Family treasure restored to owner

An award for bravery makes its way home

Eldon Rankin proudly displays his award from The Royal Humane Society. - Photo: Taneos Ramsay

Some family possessions are more precious than others. In the case of Eldon Rankin’s family, very few items held more pride-of-place than an award presented to Rankin in 1972 for extraordinary bravery.

As unfortunately was the case with many residents of Grand Cayman, Hurricane Ivan – which hit in Sept. 2004 – swept away heirlooms, irreplaceable photographs, and even homes. One of the victims of the storm was Rankin’s award. It disappeared from its wall, never to be found.

Many years passed, until Rankin’s daughter, Anya Rankin-Christian, found a clue that would take her on a long journey to have the treasured memento replaced.

This is the story, in her words:
On 23 Dec., 1971, a freak storm (referred to as a Biami by the older Caymanians) occurred in the George Town harbour, which caused two marine vessels to crash onto the iron shore: m.v. Sharon Michelle and m.v. Gulf Star. This storm came out of nowhere, and brought with it strong winds, heavy rain, and huge waves with ocean swells. Although it only lasted for about an hour, it caused significant damage to both vessels, claimed the life of one captain, and almost drowned other crew members.
On this occasion, my father, Eldon Rankin, (who was just 13 days shy of his 25th birthday) happened to be at the harbour along with Oliver Hill and Ernest Fisher. My dad and these two gentlemen displayed incredible bravery and courage, putting their own lives at risk by jumping into the water to save the crew members who were drowning. My dad and Mr. Fisher also climbed aboard the Gulf Star (despite the tumultuous rocking of the boat and the massive crashing waves) and secured the crew members on board with ropes which they tied to themselves. This act was no easy feat, and several times the boat almost capsized during their efforts.

Award presentation
As a result of my dad’s bravery and the bravery of Messrs Hill and Fisher, and with the incident officially documented by the local police, governor’s office, and many eyewitnesses, the Royal Humane Society (instituted in 1774 and of which Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II is a patron) bestowed official honours on these three gentlemen.

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Mr. Hill received the society’s bronze medal and certificate, whilst Mr. Fisher and my Dad both received the Testimonial-on-Vellum. These awards were publicly presented by Commodore Cameron Rusby, M.V.O – Senior Naval Officer, West Indies, in Oct. 1972 during the official programme for the visit of the Royal Navy frigate, H.M.S. Plymouth.

My father’s award was proudly displayed on the wall above his front door from the day of receipt, and he would proudly recall the chain of events to anyone who asked about it.

The loss
The award remained a fixture in its sacred space on the wall for 32 years until 2004 when Hurricane Ivan struck. Although my dad’s home was not badly damaged, the award mysteriously disappeared and was never found or seen again.

In all the years that followed, Daddy would often look up at the wall where the award used to be, and I could see his disappointment for the loss of something that was so sentimental to him. I’d always ask him if he ever figured out what became of it, and he always replied that he didn’t have any idea. I often wished that I could find the award for him, and I wondered if there was any way to replace it, but I hadn’t the faintest clue about who to speak to or where to begin my search.

Decades later
One fateful day in Dec. 2017, I was scrolling through Facebook and I came across some old photos that had been posted by Andrea Martinez-Calderon. These photos were various excerpts from some old Nor’wester magazines that she had saved and preserved in mint condition. One article in particular featured a photo of my dad and Oliver Hill and gave details of the event and subsequent awards that were presented. I couldn’t believe my eyes or my good fortune, and I contacted Ms. Andrea immediately to ask her permission to copy the magazine. She very kindly obliged.

The search begins
This article gave me my long-awaited starting point, and I immediately got to work. After speaking with several government officials, I was directed to contact Samuel Rose and Kristy Watler of the Protocol Office. My first email was sent in Jan. 2018, and I expressed my keen desire to obtain a replacement award to present to my dad for his next birthday. This process proved to be much more difficult than I could have ever imagined.

After many emails back and forth between the Protocol Office and myself, submission of relative information and documented evidence, procurement and payment of a draft for the UK foreign office, reimbursement of said draft, dead ends, official UK contacts who went missing in action, and a host of other hurdles and roadblocks, I was about ready to give up.

Every time I followed up with the Protocol Office, they were unable to provide any updated information as they had also hit a wall on their end. It became a very disheartening endeavour and I was filled with sadness because I thought I’d never get the opportunity to present my dad with his replacement award.

Patience rewarded
Just when I thought all hope was completely lost, I sent what I thought would be my final email to Mr. Rose and Ms. Watler in Dec. 2019. Imagine my shock, elation and joy when just days later I received a video call from Mr. Rose and Ms. Walter showing me that my 23-month-long mission had finally come to an end. Their office had received the replacement award along with a copy of the extract of the minutes from the Royal Humane Society’s official record book, where the minutes of each and every meeting and all subsequent decisions regarding awards were kept.

This was by far the absolute best gift I could have ever received for Christmas, and I was completely overwhelmed with raw, unbridled emotion (I ‘cow-bawled’ for about 10 minutes). My journey had come to an end just five weeks shy of the two-year mark, and three weeks shy of my dad’s 73rd birthday.

It was very difficult to contain my excitement, but I managed to remain silent about everything until 5 Jan. when I presented the award to my dad as his gift at his surprise birthday dinner. Needless to say, our family was quite impressed with the story, and my dad was so happy and extremely touched. The look on his face was worth every moment of stress, disappointment, and hopelessness, and I am so happy and thankful that I was able to do this for my dad in his living years.

None of this would have been possible without Samuel Rose and Kristy Watler of the Protocol Office, and I am eternally grateful to them for never giving up the search, for never getting annoyed with my many emails and messages, for staying the course when their contact went missing, and for making a daughter’s dream come true.

Thanks also to Terri Merren and Dwight Panton for obtaining the photo of my dad on the iron shore from Nancy Watler’s collection and subsequently sharing it with me.

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