Sunderland man missed two family weddings because he was stuck on a reef

Matthew Duncan (left) with fellow shipmates just before they joined their 1st ship.
Matthew Duncan (left) with fellow shipmates just before they joined their 1st ship.
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Matthew Duncan’s high seas adventure was, in his own words, “eventful.”

It’s not an exaggeration. If anythin, he is not even giving his time aboard the Lake Burnaby the drama it deserves.

Matthew Duncan holding a photograph of The Lake Burnaby.

Matthew Duncan holding a photograph of The Lake Burnaby.

After all, how many people get stranded on a reef before finding a 40ft giant wave coming straight for his ship.

Matthew, now 79, did and lived to tell the tale.

Chris Cordner reports in the first part of a two-part story which continues tomorrow.

In his three years as a Merchant Navy junior engineer, Matthew Duncan saw the world.

We were high and dry. It was a massive rock we were on and we were there for weeks.

Matthew Duncan

Australia, Japan and The Philippines were all boxes which had been ticked.

It was a wonderful time for this young Sunderland man who was around 21 years old. He was travelling the globe with money in his pocket.

He was on board the Lake Burnaby. She was a ship which was originally called the Llantrisant and was built in 1952 for Thomas Radcliffe by Bartrams, of South Dock, Sunderland.

She was renamed the Lake Burnaby and launched in 1957, just a year before she met her fate.

Matthew joined her at Middlesbrough and sailed to Hull where the rest of the crew got on board.

“We went all over, to the USA, round Mexico, Cuba, the Philipinnes, Japan and Tokyo.”

Back in Sunderland, both his brothers were tying the knot.

He’d found perfect wedding presents for his brothers Bernard and Frankie - 92 piece tea sets which he got for a snip of a price at one port.

“We were getting a thousand yens to the pound. We were like millionaires,” he said.

With two hige teasets for company, Matthew and the crew were on their way to their next destination.

But the ship’s officers prepared them for it by saying a long sail lay ahead before the next port.

“When we were coming back, all we were told was it would be a long time before the engines would be stopped, ” said Matthew.

The journey got under way but his adventures, and those of the rest of the crew of the Lake Burnaby, were cut short on November 3, 1958.

However, it did mean the start of an adventure of a completely different kind.

The ship ran aground and found herself stuck fast on a reef in the Sulu Sea, north east of Borneo.

But while he and the crew spent two weeks aground, he was missing the weddings of Bernard and Frankie - and so were those 92-piece teasets were stuck on the ship with him, thousands of miles from Sunderland.

“I missed the two weddings on that one voyage,” he admitted.

All attention was now on the matter at hand. How do you free a huge ship sitting atop a massive reef.

Matthew remembers getting the instructions from the chief engineer to try every way possible to free her.

Stop engine, full astern. Stop engine, full astern. “That happened several times,” said Matthew.

Problem was, the Lake Burnaby was going nowhere fast. “We were high and dry.”

They tried everything. “We were busy getting the air cyclinders topped as well.”

But before long, dusk came and giant rocks started to appear from under the waves. It wasn’t a good sign and certainly not a time to be moving a grounded ship.

The captain ordered the vessel to a total halt.

“It was a massive rock we were on,” said Matthew from the Grindon area of the city, “and we were there for quite a few weeks.”

It was certainly at least two weeks and the men of the Lake Burnaby had to settle down and wait for help.

At least they had food left to keep up their lonely reeftop vigil.

Copra, which is the dried kernel of the coconut became their main source of sustenance. It kept them going as the crew got on with the task at hand.

More adventures were still to come and we will reveal them in tomorrow’s edition. In the meantime, if you have a story to tell, email chris.cordner@jpress.co.uk or contact (0191) 5017473.