Fifteen gravestones in the little cemetery of Kilchatten on Luing are a sad reminder of the loss of the Latvian steamship Helena Faulbaums in a wild hurricane on the night of 26th October, 1936. There were only four survivors from her crew of twenty when she sank off the small island of Belnahua at the north end of the Sound of Luing during a storm which, at the time, was regarded as the worst in living memory.
The Helena Faulbaums was launched in February 1920 as the SS Firpark by the Grangemouth Dockyard Co. Ltd (Yard No.400). Her dimensions were 280.1′ x 41.9′ x 18.9′ and she weighed in at 1955 gt. She remained in the ownership of Denholm Shipping Company until 1932 when she was sold to a new owner, Max Faulbaums of Riga, Latvia.
She left Liverpool early on the 26th October after unloading her cargo of timber and was bound for Blyth, Northumberland in ballast, to take on a cargo of coal for her return trip to her home port of Riga. As the day wore on and she steamed further north the wind began to increase and Captain Nikolai Zughaus decided to make for the firth of Lorne to take shelter. By the time she was abreast of the Garvellachs the sea was boiling in a full scale hurricane and the empty ship, with her propeller half out the water thrashing the surface, was buffeted by huge waves making her almost impossible to control. Finally she became totally unmanageable to such an extent that the crew thought that the steering had in fact broken although it is likely that the combination of the violent seas and the strong currents around the Sound of Luing was in fact to blame. Captain Zughaus ordered both of her anchors let go, each with ninety fathoms of chain, but it was to no avail. The first SOS radio message was sent out at 8:48pm but, although it was answered by Portpatrick and Malin Head Radios who immediately tried to launch Port Askaig lifeboat, the storm was so bad that all communications with Islay were lost and the message had to be relayed by the BBC. The lifeboat was eventually launched but the Helena Faulbaums was doomed. At 10:05pm she was swept onto the north west end of Belnahua and the radio message was changed to ” Now ashore.” The radio operator bravely stayed at his post tapping out the distress call and went down with the ship.
The ship was being pounded against the rocky shore by huge waves and, as the crew struggled on the heaving deck in driving spray to prepare themselves to try to get ashore, she slipped off the rocks and began to sink. The Captain, seeing the position of the ship which was quickly settling by the stern, immediately gave the order to abandon ship and the men scrambled over the side to attempt to cross the short distance to the shore – only four made it. It took only a few short minutes to struggle onto the rocks but when they looked back their ship had gone. Three of the four men spent the night in the ruins of an old house where they ingeniously managed to light a fire with a pack of wet matches one of them had in his pocket. The fourth man, injured as he struggled ashore, spent a cold night clinging to the rocks before he met up with his colleagues in the morning. Around 8:30am the next morning they spotted the Islay lifeboat and managed to attract the crew’s attention by waving a pillowcase. The sea was still very rough making it impossible for the lifeboat to come in shore so they had to be hauled aboard by breeches buoy before they could finally be taken to safety. They were landed at Crinan later that morning and taken by car to Glasgow. The bodies of their dead shipmates began washing ashore on Luing that same morning. The crew, except for the captain whose body was taken back to Latvia, were buried on Luing in a solemn ceremony on the 2nd November
The Wreck Today
The wreck of the Helena Faulbaums lies in 54 – 65 metres off the north west corner of Belnahua in position 56°15.241’N, 005°41.764’W (WGS84). She sits on an even keel with bow towards the island and while the hull is almost completely in tact, deck structures, masts have all fallen away and it is possible to swim around the engine and boiler as they are now open. Care should be taken as the structural integrity of the wreck has changed significantly in recent years, evidenced by sections of hull plating becoming detached from the main frames and the dropping of the decks around the centre section. As the ship was in ballast the holds are empty, making the central section of the wreck the most interesting. The depth on the deck is 50 -54 metres depending on the tide, with the shallowest part of the bridge rising a few metres above the deck.
One of the more impressive features of the wreck is the bow area. Here the hull plates have fallen away from the main frames of the ship to leave a bird cage effect which is often populated by dense shoals of bib darting in and out of the shade and protection of the wreckage. Equally impressive is the towering bow with port anchor chain running south and down onto the seabed as if it were trying to stop the tide sucking the wreck of the Helena Faulbaums into the depths.
Clearly the major hazard for the diver is the depth and, although visibility is generally good and the site is quite sheltered from the strong tidal streams prevalent in the area, this is a dive for the most experienced diver only. Good boat cover and use of surface marker buoys are essential. The dive should only be attempted at low water slack