It’s somewhere I always approach with anticipation. That sand-sunk boat on the beach. I remember it from my childhood, when my brothers and I would run down the track towards the golden sands, bucket and spade in hand, pausing briefly to look and consider. We never stopped for long, passing over it on our way to the seashore ahead. But always that curiosity, that desire to see if more had been revealed, if more of its secrets were on show. In the shifting sand its appearance was different every year , but always that tantalisingly small glimpse of the bigger whole, encased in its sand cocoon – just the tips of the wooden prow and stern with their thick iron suspension hooks and, if we were lucky, the wooden sides peeping above the level of the sand. Somehow incongruous, it was an out-of-place curiosity and an object of wonder; a boat sunk beneath the sandy waves, struggling against the engulfing deposits.
That sense of anticipation and curiosity has never left me, and now as an adult, bucket and spade abandoned long ago, I still pause, look and consider that sand-sunk boat on Knockvologan beach. Ever-changing in appearance as the sands shift, it is at the same time somehow solid and unmoving. It is a landmark and a distinctive place, a sunken treasure in its sandy tomb. It is also a little-known memorial to lives lost needlessly at sea and a reminder of wartime fears. For this is no anonymous wreck, no abandoned rowing boat. Instead it is a lifeboat from the Arandora Star, a requisitioned cruise ship torpedoed during the Second World War. Packed full of Italian and German civilian internees and German prisoners of war, she was on her way to internship camps in Canada. Branded enemy aliens and so a threat to national security, most of those on board were simply chip shop owners, ice-cream vendors, shoe makers and the like. Some were Jewish refugees, others had sons serving in the British army. Victims of wartime paranoia. On the morning of the 2nd of July 1940, 75 miles west of Ireland, the Arandora Star was struck by a single torpedo from a German U-boat. Although hundreds were rescued by the Canadian destroyer, the HMCS St. Laurent, more than 800 souls lost their lives that day, and over the following weeks bodies washed up along the Irish and Hebridean coasts. None reached the Isle of Mull, but this single, empty, lifeboat did. Spotted drifting among islands to the west of Mull, it was pulled ashore onto the beach at Knockvologan, where it has slowly been overcome by the sand. This beach where children play has become the final resting place of the Arandora Star lifeboat.
We will never know if this is one of the lifeboats in which survivors crowded before being taken aboard the HMCS St. Laurent, or one of those that were empty. Somehow I hope it helped to save lives, that it was able to fulfill the purpose for which it was made. But whichever it is, I can never now pass that spot without considering the tragedy of that July morning 75 years ago, or of thinking of the lives lost needlessly against the background of war. For Knockvologan beach is a place now marked by the presence of this boat from a 75 year old tragedy, it is a place forever altered by this wood and iron memorial.
Knockvologan beach is located on the southwestern tip of the Isle of Mull, an island off the west coast of Scotland. Although I have always known that the boat buried in the sand at Knockvologan is a lifeboat from the Second World War, it was only recently that I began to search a little deeper and discovered the story of the sinking of the Arandora Star and the connection with the boat at Knockvologan. My information came from this account of the discovery of the Knockvologan boat, as well as http://www.bluestarline.org/arandora.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Arandora_Star . Thank you to Donald Millican for providing the first two photographs from 2006 and 2007.