The Luckiest Thirteen is the story of an incredible two-day battle to save the super trawler St Finbarr, and of those who tried to rescue her heroic crew in surging, frozen seas.
It was also a backdrop for the powerful stories of families ashore, dumbstruck by fear and grief, as well as a love story of a teenage deckhand and his girl that ended with a heart-rending twist. From her hi-tech hold to her modern wheelhouse she was every inch the super ship the great hope for the future built to save the fleet at a record-breaking price but a heart-breaking cost.
On the thirteenth trip after her maiden voyage, the St Finbarr met with catastrophe off the Newfoundland coast. On Christmas Day 1966, twenty-five families in the northern English fishing port of Hull were thrown into a dreadful suspense not knowing if their loved ones were dead or alive after the disaster that befell The Perfect Trawler. Complete with 16 pages of dramatic and poignant photographs from the period.”
I’ve long held a fascination with the sea and am at my most relaxed when I’m by the water. Yet, as much as it has a calming effect on me and I’ve often looked at the small fishing boats in harbour bobbing up and down on the tide and fancied taking a go out to sea, the realities of the deep and the dangers of the sea outside of the safety of the harbour walls means there’s no real chance of my swapping my comfy desk-bound career for that of the life of the trawlerman – especially the life of the deep-sea fishermen. Even with a lot of naval history in my family.
Yet, despite my interest, it’s not a subject I’ve read too much around so when I was offered the chance to review “a true-life drama of an intense battle for survival on the high seas” there was no chance I’d say no. I’d never heard of the St Finbarr or its fate but, then again – why would I? I was born over a decade after the fact and never really ventured further north than Coventry.
The Luckiest Thirteen is a startlingly vivid and detailed account of an oft-forgotten tragedy at sea – the fate of the St Finbarr and her crew and the devastating loss experienced by their families back in Hull. As laid out in cold hard fact in the opening pages: “On Christmas Day, 1966, a fireball explosion ripped through the super-modern Hull trawler St Finbarr in wild Arctic waters on Newfoundlands’ Grand Banks. Ten men from a crew of twenty-five died instantly. Two more perished in the subsequent desperate rescue bid”.
What makes The Luckiest Thirteen a strong addition to any bookshelf and so compelling is Laverly’s style. Non-fiction can prove a dry genre at times and even the most fascinating of subjects rendered somniferous by bad telling, but Brian W. Lavery – who refers to this book as ‘creative non-fiction’ – combines an authoritative level of knowledge that can only come from dedicated research with the personal and human stories to create a heady mix.
It’s in the recreating of the crews personal stories, the lives they left – and in many cases never returned to – when they set out to sea in the St Finbarr that makes the events that befell the vessel so much more devastating. Laverly’s research and dedication to telling the stories of the people involved means The Luckiest Thirteen is more moving tribute than just plain fact.
I was gripped by the events as they unfolded on the St Finbarr and stunned by the speed at which everything went so spectacularly wrong – Laverly’s account is so detailed as to render events as if they were unfolding there and then rather than retold from decades-old memory. I had no idea just how perilously hard and near-impossible rescue from such situations is – the fact that two 1,000 tonne vessels could be thrown together by mountainous seas and thus unable to get close enough to each other for the ‘movie-style’ rescue imagined by those as previously clueless as I, for example – and, thus, how miraculous it was that so many were saved.
Yet perhaps most affecting of all is the impact the events had on those that survived. They were all left scarred in some way and the story of Walt Collier, in particular, has stayed with me long after finishing the book.
A thoroughly informative and yet uniquely personal and moving book, The Luckiest Thirteen is both gripping and highly recommended . My thanks to Anne Cater for my copy and inviting me to take part on this blogtour.