Built in 1900 by Hans-Ditlev Bendixsen of Eureka, California, as the John Palmer, the 1120 ton wooden four-masted barquentine Yvonne of Marseilles had a length of 68.3m (224ft), a breadth of 13m (42.5ft) and a depth of 5.2m (17ft). Operating under a French flag and with a Norwegian captain, Gerhard Tannessan, the vessel departed Jamaica on the 8th of August 1920 with a cargo of logwood bound for Le Havre. There were 19 crew on board of seven different nationalities plus one stowaway, a Jamaican boy of 16 discovered in the coal bunker when they were three days into their voyage.
For the two months since she left Jamaica the Yvonne had sailed through a succession of storms and by Sunday 3rd October they were coming up the English Channel in a westerly gale. The seas were mountainous, they had limited ability to steer and darkness was coming on, so the captain attempted to run for the shelter of Plymouth Sound. By the time the Yvonne was near the port the gale force winds had turned to the south, with the ship barely under control the captain requested a pilot then tried to reach the shelter of Plymouth Sound via the Western side of the Breakwater. But the Yvonne missed the wide entrance and ran hard aground on the eastern end of the Breakwater, her stern swung round to the west and she lay broadside to with huge waves pounding over her.
The crew all gathered together on the poop deck apart from the wireless operator, he sent out repeated distress calls until the sea smashed his radio. Distress rockets were fired and flares burnt in the hope of attracting attention. Being too exposed on the poop the crew moved to the forecastle head where they stayed for four hours huddled together; cold, wet and expecting to be washed away at any moment.
The flares let off by the crew were seen at 8:45pm by the a lookout on the Breakwater Fort so the alarm was raised. Searchlights from the nearby forts were used to light up the wreck as it lay stranded on the Breakwater, letting the crew know that help was on its way. At midnight, the government tug Rover and the harbour master’s launch towing the lifeboat Eliza Avins made an attempt to reach the Yvonne, the Rover was under the command of the Harbour Master, Cdr. Geoffry Freyberg R.N. and the lifeboat was under the command of her coxswain Frederick Eagles. The launch had been damaged earlier in the day so when water flooded her engine room the tow was transferred to the tug. By 10:45 the rescue ships had reached the Breakwater where they saw waves 10m high breaking over the Yvonne, she was on the top of the Breakwater on an even keel, 50m to the west of the beacon on the east end of the Breakwater. Later, the cox of the lifeboat said that the waves were the biggest he had ever seen.
They could not take the tug out into the huge sea so she was anchored behind the Breakwater. Instead, Cdr. Freyberg transferred to the lifeboat, the sails were set and they tried to sail out of the eastern entrance into the teeth of a southerly gale. The conditions were atrocious and they couldn’t get the lifeboat alongside without smashing her to pieces, so they retreated to the shelter of the Breakwater’s lee side. Neither the tug nor lifeboat could reach the stricken ship so the only option was for the crew to be picked up from the sea. The lifeboat signalled their intentions with flares, the crew put on lifebelts and scrambled on to the Breakwater and then jumped into the sea. The young Jamaican stowaway could not swim so Captain Tannessan put him over his shoulders and swam both of them to the lifeboat. The crew of the lifeboat dragged 18 people from the sea and the tug picked up one more but the 60 year old cook was found to be missing. Cdr. Freyberg climbed onto the Breakwater to search for him but with no luck. They assumed that the cook had been washed away out of the eastern entrance on the ebb tide so the tug went to search for him, but unfortunately he was never found. With the shivering crew of the Yvonne on board, the lifeboat was towed into Millbay docks by the tug and arrived at 2:15 in the morning.
Shortly after, the First Sea Lord sent his congratulations to the lifeboat crew for their daring rescue and the Captain of the Yvonne publicly thanked the crews of both the lifeboat and the tug in the Western Daily Mercury newspaper. The RNLI awarded Thanks on Vellum to Freyberg, Thanks on Vellum plus 20 shillings to the steam launch coxwain W. Williams and leading stoker J. Harvey, the Master of the Rover, D. St. Croix, was awarded a letter of appreciation and £2, and the remainder of the crew of the steam launch and Rover were awarded 20 shillings each.
The Yvonne remained upon the breakwater for several months, during which time all of the vessel’s fittings and useful items were salvaged. The sea eventually broke the vessel apart, allowing it to fall into the sea and come to rest at the base of the Breakwater on the southern side.
Diving the Yvonne
As the years passed, more large pieces of stone were added to the base of the breakwater to strengthen it. The remains of the Yvonne now rest amongst the stones and buried below, at a depth of 9 metres. Much of the wreckage is obscured by kelp in summer, the most prominent feature of which is one of the anchors.
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The Yvonne high and dry on the Breakwater (SHIPS Archive)
Still from British Pathe film of the Yvonne (British Pathe)
British Pathe Autumn Gales 1920, http://www.britishpathe.com/video/autumn-gales