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Ben Asdale

the Ben Asdale two days after she struck

In December 1979 the freezer trawler Ben Asdale was off loading fish in Falmouth Bay in a force eight gale, with heavy snow turning to blizzards. The ship drifted towards Maenporth beach where she ran aground. Two of her crew were lost and the only redeeming feature of that dreadfull night was the bravery shown by just about everybody involved.
I am extremely lucky to have the Skipper’s first hand account, and the eyewitness account of the Captain of the rescue helicopter, who saved so many lives.

  • The Wreck of the Ben Asdale
  • Commander Mike Norman,Sea King 592
  • Barty Coe – The Skippers Story
  • 38 Responses to Ben Asdale

    1. Jim Brown says:

      I recently went to Maenporth on holiday and saw the Ben Asdale. It is really old and rusty but I nearly got stuck when the tide was coming in but i had my wetsuit on so I just swam to the beach.

    2. Anne Asdale Anthony says:

      I continually look for my maiden name – Asdale – but rarely find it. As far as I know there is only one remaining person, a male who can carry on the Asdale name as I know it here in the US. It would be so very interesting to learn that we, the Asdale’s of previous Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, are more than just we.

    3. Jack Allen says:

      The Ben Asdale, well my grandad was the captain! He was one of the 3 people that died. As he was the captain he was the last to get off – I don’t know much about it though.

    4. tim careless says:

      Why isn’t there a memorial to remember the people that died and the heroic efforts of the rescuers? It’s a great beach but on a nice day the people enjoying themselves will know nothing of what happened as the ship can not be seen from the beach.

    5. like you we have been trying to find the asdale name
      as this was my mothers maiden name,
      but we are in the uk.
      my uncle moved to canada selkirk and we think his son moved to florida and still lives there.
      they came from north/west yorkshire area.
      iff you think we may be related please feel free to email me and we could swap information.
      lorraine stansfield.
      ps they are also related to the barker family.

    6. Mike Billcliffe says:

      It was a wild night, the real hero being the helicopter pilot, he carried on even after he lost much of his cabin electrics shorted out from the driving rain, snow and surf.

      The name of the brothers by the way is Billcliffe, not Billicliffe, and yes I was one of them. At the time our parents owned Maenporth Beach and the Crag Hotel behind it, now called Maenporth Estate. I remember it well as it was the night before I got engaged, and I am still very happily married today with 3 children of our own.

    7. richard young says:

      My parents and me used to stay 2 weeks every year at the Crag.I think when we first stayed,the owner was George Hughes,then Sam Billcliffe.
      I was not much more than 6 or 7.Remember playing on a 3 wheel bike in the car park so must have known the brothers.
      You were incredibly brave that night and I agree that some sort of plaque should be created.

    8. Peter Billcliffe says:

      I am also one of the three Billcliffe brothers who waded into the sea that night and still remember so clearly that dreadful night and the brave efforts of all those who gave their all to help with no thought of their own safety, especially the pilot and crew of the helicopter who put themselves and their aircraft at such risk in order to save the crew of the stricken trawler. I still live not far from Maenporth and have watched the wreck vanish bit by bit over the years, broken up by the sea. I to feel that something should be placed at Maenporth or on
      Newporth head to remember those who lost their lives.

    9. Peter Billcliffe says:

      I am also one of the three Billcliffe brothers who waded into the sea that night and still remember so clearly that dreadful night and the brave efforts of all those who gave their all to help with no thought of their own safety, especially the pilot and crew of the helicopter who put themselves and their aircraft at such risk in order to save the crew of the stricken trawler. I still live not far from Maenporth and have watched the wreck vanish bit by bit over the years, broken up by the sea. I also feel that something should be placed at Maenporth or on Newporth head to remember those who lost their lives that night.

    10. Graeme Hately says:

      I was at the Fishery College in Falmouth a couple of years later. We were taken to the Coast Guard Station by Mr Clifton Pender (our lecturer) where there, or was, a painting of the incident. I seem to remember that Mr Pender was rather bitter about some aspect of the rescue? I could be wrong, but I think it was something to do with the tugs refusing to come out?
      On the weekends, we’d sometimes clime down the Breaches Buoy and explore the wreck.

    11. Shimon Ellison says:

      I saw this ship close up shortly after she foundered. At that time there had been a hole cut in her side with a ladder in place to it, so I assume some kind of salvage was in progress. As it was a very calm and sunny day, I took a walk right up to it, and being inquisitive, went up the ladder. Quite scary really as Im no good at heights! I was a bit concerned that someone might take offence at me doing this, but on reaching the [oblong] hole and looking inside, I saw and heard no one.
      I remember seeing all the cable trunking and dials, but it was a tad spooky, because it was dark inside and I could water sloshing around inside and below me..I would have gone onto the superstructure, but it was far too steep to climb further up and it seemed silly to attempt it. The ship was in good condition then, almost as if , were it possible to right it, it could have floated off on the next high tide! The hull must have been breached by those rocks though. It was sad experience all in all, and I never forgot the episode. I only happened on the wreck because I was driving and delivering goods in the area, and noticed the ship whilst driving along the coast road.

