement either caused her to slip, or panic and jump, and she ended up among the waves pounding into the reef.

Mr Krans later told how, in its last seconds, the Heron seemed to slide down the face of a rock and plunge headlong into the depths and disappear.

After entering the water, several of the crew got to work on the upturned lifeboat.

"Although it was very difficult in the heavy swell which was running, some of us who were swimming around managed to come together and right the ship's lifeboat. We managed to bale out the water and used an oar to keep the boat moving." said 39-year-old Mr Krans, of Rotterdam.

Crew member Piet Kloostez, who was in his bunk when the ship struck the reef, described how he grabbed his pants and a picture of his girlfriend and rushed up to the deck.

"It was dark, very dark. And all I could see was the white of the waves breaking on the ship and the rocks," he said.
Survivors in an ambulance

Master and wife survive

The ship's 45-year-old master and part-owner, Captasin Harm Bartelds, and his wife, had been thrown into the sea and by now were clinging on to a piece of wood. They would later be joined by a Spanish crew member Dominico Caamano.[1] The trio spent hours at sea, drifting in rain and heavy swell as the search-and-rescue operation went on around them.

At about 8.30 the following morning the French tanker, Port du Bouc reported that it had picked up Captain Bartelds and his wife after finding them floating on a raft and was taking them to St Malo. They said that their Spanish colleague had slipped away and disappeared during the night.

The bodies of Mr Caamano and Mrs van der Zee were found floating among the debris. It was believed that Mr Van der Zee had gone down with the Heron.

The other six survivors were picked up by the Cranborne and transported to the Elizabeth Rippon lifeboat.

As news spread of the drama which had just played out at sea, a large crowd gathered at the Albert Pier to await the return of the lifeboat. She came into harbour shortly after 10 am, after being at sea for over 12 hours, towing the Heron's jolly boat as tragic evidence of the disaster. The two bodies were lifted off by crane, transferred to a waiting ambulance and taken to the General Hospital.

Later Mr Krans paid tribute to Captain Curtis for displaying 'wonderful seamanship' in bringing the Cranborne in close to the danger zone to rescue six of the survivors.


During the subsequent investigation the surviving crew gave differing accounts of the moments leading up to the crash.

Essentially Captain Bartelds claimed that the Heron was following the correct course until about 9.15 pm when he decided to take a toilet break, leaving a crew member as lookout.

When he returned to the bridge some five minutes later everything had gone haywire and the ship had swung nearly 60 degrees off course, striking minutes later.

The Shipping Council ruled that the Heron had steered 'an incorrect, dangerous and irresponsible' course. They cast doubts on Captain Bartelds' verson of events, and said that they were not convinced he had even left the bridge. They suspended his master's certificate for two years and commended the actions of Captain Curtis.

Notes and references

  1. He was described as Domingo Bergeda in other reports. Domingo is more likely if he was Spanish
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