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The sinking of the Iolaire

December 2012 | by Maurice Roberts

The sinking of the Iolaire

In the Western Isles, where people over the years have so much depended on boats for their livelihood, many families have become familiar with the experience of bereavement, as news has reached them of vessels lost at sea and their men drowned.

Among the shipwrecks off the Isle of Lewis, probably none has been more tragic or aroused such pathos as that of the Iolaire, which went down in the early hours of 1 January 1919.
Two hundred and five men drowned within sight of the lights of Stornoway. Scarcely a family was left untouched in Lewis by this horrific event. It was described some years ago as ‘the third worst maritime disaster in peace time, yet barely known’.
As the captain himself perished, it has never been fully explained why the ship went aground on waters which were so well known to those on board.

Back from the war

This ship named Iolaire was one of two anchored off Kyle at the end of the First World War. The name of the other ship was the Sheila. Both of these vessels were ready to take home the servicemen from the Western Isles who had survived the fearful ravages of the First World War, which had swept into the grave so many thousands from the field of battle.
The war was now over and weary Highland men were longing to get home to their families and their crofts. They boarded these two ships and were comforted to think that in a few short hours they would be happy with their loved ones in the homes which they had longed to see again.
What no one could yet have known, as the last of the passengers arrived and men settled down for the sea crossing to Stornoway, was that the Iolaire would be wrecked on the notorious rocks known as the Beasts of Holm, just a short distance outside Stornoway itself. But, tragically, this is what happened early on the morning of the New Year.
Over 200 of these tired seamen and soldiers were drowned, virtually within sight of home, and with their family members and friends watching for them to welcome them back home.
A joyous home-coming was transformed into a terrible nightmare. By one means or another, some of the men on board managed to get safely to land. But many died by drowning — almost before the very eyes of their close relatives.

One man’s escape

There is one event in this tragedy which is particularly remarkable. It has a lesson in it from which it is important for us all to learn. One young soldier who had come back home had a most amazing escape.
He had been appointed to travel on the Iolaire with many others, but in fact did not do so. Before the two ships set off that night he had noticed on the Sheila someone whom he recognised and wished to speak with.
In the darkness of night, before the ships sailed, he had quietly slipped across, by means of a rope, from the Iolaire to the Sheila. This change of ship very probably saved his life.
This is a true story and we wish to show that there is an important lesson to be learnt from it. It is this lesson that makes the whole story more than a tragedy.
When we study the Bible we discover that there are really two branches of the human family living in this world, the one heading for heaven and the other for eternal shipwreck.
Each of these ships is headed up by a ‘captain’. In the one case, the captain is our first father Adam; in the other case it is Jesus Christ. The Bible refers to these two men as the ‘first Adam’ and the ‘last Adam’.
Adam, the ‘first man’ has, by sinning against God, brought condemnation and death upon the entire human race by his disobedience in the beginning of history. We can read of this in Genesis chapter 3.
On the other hand, Christ, by his obedience and suffering on the cross, has brought salvation and eternal life to all who put their trust in him. The passages in the New Testament to read in connection with this are Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22-58.
The bad news is that we are all of us, by nature, travelling on the ship of which Adam is the captain. It is very clear from the Bible that, if we are to be saved and taken at last to heaven, we must ‘change ship’ by putting our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Jumping ship

The message of the gospel is to jump ship and to join the company of those who have Jesus Christ as their Master, Lord and Saviour.
To change ship, in this sense, means to become a true follower of Christ, by giving our heart and life to him to save us and to wash us in his blood. It means that we must repent of our sins and place our hope of eternal life in Jesus alone as the ‘captain of salvation’ (Hebrews 2:10).
Those who do not do so are still ‘in Adam’ and are travelling towards eventual shipwreck. But, happily, those who change ship and have Christ as Saviour are travelling safely toward the harbour of heaven, glory and eternal life.
Reader, if you have not yet done so, ought you not to ‘change ship’? There is no time to lose, since we never know how soon our journey in this life will be over. ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved’ (Acts 16:31).
Maurice J. Roberts
This article is taken from The Good News by kind permission of the Free Church Continuing

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