    12. barty coe says:

      hi all. i was skipper of the asdale the night she ran ashore. i would just like give a first hand account of what took place on that fatefull night.
      after landing our catch of maceral to the russian klondyker Antarctica we found that our steering would not work and requested to the skipper that we stay tied up to his vessel till we sorted the problem and, wouild it be possible, because of the deteriating weather conditions to put more ropes onto him. Due to language difficulties this did not happen but they send 2 of their men, one an electiciam the other a engineer aboard to assist the repair. In the meantime the trawler boston Blemheim came out of Falmouth to try and tow us into the harbour, the wind by now had reached about force 8. After three attemps a line was passed across and our warp end was hove across to the Blenheim but before a tow could be secured the blenheim fell across antarctica bow and sustained damage to her staboard quirter and further attembs were abandened. by now the weather had worsened, winds reaching foce 10 from the east, causing the Antarctica’s anchor to drag and both boats were being driven toward the shore and our forward ropes parted causing us to swing under her stern. to avoid damage the remaining mooring ropes were let go and we dropped our anchor but this did not hold.

    13. barty coe says:

      By this time we were only about quarter of a mile from shore and a mayday was sent out. it was only a matter of minutes before we were driven onto the rocks. we remained in touch with the coastguard who informed us that help was on the way from the shore. attempts were made ro launch the liferafts on the starboard side but after getting 3 men into them they both broke adrift, we found out later that 2men made it to the shore and the other had heen thrown out of the raft. the shore rescue arrived and a breaches bouy was rigged btween the cliff and tyhe ships mast on the wheelhouse top. Just as we were about to have the first crewmember enter the bouy the ship turned over onto its port side taking with it all the rescue equipment. out of the four of us on the wheelhouse my self and 2 others managed to scamble over the side of the wheelhouse into the well of the staboard verander.

    14. barty coe says:

      The mate had tried to come down a ladder at the back of the wheelhouse and had slipped but was holding on. I tried to grab him by the hand but he slipped from my grasp and vanished ninto the sea. The two russians who had came onboard made signs that they were going to try and swim ashore and couild not be persauded not to they climbed over the ship and made thare way to the anchor well. we found out later that one had attemped to swim ashore and had perished. The remaining crew were eventually taken off by helicopter and i was last to leave the vessel. we were taken to Culdrose navel base and because of the snow that had fallen were unable to leave for 3 days.

    15. barty coe says:

      Some time later the boat was checked over by the then DTI who found that the stearing had been jammed by a nut that had come loose inside one of the hydrualic stearing rams and there was no way it could have been detected at sea.
      We later heard that three men and their father, the Billcliffe’s, had attemped to help us. one can only give you all praise as well as all others that helped on the night, the helicopter crew who, because of the furosiosness of the weather were told they did not have to fly, thank god they did, Lifeboat and coastguards crews.

    16. barty coe says:

      On a final note i visited the wreck sight in 2003 with the intenion of looking up the Billciffe familly but found that a newholiday complex had been built at mainporth were their hotel had once been. one thing did upset me while i was making enquiries as to what happened to the familly were the comments from the desk clerk at the new hotel. i had not told him who i was but told him i had been along looking at the remains of the wreck, to which he told me the scottish crew had all been full of drink it being new year. well you can imagine how i felt, I toild him who i was and for a start we were all crew fron north shields not scottish and we did not carry drink on the boat. I’m afraid a cant’ tell you what i ended up calling this fellow.

    17. Adrian Hart says:

      Being from Penryn,ive spent many a day on Meanporth beach.Ive been told lots of stories about the Ben Asdale,its nice to here what happened from people that were there that night.So much respect for the Billcliffe bros for trying to help those in need.Next time im back home the beers on me lads!

    18. Tim Careless says:

      I made a comment in feb 2010, saying that I could not for life of me understand why there is no memorial somewhere to remember those who perished that night abd to the heroic efforts of all who assisted .
      Richard young echoed my thoughts in Dec. There should be some sort of recognition. Too many times events like these are forgotton about or twisted into something that never happened, like some macbare chinese whispers. Take the example of the misguided barman at the hotel.
      My family and I will be down there in august and I shall take a look at the wreck, only this time with a different perpective. On the beach you can hire canoes to paddle about the cove in. This is how I discovered the wreck. What about if the people hiring out the canoes gave out a leaflet informing people of what the wreck is and some background to it? This would raise its profile and maybe start a groundswell for having a permenent memorial.

