The steel steam trawler Defender was launched from the yard of Cook, Welton and Gemmell (Yard No 354) on 10th October 1903. She measured 113.8′ x 21.5′ x 11.3′ and her tonnage was 206 gross tons, 68 net tons. She was powered by a triple expansion steam engine by C D Holmes and Co. Ltd delivering 60 registered horse power. She was ordered by Mr A Black, Hutton Road, Grimsby and registered in this port GY1279. Her official number was 118914.
The picture below is of the steam trawler Brisbane, sister ship to Defender, built by Cook, Welton & Gemmell (Yard No 355) to the same design and specification, and launched on the same day as Defender.
The wild remote outcrop of MacKenzie’s Rock under the sweeping beam of the majestic lighthouse at Skerryvore has claimed a number of ship’s over the centuries including the Dominion Line steamship Labrador. On the stormy night of 14th November 1909 the Defender was to be added to the list.
For much of her career she had been based in Grimsby and sailed from there to the fishing grounds of Iceland and The Faroes. Recently transferred to Fleetwood, she steamed out of this port on 5th November, 1909 with Oswald Blackler, joint owner of the vessel, in command and with eight crewmen aboard. Initially they headed for their intended fishing grounds in Carnarvon Bay but poor weather conditions en route caused a change in plans and they decided to head for the more distant but more lucrative grounds off Barra Head. As they turned north skipper Blackler had only a single, recently purchased chart of the west coast and unfortunately this large scale map could not provide sufficient detail on a voyage that was unfamiliar to the skipper and the crew. However they safely reached the Barra fishing grounds late on the 6th and commenced fishing operations. They fished well for 6 days before heading home on 12th November with full fish holds.
Steaming ahead at full speed the voyage went well and soon Skerryvore Light was visible approximately 12 miles off their port bow. About 12:50am the skipper handed the wheel to the mate who kept the light on the port side and by 1.20am the light was directly east. At this point the course was altered to S1/2E, a decision that was to prove disastrous. Soon after the Defender crashed onto McKenzie Rock, a shallow reef lying south west of the lighthouse which had also claimed the Labrador many years earlier. The Defender was hard aground and immediately took on a heavy list to port. Thankfully the crew managed to get their boat into the water and had only just managed to get clear before she slipped off the rock and vanished, leaving them virtually in the open Atlantic, in the dark, washed by heavy seas. The lifeboat, although floating, was not in good shape. In the rush to leave the ship two of the oars had been lost leaving them with two oars of different lengths to power the boat. Also the plug in the front of the boat was missing to be partially repaired by jamming a cloth into the open hole. Thankfully the beckoning light of Skerryvore, which was nearly three miles away, was visible and they headed straight for it. They struggled towards safety throughout the night finally managing to reach the lighthouse nearly eight hours later. They were exhausted, cold and frightened but they were alive. The lighthousekeepers took them in and radioed for assistance. Some fifty hours later they were picked up by the SS Princess Louise – their ordeal was over.
At the subsequent enquiry the main issue was found to be the lack of adequate nautical charts of the area as Mackenzie’s Rock on the chart appeared to be virtually beside the Skerryvore Lighthouse although, in fact it lies almost three miles to the south west. In addition the skipper had not taken an adequate bearing on the light and had simply estimated the distance which he had ascertained to be between five and six miles to the light. As a result, and because of the poor condition of the lifeboat, the skipper was held to be responsible for the loss of the Defender principally based on the lack of appropriate nautical charts of the route but also lack of care in navigation of his ship when close to the lighthouse. His certificate was suspended.