Forgotten feat of courageous Scottish sea captain

The SS San Francisco was swamped by a massive storm off Nova Scotia. Robert Crighton sailed his ship to the rescue
The SS San Francisco was swamped by a massive storm off Nova Scotia. Robert Crighton sailed his ship to the rescue
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THE forgotten heroics of a Scottish sea captain who risked his life to save 185 people from a stricken American troop ship have been retold in a new book.

Robert Crighton from Port Glasgow came to the rescue of the SS San Francisco off Nova Scotia in 1853 after it was ravaged by a massive storm, then struck by cholera.

He became an instant hero in the United States and was awarded the country’s highest honour, but was greeted with indifference on his return to Scotland.

The drama included Crighton’s crew sending the morale-boosting message to the stricken ship: “Be of good cheer, we will not desert you.”

The lines were later included in a poem about the rescue by Walt Whitman.

Amateur genealogist Clare Abbott took five years to piece together Crighton’s exploits after one of his descendants told her what little he knew of the story.

She hopes that Faithful of Days – The Story of Robert Crighton, Master Mariner – will lead to him finally winning recognition in his Inverclyde birthplace.

Currently, there is no trace of him ever having lived there.

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Ms Abbott, a retired medical information researcher, who lives in Oxfordshire, said: “I just love uncovering stories. I could hardly believe that when Crighton returned to Scotland, no-one took any interest.

“A blue plaque in his home town would be fitting, since King Street, where he was born, still exists.”

Alan Boyd, Crighton’s great-great grandson, who told Ms Abbott about him when they met on a course, said: “I’m absolutely delighted by the book.”

The Bath-based retired engineer said: “My great uncle wrote something about him in the 1960s, but the sad thing is he seems to have been lost in the mists of time.

“My grandmother was his last surviving relative in Scotland.”

In a preface to the book, Mr Boyd wrote: “I am immensely proud to be his descendant and grateful that such a skilled researcher has chosen to apply her talents to leading him out into the sunshine again.”

Crighton was master of the New York-bound clipper Three Bells when he came to the aid of the SS San Francisco during a ten-day storm.

The heavily overloaded vessel, which was taking a US army regiment from New York to California via Cape Horn to keep order during the gold rush, ran into a massive storm. A huge wave swept away some 140 of those on board along with all the lifeboats and spare sails.

Another ship rescued around 100 more before the storm forced the two vessels apart.

Despite being badly damaged itself by the storm, Crighton kept the Three Bells alongside for four days, waiting for the weather to improve.

He was forced to jettison most of the Three Bells’ cargo and food, while the ship had also lost most of its sails.

Crighton was finally able to save all the remaining survivors after another ship arrived to assist.

Ms Abbott wrote: “The essence of Robert’s heroism was not only that he stayed beside the San Francisco for four days when he might have been sailing towards safety, but that he did so even though the chances of success were not very high.”

After landing the survivors in New York to a hero’s welcome, he was presented with the freedom of the city.

More than 12 years later, he was awarded the Congressional Medal, the US’s most distinguished civil award and one of only a few presented to foreigners.

It was engraved: “Testimonial of national gratitude for his gallant conduct. Capt Robert Crighton, ship Three Bells.”

Crighton was also awarded $7,500 but is not clear whether the ship’s owners took the money.

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