Rescues & Disasters at Sea - Whitby Online

Rescues & Disasters at Sea

Perhaps the most famous sea disaster occurring off Whitby was that of the SS Rohilla. Built as a passenger and cruise liner in 1906 in Belfast the Rohilla was a steamship of the British India Steam Navigation Company and was requisitioned as a Navel hospital ship in August 1914 and went into service under Captain David Landles Neilson. After being refitted to accommodate sick patients and medical equipment she went into duty. Among her patients was Prince Albert who was moved aboard when he was struck down with appendicitis whilst serving aboard HMS Collingwood. The Rohilla carried him to Aberdeen to meet with the Royal surgeon. Just over two and a half months after being requisitioned the Rohilla and Captain Neilson found themselves in the treacherous and mine laded waters of the North East Coast; a place made even more dangerous due to war time light restrictions and a fierce gale.

The Whitby Coastguard at the time saw the course of the Rohilla heading directly towards the perilous and rocky coast line but his attempts at signaling to her failed. At approximately 4 am on the 30th October 1914 the Rohilla struck 'Whitby Rock' a notorious reef system just south of Whitby harbour. The ship was only 600 feet from shore but a rescue attempt under such conditions were deemed perilous. Nevertheless the R.N.L.I launched six lifeboats and undertook a fifty hour search and rescue mission. It took the first boat five and a half hours to reach the ship and to rescue 17 people and a further 18 on the second attempt.
By this time the lifeboat was so badly damaged it had to be abandoned. The following day forty people where still trapped on the ship and rescuers and locals watched in dismay as the ship took further beating from the wind and the waves. Eventually a motorized lifeboat was sent down from Teesside to assist and the final survivors where rescued after their 50 hour ordeal. In all 86 out of 229 passengers lost their lives in the tragedy. Many of the bodies recovered where buried at Whitby Cemetery and the funerals where attended by many local inhabitants, dignitaries and those involved personally in the search and rescue. At the inquest it was decided that adverse conditions where to blame for the disaster and it was recommended that Whitby should be provided with its own motorised lifeboat. The disaster is still listed today as one of the worst ever attended by the R.N.L.I.

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