    19. Dave West says:

      The mate who was lost was Peter Allen from South Shields who i knew fairly well and i had sailed with his brother Paul who was third hand in the old Abergeldie A391 back in the early sixties out of North Shields.
      At the time of the loss i was no longer fishing but I can remember Peters father “Old Tim” coming into the Harbour Lights pub in South Shields on New Years Day to tell us of the tragic loss of the Ben Asdale. The news certainly took the shine off our celebrations. Tim was renowned as a tough old cookie but i don’t think he was ever the same after the tragedy

    20. Nick says:

      I remember visiting the Ben Asdale when I was 4 years old, just after it happened. Another big mackerel boat the Conqueror was wrecked at Mousehole around the same time.These images still stick in my head.Funny it was rumoured that the crew of the Conqueror was drunk too.Being a fisherman myself,I wonder do people think we’re always drinking at sea,coz the truth is I’ve never seen alcohol on a fv at sea.
      Great account of that night Barty,and respect to all those involved in the rescue

    21. Jillian Housman (Fowler) says:

      This is to the Billcliffe brothers – spent many happy years at the crag hotel with all the Billcliffe family. Happy memories of Gran, Sam and Vera.

    22. Jillian Housman (Fowler) says:

      Spent many happy years at the Crag Hotel with all the Billcliffe family. Happy memories of Gran, Sam & Vera.

    23. Rob Lowe says:

      Interesting to read the above – I spent many happy holidays in Falmouth as a child in the 70s and also saw the wreck fairly soon after it was wrecked. Also have seen it in recent times as a rusty relic! Agree a memorial should be created to remember those that died and recognise the efforts of the rescuers.

    24. malcolm davies says:

      I and my family climbed and dived on this wreck in the 80s and 90s.We met the Billcliffe brothers through Ken who had the beach cafe at maenporth. I have a bar in southern Spain. Imagine my suprise when a customer told me he lost a trawler off Falmouth , and his suprise when i told him i knew it. He has an oil painting of the helicopter rescue. I will contact him as im sure everybody connected would like to see it.

    25. Richard Cradock says:

      A friend of mine in Spain who had dived round the wreck told me about this website, I was Man. Director of fishing with Richard Irvin and totaly involved with the contracting and building of the Ben Asdale and 3 other Trawlers in Dieppe. On the night the Asdale broke adrift Iwas contacted by the Coastguard and thereafter was continually on ‘phone with they and RAF culdrose until rescue was completed, some time after my Brother(Chairman) and I commissioned a local ArtistJohn Hamiltan to paint in oil 2 paintings of the rescue showing the snow breeches buoy and helicopter we donated one to RAF Culdrose and the other is hanging onthe wall on my top landing here in the house I will try and see how I can send a copy of the painting to this website as I have taken photos of it, She was a wonderful ship in fact i went to Iceland on her maiden voyage.

    26. Richard Cradock says:

      Sorry just realised I made a mistake it was not RAF Culdrose but RNAS. Culdrose apologies to all.

    27. barty coe says:

      great to read the comments. i agree there should be some sort of memorial to all the brave people involvede in the rescue.
      i don,t now if dick remembers me but it would be great if i could possibly have a copy of his painting. a point i would like to make is that a shield was presentes to RNAS Cundrose in recognition of the helicopter crews bravery.

    28. Peter Allen says:

      It has been very moving to read through all of the comments & the recollections of Barty Coe and Commander Mike Norman, as well as the efforts of the Billcliffe family.

      My father was Peter Allen, mate of the Ben Asdale, who was one of the men who were sadly lost on that terrible night.

      I have never met Commander Norman nor any of his colleagues who so bravely risked their lives. Although time has passed, my mother, brothers & I (and no doubt many others) will be forever thankful for all that they did on that New Year’s Eve.

    29. Jill Moran (nee Whitehead) says:

      Hello to Michael and Peter Billcliffe. Together with their brothers Graham and Ian, plus their parents Sam and Vera, and Grandma, I remember you all so well. My parents, Don and Kate (Kit) Whitehead used to bring me to the Crag every year for our summer holidays and I have such fond memories of it. I was devastated when I learned it had burned to the ground. I knew nothing of the wreck, so it has been very interesting reading about it.

