By Trevor Fishlock
Distinguished Welsh artist Gwilym Prichard tonight describes his aunt’s amazing survival of a shipwreck near Cape Horn.
Five months pregnant and hugging her little boy she endured eight stormy days in a lifeboat as men froze to death around her.
“It’s a hell of a story,” said Gwilym at his studio in Tenby. “But when she told me how a wave washed her husband out of the lifeboat and into the sea she didn’t dramatize it.”
The heroic woman Gwilym knew as Auntie Katie was Catherine Thomas, of Llangybi, near Criccieth. “She was out of the ordinary,” he recalls, “a let’s-do-it kind of woman.”
Eighty-year-old Gwilym, born in Llanystumdwy, and his cousin Sylvia Swainson are the last links with the adventurous Catherine. They tell her story on ITV Wales.
Catherine grew up in Llangybi. She watched ships sail in and out of Porthmadog and dreamed of voyaging to distant places.
In Llangybi chapel one Sunday she caught the eye of Robert Thomas, of Criccieth, a young ship’s officer who had started a life at sea aged thirteen.
“He was a handsome young man and she fell head over heels in love with him,” said Sylvia, Catherine’s granddaughter.
Robert became master of the three-masted ship Criccieth Castle and in March 1907 sailed into Cardiff. He sent Catherine a telegram. She said a swift farewell to her family and hurried down to marry him. He was 28 and she 22.
The ship loaded coal and sailed for South America, with Catherine the only woman among 35 men and boys. It was her honeymoon voyage – but she was committed to the life of a sea-wife, sharing hardship and danger with Robert.
She was pregnant when they returned to Cardiff and gave birth to her son Bobby at Llangybi. The Criccieth Castle’s owners ordered Robert to sea for a three-year voyage.
He told Catherine she would have to stay home with Bobby. She said no – and it was as a family that they shared years of adventure around the world.
In June 1912 they sailed from Peru with a cargo of guano, fertilizer, bound for Cape Horn and home. Storms battered the Criccieth Castle for weeks. The ship rounded the Horn in fierce midwinter storms until waves smashed the rudder and she started to sink.
Seven crew scrambled into a boat and were soon lost. Robert, Catherine and son Bobby, with 14 men, took to a lifeboat. They sat in freezing water as gales raged. Catherine, five months pregnant, clung to four-year-old Bobby.
At the tiller Robert knew the only hope was to sail to the Falkland Islands 180 miles distant. Everyone in the boat had swollen, frozen hands. After three days Catherine saw three men freeze to death in one evening.
Taking up the story Gwilym says that a wave washed Robert overboard and Catherine shouted to the men “For God’s sake, save him.” But they were all frozen. Another wave threw Robert back aboard and the men managed to put him in his place by the tiller.
After eight days at sea Robert Thomas steered for a Falkands lighthouse where keepers pulled the survivors ashore. Two more men died in hospital, bringing the Criccieth Castle death toll to 16. Captain Thomas was unconscious for four days. Doctors said they might have to amputate Bobby’s frostbitten legs, but he recovered.
The sea-family Thomas came home to Llangybi. Catherine gave birth to a daughter and called her Mercy Malvina, a child saved in the Falklands. And Mercy became the mother of Sylvia.
Sylvia remembers happy days with her grandmother. Catherine told her tales of adventure at sea, but not about the horrors of shipwreck and the lifeboat.
She remains moved by her grandmother’s fortitude. Her belief is that Catherine’s love for her husband, her unborn child and the son she kept close to her “must have given her the supreme strength to keep going”.
- Watch Fishlock’s Wales: Mother Courage, on ITV1 Wales, Monday October 3 at 20:00 BST