THE Lizzie Bell was 1036 tonnes of iron. Built in 1887, the three-masted barque sailed out of Glasgow in 1901, full of metal, pipes and pig iron. Its destination? The New Zealand port of Dunedin – some 11,705 miles away as the albatross flies. Sailing under its Welsh captain – John Rees – the ship seems to have made this long voyage south safely, only narrowly avoiding a prang in a gale with the Ninety Mile Beach which forms the spear-tip of New Zealand’s North Island. The Lizzie Bell arrived to drop its cargo in Dunedin and Wellington before being appointed to an onward voyage to Newcastle, New South Wales.

My grandfather’s father – Maurice Mends Tickell – was an apprentice sailor onboard. Maurice was born in Arcachon in the Aquitaine on September 14 1882. Like the majority of the men who shared the barque’s two iron decks, Maurice was a young man when he took to water – a teenager, literally learning the ropes in the merchant navy. Like Maurice, the Lizzie Bell’s crew were mostly young, mostly single, mostly childless. Captain Rees may have been a grizzled old salt, but the men under his command were anything but ancient mariners. As one contemporary report noted, “with the exception of the cook, whose wife is at home, all were single men”.

At 11am on the morning the of July 24 1901, the Lizzie Bell set sail from Wellington in fine weather, nudged by fair winds. By 11.00pm that evening, her 18-man crew were fighting for their lives in the freezing darkness. Most lost them.

Stick a compass in 216-foot iron ship and its needles will begin to tremble. As it cut north, the Lizzie Bell’s lookouts kept their eyes peeled for land and peeled for perils. But nobody seems to have recognised the danger they found themselves in, as the ship veered some 45 miles off course in the dead of night. Was the captain on the hooch? Was it a side-effect of the metallic bulk of the ship? Was it old-fashioned incompetence? Maurice had been on a day watch and was idling in his cabin when, at a good lick, under full canvass, the Lizzie Bell’s elegant iron profile smashed into the spars of the Waimate Reef.

Hull met rock around a mile from land. Rock also met human bodies. Two of the crew were thrown from the deck as the reef tore through the Bell’s carapace like a lance through plate mail. The sailors’ bodies were recovered later, battered between the stricken ship and the reefs. A cry of “all hands!” went out in the darkness, and 16 surviving sailors raced to the ship’s lifeboat, with Captain Rees the last man to step clear of his punctured vessel. For an hour or more, the survivors tethered their life-raft to the barque, as the waves barracked and tossed it, and eventually broke her back.

Disorientated, they cut the line and floated free. As the Hawera and Normanby Star reported the day later, the night they loosed themselves into “was bitterly cold”, the wind keen, the sea surging and slapping. Half a mile from the barque, the lifeboat capsized for the first time. Although the crew managed to right the rescue boat, the occupants lost their oars and their balers, as the sea ice crept through them. By this time, they’d lost all count of time and position.

The National:

I grew up on the coast. As a kid I had a superstitious anxiety – which is probably fundamental to the human consciousness – about what lay beneath the surface of the placid-seeming sea-lochs which slurped around the edges of Argyll. In the absence of any real horror, my imagination conjured up all the terrible things that might lurk in the depths I was paddling over. I used to imagine sharp-toothed conger eels could surge up to snap a foot, devour a toe or two, nibble on an elbow. Or a careless whale shark might swallow me. None ever did. But whether the sea is a glassy calm or a barrack of waves, you can never quite make out what moves in the shadows, what could spring from the kelp, what weird things shudder among the rocks where crabs creep and starfish sparkle. The horror of that night Maurice and his shipmates spend waiting to die on the Taranaki coast defies description. He more than lived through my childhood nightmares.

Breton sailors used to sing “la mer est si grande et ma barque est si petite” – “ how large the sea, how small my boat”. None of us can really understand the sentiment behind the song like any sailor who has felt the bottom going out under their boat, forced to brave the deeps.

In July 1901, the Lizzie Bell’s lifeboat flipped a second time – trapping six under the surf. Some emerged still determined to do battle for their lives, the more exhausted sank never to rise. Unable to navigate, barely afloat, “the poor shivering fellows had to sit up to their middles in water” as they drifted towards land. Apprentice Alfred Jones, 19, died in the captain’s arms. Two more found the strength to leave the boat when she landed, but collapsed dead, being found among the rocks hours later. The rest “laid on the sand till daylight” while two of the less battered souls forged into land in search of help. They found it. The living were tended. The dead were honourably buried.

This week, I saw Maurice’s young, mildly glaikit-looking face for the first time. Because of the wonders of the internet, and quite by accident, I came across a photograph of the six survivors, published in a local paper in New Zealand, reporting local commemorations of the 12 men who did not survive. It was a strange and unexpected encounter.

Most of all, it made me think we’re all creatures of contingency. Generations of us only walk this green earth because our grandfathers dodged bullets, because mortar shells crashed into this trench rather than that one, because the shrapnel splintered this way and not that way, because a soldier you never knew closed his eyes and shot to miss. Maurice’s story is no different – or not much different.

You can’t live – fully live – if you spend your time mulling over all of the contingent choices – all the flukes, blessings and happenstances which make every one of our existences possible. But having looked the teenaged Maurice in the eye for the first time this week, I keep thinking back to that bleak night in July he had the dumb luck to live through more than 100 years ago. I somehow can’t but think of all the what ifs.

What if Maurice had been on the watch that night rather than in his berth? What if he had chosen another place in the lifeboat? What if a wave had caught him by the ankles like it caught Charles Chappell and Alfred Jones – both 19, both apprentices, both boys – pulled to their deaths below the waterline?

Much of the wreck of the Lizzie Bell, in time, washed up on shore. Its spar made for a flag pole. The ship’s bell – which cried alarm on the night of July 24 1901 – eventually washed up too. For nearly 100 years afterwards, the tolling of that bell was used to call Oeo primary schoolers from play into their classes. I wonder how many – if any – of the Kiwi kids thought about where the clatter came from and how it came to be part of the percussion of their young lives. Part of me hopes not. The living should get on with living.

Thirty years after the Lizzie Bell was wrecked, the poet Keith Douglas implored the world to “remember me when I am dead, and simplify me when I am dead”. We look at the past through what Douglas called “time’s wrong-way telescope” which can only show “a minute man 10 years hence, and by distance simplified”.

Maurice and me never talked. I can’t know what kind of man he was, or what kind of man he became. I can’t know why he kept paintings of the Lizzie Bell – down all the years which followed – which now hang on the walls in my parents’ house. I can’t really know what it meant to him, to survive that dark.