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The night the rocks shook

Entertainment | Published:

Rob Batiste takes a slightly alternative look at the hot summer night events of 40 years ago

Rob Batiste takes a slightly alternative look at the hot summer night events of 40 years ago THE sun had long gone down on a scorching summer's day, but as midnight approached on 13 July 1967 it was still stiflingly warm - high 20s - and not a breath of wind.

Out at sea it was misty, bordering on fog. The heat and the stillness suited Pam, a waitress from Staffordshire, and her local boyfriend, Jim.

'We'll have some peace and quiet down Saints,' he might have said as the amorous couple headed down to the harbour in his car.

Meanwhile, not so far away, deep in the bowels of a 7,687-ton cargo vessel steaming northwards en route to Rotterdam, the old captain, Fredricko, was dreaming of his beloved Manila or perhaps it was Imelda Marcos, as he dozed aboard the old President Garcia with a hold full of copra, dried coconut kernels used to make oil, some 42 days out of the Phillipines.

Up the hill at his house in Saints Road, Evening Press photographer Brian Green was struggling to sleep on the uncomfortably hot night and down in Town reporter Herbert Winterflood was checking harbour movements and having a chat at the watchhouse.

Then it happened.

The earth moved, not only for the couple, but also for old Fredricko who had gone to his quarters confident - why wouldn't he be? - that the boys up top and the autopilot would steer the old tub safely past the Channel Islands and up the Channel towards their destination.

That was the plan, anyway.

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The officers on duty had seen the warning lights and knew where they were going, even if it was a bit foggy.

What they didn't know was that the lighthouse they could see in the distance was not the Hanois. It was the one at St Martin's Point. Oops.

'Hard to port,' was the translated order.

The red St Martin's light was seen as a danger signal, but a sharp left would see them back on track in the open sea. Wrong.

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Instead and at 12 knots, the President Garcia ploughed straight into Saints Bay, to give Pam and Jim the shock of a lifetime.Instead of a torch beam shone into their faces accompanied by the words, ''Ello, 'ello, 'ello, what're you two youngsters up to?, the jump came from the sound of thousands of tons of iron scraping across the rocks a few yards away.

'I had my fingers in my ears,' said Pam to reporter Herbert, who was quickly on the scene.

'But I could still hear the crunch as the vessel struck the rocks. It was an experience that I never want to go through again,' she told Herbert.

Jim's version of events was not too different.

'It really made a bang when it hit,' he said.

The couple had initially thought the ship was heading for the Peastacks.

'Then she turned in a bit as if she was heading into Moulin Huet Bay. She then turned in sharply and didn't seem to slow down at all,' Jim said.

But slow it most certainly did.

'It shook the cliff as it crashed,' said the couple.

Nearly 8,000 tons of it settled onto the rocks near the foot of the harbour slipway. It was to remain there for nearly eight days and thousands came from all over the island to see the Philippine President Lines ship.

El capitano, meanwhile, had been given the shock of his own life and as he realised the extent of his error, the thought must have crossed his mind: 'That's my captaincy career over.'

Over the next few hours and the coming days, Herbert was to get quotes from all and sundry. But he got nothing from Fredricko. The old man was saying nothing.

When the media went aboard the following day, its master cut a disconsolate and sad figure.

He sat attending to his paperwork but refused to say anything about what had happened in the lead-up to the accident.

Outside, it was chaotic in the area around Saints.

The small bay had never seen anything like it and the narrow lanes were not built for hundreds of cars coming and going.

The police made special arrangements and a field was opened for use as a car park, with the proceeds suitably going to the RNLI.Out in the bay, where incredibly not one moored boat had been hit by the lost ship, boatowners from all over the island chugged in to have a closer look and swimmers donned masks and snorkels to take an alternative view.

What the salvagers saw was a ship virtually wrecked by at least four gaping holes.

Three of them had already been repaired from within the ship but the other, in No. 2 hold, could not be reached because of the cargo of copra.

The crew, meanwhile, were not certain where they were - some thought they were in France.

A week later they were off again.

Two powerful Dutch tugs finally hauled the boat off its rocky perch and life for Saints watchers and users returned to normal.

As for the ship, it is understood it went to the breaker's yard after eventually reaching its destination with 9,000 tons of copra on board.

Back on the beach all that was left was a nasty smell of oil and, as an unnamed little boy said in earshot of the Press: 'I don't think she did much damage to the rocks.'

Looking back on the fateful night, the Guernsey Press's man on the spot, Herbie, recalls driving down to Saints fully expecting to see a yacht in trouble, which was the report received at the watchhouse.

'I went out and when I got there it looked like the Royal Hotel had appeared from nowhere.

'There was so much light coming from it, I couldn't believe my eyes.'

The short-term legacy of the President Garcia's unscheduled Guernsey excursion was the invasion of millions of bright blue copra beetles.

Inadvertently released through the ship's holds, they plagued the Saints area for several days. They got everywhere and left many with bites and bumps.

Francis Quin, who was running a beachfloat and deckchair business from Petit Bot at the time, recalls the infestation.

'The Board of Administration told us to shut the bay down, but they paid us for our lost week after filling in the necessary insurance forms,' he recalled.

'But as quickly as they came, they went.'

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