Painting of the ship Fifeshire at the wreck of the Patrician, with Captains E R Sterling and J Wilson, by E B Hayward, (ca 1896)

On August 25th 1896 the steamer Patrician when 400 miles east of Australia encountered a gale that left her a wreck and Captain Stirling enclosed in a bottle and threw overboard a farewell message to his friends. On the 28th the masts were cut away the boats all stove in the gale blew as hard as ever and the ship a dismal wreck lay helpless in a sea that all on board agreed no boat could live in if boat there had been to launch. Then the steamer Fifeshire, Captain Wilson, bound from Sydney to New Zealand, hove in sight. The captain of the Patrician hoisted a signal asking if the steamer would risk taking the crew off. The Fifeshire answered “We will do so if possible.” Then the steamer was skilfully maneuvered and an attempt was made to lower a boat but owing to the terrible sea and the rolling of the steamer the boat was crushed the bridge the bulwarks and other fittings smashed and Mr Ross the chief officer injured Mr Forder the third officer of the Fifeshire offered to swim off to the sinking ship with a line but Captain Wilson knowing that the attempt must end in death refused to allow him.

After further maneuvering another attempt to launch a boat was successful. Notwithstanding his injuries Mr Ross took charge but he had to push off with only two men, Mouatt the boatswain and Martin a quartermaster. These three men persevered in their heroic work and after tremendous exertion approached the Patrician. When nearing her a tremendous sea caught the boat and took her right over the taffrail of the Patrician but the backwash fortunately carried her back into the sea without having touched anything. By means of a line the crew of the Patrician were got on board the boat and by the same means transferred to the Fifeshire this necessitating two journeys. The crew of the boat had to be taken on board in the same manner and as it would have been hazardous to have attempted to take the boat on board it was abandoned.

Captain Stirling thus described his rescue, “Notwithstanding the injuries the chief officer had received and quite forgetful of himself he again bravely offered to risk his life in saving those of his fellowmen by taking charge of the boat. The boatswain and the quartermaster were equally willing to sacrifice their lives and they seemed to be going to certain death by facing such a sea. One may imagine it when at times the hull of the Fifeshire as seen from the wreck would entirely disappear in the trough of the waves. It was solely due to their wonderful courage and perseverance and the skilful manner in which Mr Ross and his crew handled the boat that they reached the wreck. Had it not been for Captain Wilson who handled his ship in such seaman like manner rendering valuable assistance to the lifeboat all efforts would have proved fruitless as the Fifeshire is a very large ship and having a heavy gale and high sea to contend with it was extremely difficult to keep her in position.”

(From: A Century of our Sea Story by Walter Jeffery)