A forgotten tragedy in the cruel and mountainous sea…

The Luckiest Thirteen summons up a forgotten tragedy at sea. It is also an incidental testament to the great days of regional journalism.

On Christmas Day 1966, a fireball explosion tore through the Hull super-trawler St Finbarr in the wild Atlantic off Newfoundland’s Grand Banks. Ten men from a crew of 25 died instantly and two more perished during the rescue bid. That left the 13 survivors of the title.

The trawlermen of Hull stand at the lurching heart of Brian W Lavery’s enthralling book, yet there is space too to recall the Hull Daily Mail at its peak.

In a day of dreadful suspense, 25 families in the fishing port had to wait to hear the fate of loved ones aboard the St Finbarr, then considered at the forefront of trawler technology.

As the awful news was confirmed, the staff of the Hull Daily Mail began working on the story, combining hard-nosed tenacity with a diligent care. Once in print, the newspaper’s 133,000 copies sold out.

Nowadays, according to the latest ABC figures, the Hull Daily Mail sells around 25,000 copies a day – still more impressive than many, but a long way from that peak (although some of that readership has gone online, as is the way nowadays).

Lavery is a journalist turned academic and writer. He used to work on the Hull Daily Mail and recreates those lost days of inky greatness with admirable skill.

Yet the newspapermen – and they were mostly men back then – who reported and edited that story, so well captured here, are not the focus of this tremendous book. That unhappy honour falls to the trawlermen of the stricken ship St Finbarr.

Lavery dramatises past events as if he was there at the time. This technique can be tricky: where is the line between what happened and how the writer thinks it may have happened? Lavery gets around this with long years of research, and in one important instance, the full cooperation of his subject: Jill Harrison, who was widowed by the tragedy at a young age.

This documentary account begins with Jill and Tony, young lovers from the Hessle Road fishing community. He portrays the stormy passage of their relationship, mostly due to her father’s opposition, and their early married life.

Lavery writes in a simple yet filmic manner, and summons up the lost past as if it were happening now. He does this by drawing on deep and diligent research, yet he carries this weight of facts lightly. The reader never feels burdened by detail: quite the opposite, you are swept along in the rush of events.

This dramatic technique continues as Lavery summons up life on board; a tough life, as deep sea-fishing was the most dangerous job around. He introduces the different crew members, sketching a story, shading in a character. Then he begins to describe what happens when the ship catches fire.

At this point, The Luckiest Thirteen turns into a thriller, one in which you know the ending, but still hang on every racing word. The writing again tells the story as it happens, again in a filmic manner, as icy mountainous seas bedevil attempts to save the St Finbarr.

The book’s third movement concentrates on the Board of Trade Inquiry at the Guildhall, Hull, in September 1967. Here, Lavery offers a factual report of the inquiry into the disaster, an account which ties up the loose ends of this tragedy.

In a coda, an ‘Afterwords’ chapter tells of the further tragedy and misfortune that struck some of those who survived, and paints too a moving picture of the players in this forgotten tale. In the ‘Acknowledgements’, Lavery makes clear his “immeasurable debt” to Jill Long, “the then young wife of deckhand Tony Harrison who was left widowed, with a baby, also pregnant and not yet nineteen”. He thanks Jill for allowing him to dramatise the most tragic parts of her life.

Lavery’s earlier book, The Headscarf Revolutionaries, recalled the triple trawler disaster of 1968 and the uprising for greater safety at sea led by Mrs Lillian ‘Big Lill’ Bilocca. In a sense, that story eclipsed this earlier tragedy, but now Lavery has told both tales; and told this one very well indeed (I haven’t yet read the earlier book).

The Luckiest Thirteen is published by Barbican Press.

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