Sole Survivor: the Many Lives of Hugh Williams

In that arm of the see that departeth between this island Mon and North Wales is a swelowe that draweth to schippes that seileth and sweloweth hem yn, as doth Scylla and Charybdis – therefore we may nouzt seile by this swalowe but slily at the full see.

[Quoted from a medieval document: see ‘The Menai Strait’ (Welsh: ‘Y Fenai’) by Gwyn Pari Huws and Terry Beggs, Gwasg Gomer Press (2003/2002)]

The paragraph above describes a treacherous stretch of shallow water off the coast of Wales. Roughly 16 miles long, it is notorious for the “Swellies”, dangerous whirlpools that historically smashed boats to pieces.

How many boats? Modern estimates are in the 300 range, at a cost of life numbering in the thousands.

Enough to inspire a book:

wales book
Ivor Wayne Jones, Landmark Publishing Ltd, 2003. 4th Edition.

Enough for there to be a map:

Adapted from a map by R.J. Karn for Planaship Maritime Publications, Cornwall 1984

And enough for there to be a myth…

Enter Hugh Williams:


On December 5th, 1665, a ship wrecked in the Menai Strait:

There was only one survivor.

His name was Hugh Williams…

On Dec 5th, 1785, a boat wrecked on the Isle of Man, in the Menai Strait:

There was only one survivor.

His name was Hugh Williams…

And finally, in 1820, a third vessel sank in the Menai Strait:

There was only one survivor.

His name was Hugh Williams…

(The exact date on this one is ambiguous – older sources (see Francis Coghlan’s Guide to North Wales, 1860) – give August 5th as the date; modern retellings tend to go for Dec. 5th, most likely for dramatic effect).

Finally, on August 19th, 1889, a coal barge sank. This time, there were two survivors.

One was named…

Hugh Williams.

The other survivor was his nephew, who happened to be named…

(Wait for it, wait for it!)

Yes, Hugh Williams…


What can we discern from this tale?

The first is a point about the Anglicization of Welsh names, which had become a practice during medieval and post-medieval times. In other words, Hugh Williams is not an uncommon Welsh name.

The second is that many boats and lives were taken by the Swellies, enough to warrant a comparison to the Strait of Messina that Odysseus had to traverse (quoted at the beginning).

Given enough time, and enough wrecks, there is a possibility — albeit it slim – that a Hugh Williams would be a recurring sole survivor.

There is however, a solid problem with that line of reasoning.

It’s no fun.


So what’s the real take-away here?

If you find yourself at sea, consider changing your name…

Or as I like to say,

Call me Hugh.


Let’s exit the many lives of Hugh Williams with a quote from Charles Fort, who spent a lifetime collecting odd sets of data that traditional science wrote off as “coincidental” or “anomalous”, and which Fort called “Damned” (see his master work, The Book of the Damned, for more):

But my liveliest interest is not so much in things, as in relations of things. I have spent much time thinking about the alleged pseudo-relations that are called coincidences. What if some of them should not be coincidences?

– Charles Fort, Wild Talents, Chapter 2.

If nothing else, I imagine that at least one of the Hugh Williams might agree…

The HMS Conway, a naval training ship, was destroyed by the Swellies in 1953. Public Domain. There were no casualties, and no Hugh Williams(s) aboard.
Image of the Menai Strait and Suspension bridge, Wikipedia. Used under the CC 3 share-alike license.

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