ON THE WATERFRONT: The fate of HMS Sentinel

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It was as if the old warship planned to escape her impending fate as she rolled in rough seas off Sunderland Harbour on the morning of February 13, 1923.

Overnight, the obsolete scout cruiser, HMS Sentinel, had arrived from Chatham in charge of two tugs.

Her entry into the Wear would mark the end of her final voyage, as she was due to be broken up by Thomas Young and Sons (Shipbreakers) Ltd.

Having missed the morning tide, the ship waited for the next high water to allow her to enter South Docks. Unfortunately, the heavy seas caused a towline to part from the Lawson-Batey steam tug Joffre, leaving the cruiser to drift helplessly.

As she ran ashore at Whitburn Bay in a south-easterly gale, Sentinel’s skeleton passage crew of six Wearsiders feared for their lives. Seeing the drama unfolding, Chief Officer Cole at Sunderland Coastguard station immediately alerted Sunderland lifeboat Henry Vernon, together with Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade.

Rescuers promptly reached the scene, but a strong headwind prevented the Brigade’s rocket lines from reaching the stranded ship to permit a breeches buoy rescue.

The lifeboat met with greater success, however, managing to get alongside with considerable difficulty. All six men were saved, although one fell overboard but was soon recovered.

Despite fears that Sentinel would become a total wreck, plans were made to tow her from the beach, with the salvage contract being awarded to Sunderland-based Lindsay, Swan and Hunter Ltd.

Watched by crowds of onlookers, many abortive salvage efforts were attempted over the next few months.

HMS Sentinel soon became a major public attraction, with extra trams running to take thousands of sightseers to Seaburn. Schoolchildren even visited the seaside to make drawings of the stricken warship, which was visible from the windows of Fulwell School.

Rumours that £1,000 had been offered to lease the hulk for two years as a dancing hall and refreshment room were promptly scotched by the shipbreaker.

On May 1, three men were injured - one seriously - when an anchor wire parted during salvage operations.

After four months aground, Sentinel was eventually refloated by four tugs early on June 18 and towed into South Docks to meet her overdue destiny with the cutting torch.

She was built by Vickers of Barrow, having been launched on April 19, 1904 and completed the following April. Displacing 2,880 tons, she measured 381 feet overall with a 40-foot beam.

During World War One, she had been based in the Rivers Forth and Humber before being stationed in the Mediterranean. After duties in the Black Sea during the Russian civil war, she ended her career as a training ship for mechanics at Chatham, Kent.