    30. I am an Art student at University College Falmouth and I have been really inspired by the shipwreck on recent spearfishing adventures. After sifting through the internet I came across this brilliant page and its very inspiring to hear the stories that have emerged from this event.
      Are any of the Billcliffe brothers or Barty Coe based in or near Falmouth?! Im embarking on a project on the story and the shipwreck and I am also thinking thinking of designing a memorial on Newporth Head, and even organising doing something on December 7th this year to remember those who lost their lives. Let me know what you all think and It would be great to hear back from anyone! My email is: freddie@strickland.co.uk

    31. I do apologise I meant December 30th.

    32. Mike Clouston says:

      Firstly, I’d like to correct the date – It was December 30th 1978, not 1979 when the incident occurred.
      I was one of the regular Coastguards called out that night along with the Falmouth Auxiliary Coastguard team. Two colleagues and I went straight to Maenporth Beach and then walked up to Newporth Head where we could see the Ben Asdale driving ashore. It was a foul night with Easterly storm force 10 winds and blinding snow being blown up over the cliff face.
      When the trawler first came ashore she was more or less upright on the rocks. The first rocket line we fired connected with the ship and the whips were hauled out by the trawler’s crew. Almost as soon as the whips were made fast to the mast and we were preparing to haul out the hawser on which the breeches buoy would travel, the trawler capsized away from the cliff and very soon all her lighting was extinguished. I told George Nielson, the Coastguard District Controller, that the whips were jammed solid and wouldn’t render. The Boss instructed Porthleven rescue team to be called out and to attend with their breeches buoy equipment and also asked for helicopter assistance if it was available.
      The helicopter that night did an amazing job. First of all it took off inside the hangar at RNAS Culdrose and then flew out over Mullion and then right round the Lizard and up to Maenporth at very low altitude to prevent icing in the atrocious condition.
      When winching, helicopters like the wind more or less on their nose. In this situation this meant that the helicopter had to fly in backwards over the wreck to pick up each survivor. The weather was such that this was very hazardous. A regular Coastguard Officer, Charles Robinson, conned the helicopter in each time from the clifftop on a portable radio.
      The first man to be picked up was one of two who had climbed out over the bows and were hanging on to the anchor. As he was being winched the winch wire fouled the helicopter’s wheel sponson and couldn’t hoist the survivor into the aircraft. The helicopter had to fly out to sea to get away from the cliffs with the survivor swinging underneath. The helicopter then reduced altitude until the survivor was in the sea and his weight came off the winch wire which was then able to be freed by the winchman. The poor survivor said afterwards that he thought he was going to die for a second time that night with the helicopter crashing down on top of him!
      After some time all the surviving crew were taken off by the helicopter and all were landed at RNAS Culdrose where they were immediately snowed in!
      We stood down around 5 a.m. and after a few hairy moments on the road in my Maxi car we managed to get home. Later that same morning we carried out a search for the missing man – I believe he was the other man on the anchor – he was eventually found buried in a pile of seaweed that had been washed ashore. All that could be seen was one of his arms sticking out.
      Not an experience I want to repeat.
      I still think of that night in that quiet period between Christmas and New Year.

    33. vincent chisholm says:

      hello jack and peter,About 1966 1969 i had the privilage of sailing with peter, your grandad-dad on the Ben Torc, i was his apprentice.

    34. pauline says:

      I remember having pictures done at this ship the summer after it happened,i have looked on the internet for years trying to find this. so sad about the crew.

    35. Mike Billcliffe says:

      Very nice to read the comments from all those that remember the Crag Hotel and our family. I remember many of you, especially Jill Whitehead and your family, as well as Jillian Fowler, in fact we played as kids growing up on Maenporth beach with a lot of you in the 60′s and 70′s. Unfortunately our parents, Sam and Vera, as well as our Gran and youngest brother Iain are now gone, they are together in Mawnan Church cemetery.
      On a strange note though, the night the Asdale went aground was the night before my engagement to a girl from the North East (Newcastle), almost exactly the same place as the crew came from.

    36. Richard says:

      I am from Penryn and grew up always looking out for a glimpse the wreck of the Ben Asdale when in the car coming down the hill to Maenporth from the Mawnan direction. It was a really moving sight every time I saw it, I was 7 when she floundered and gradually watched her deteriorate down the years. I have recently started kayaking and was out off Maenporth last week, saying to my 7 year old son to look out for the wreck. Sadly we didn’t spot anything, does anyone know how much is left or if its accessible by kayak?

    37. TIM CARELESS (carelesstim@hotmail.co.uk) wrote:
      Hi Richard. The last time I saw the wreck was in 2011. The ship was pretty broken up, but there were still some substantial chunks left when I saw it. It is best seen when the tide is out and you can walk to it over the rocks. My son and I did hire a kayak and we did go right up to it when the tide was in.

    38. Pete Holmes says:

      I remember as a 15 year old climbing over the rocks to view the wreck. It must have been not long after the incident as the ship was very much intact. I seem to remember someone had painted ‘Danger of Explosion’ or something similar on the wheelhouse, I think this was to deter people from climbing into the wreck.
      I also remember getting cut of from the beach by the incoming tide & having to up the rocks to the path above.
      Amazing to hear the bravery of the rescuers & sadness at the loss of life of the crew.

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