Salcombe RNLI - Saving Lives At Sea Since 1869

Post by: Dee White
09 May 2019

This year Salcombe RNLI celebrates its 150th Anniversary. The current station is operated by a team or 34 local men and women, 21 sea going, 12 shore-based and 1 Lifeboat Medical Adviser. They have 2 boats, a 25 knot Tamar Class All Weather Lifeboat “The Baltic Exchange III” and a 35 knot B Class Inshore Lifeboat “Gladys Hilda Mustoe”.

With this strong team of boats and volunteer crew they are able to meet their mission which is to reach any casualty, in all weathers, up to 10 miles of the Station within 30 mins of receiving an initial request from the Coastguard.

A potted history

A slightly different scenario exists now from the early days when, in 1869 their first boat was a ten-oared, self-righter named “Rescue”. The Lifeboat Station was established following the wreck of the clipper ship “Gossamer” of Liverpool in December of the previous year, with the loss of 13 lives. The Earl of Devon presented the site for the boat-house at South Sands and the High Sherriff of Devon, Richard Durant Esq provided the funds for both the lifeboat and the new building. The lifeboat house was completed in 1870 at a cost of £285.

In 1887 “Rescue” was replaced by “ON142 Lesty”, a self-righting pulling and sailing lifeboat, which remained in commission until 1904 when it was replaced by a Liverpool class lifeboat named “ON524 William and Emma”.

On 27 October 1916 this lifeboat suffered a tragic accident when she capsized at Salcombe Harbour entrance, drowning 13 of her crew of 15.

She had gone to the aid of Plymouth schooner “Western Lass” which had run onto the rocks to the east of Prawle Point in a furious gale. The schooner’s crew were rescued by the coastguard, but it was not possible for them to communicate with the lifeboat. A new boat “Sarah Ann Holden” arrived in April 1917 and in spite of the difficulties of the war, a new crew of 13 was readily assembled.

In 1922 the lifeboat moved from South Sands to a permanent mooring in the harbour, but the station closed 3 years later and the lifeboat was withdrawn from service. It was reopened in 1930 with the former Torbay motor lifeboat “ON672 Alfred and Clara Heath” placed on service. This boat lasted for 8 years and was replaced by a Watson class motor lifeboat “ON805 Samuel and Marie Parkhouse”. This lifeboat was called out to aid the Belgian Steamer “Tajandoen” which was sunk by enemy action on 7 December 1939. A Silver Medal was awarded to Coxswain Edwin W. Distin and Bronze Medals to each of the other seven crew members for the rescue of 62 survivors on the Belgian Steamer. They had been picked up by another Belgian Steamer which herself went ashore in Bigbury Bay. The Lifeboat rescued them all and the cox was commended for his magnificent seamanship both in crossing the bar in heavy seas and in getting alongside the steamer. Four years later, in 1944 the same cox was awarded a Bronze Medal for the rescue in an easterly gale and very high seas of 11 people from the Admiralty Salvage craft “LC18” in distress on The Skerries to the east of Start Point. The lifeboat was launched at 22.15 on 4 December and the cox was forced to take her alongside four times before the crew could be persuaded to jump aboard. The “Samuel and Marie Parkhouse” was the last lifeboat in the RNLI fleet to be called out on service during World War ll. At one minute to midnight on 7 May 1945 she had a call from the Norwegian Mine Sweeper No.382 which had hit a mine 15 miles off Berry Head. The war in Europe ended the very next day, but sadly no survivors were found from the minesweeper.

In 1962 the lifeboat was withdrawn and replaced by another Watson class “ON964 The Baltic Exchange”, funded by the Baltic Exchange of London. Centenary Vellum was awarded to Salcombe Lifeboat Station in 1969 and in 1972 the Thanks of the Institution inscribed on Vellum was awarded to Coxswain Hubert W. Distin for recuing, by breeches buoy, 5 crew of the Belgian fishing trawler “Amelie Suzanne” in a strong westerly wind and poor visibility. Vellum service certificates were awarded to the 6 crew members. Hubert Distin was the son of the aforementioned Edwin Distin. Bravery and good seamanship obviously runs in the family.

More Vellum certificates were awarded to the cox and crew in 1979 in recognition of their part in the rescue of 3 crew from the coaster “Heye P” off Prawle Point. They manoeuvred close to dangerous rocks to illuminate the scene while the helicopter was able to perform the rescue. In 1983 the lifeboat capsized while on a mission to an upturned inflatable dinghy. The cox and crew were commended for their fortitude and determination. 1988 saw a Tyne class lifeboat “ON1130 The Baltic Exchange II” replacing the old one. This lifeboat was involved in several rescues. In 1992 she took the 1,200 ton coaster “Janet C” in tow and held her off the rocks at Start Point for 3 hours while they waited for a tug. This was in force 8 onshore winds and violent seas.

1992 saw the Lifeboat Station substantially modernised with improved crew facilities and a new museum and shop. In 1997 the relief lifeboat “Mariners Friend” was launched to go to the aid of the cargo vessel “Ina” aground near Bolt Head with engine failure. The wind was a south easterly Force 7 Near Gale and the sea was up to 3 metres high with rain squalls and visibility reduced to 3 cables. With great skill the lifeboat crew were able to secure a tow line and pull “Ina” slowly away from the rocks.

In 2002 the cox involved in the “Janet C” rescue, Frank Smith, was awarded the MBE in the New Year’s Honours List and was presented with his medal at Buckingham Palace.

Salcombe’s first inshore lifeboat, the B class Atlantic 75, “B-797 Joan Bate” was placed on service in 2003, funded by the generous bequest of Miss Joan Bate. This was followed by the building of a new slipway and extensive improvements to the ILB boathouse and ALB berth at a cost of £884,336. The ALB was replaced in 2008 by a new Tamar class lifeboat “ON1289 The Baltic Exchange III” and Chris Winzar was appointed as Coxswain. He leads the current team which includes Iaian Dundas and Adam Lilley, who were awarded Certificates of Appreciation for their initiative and exceptional first aid skills when attending an injured man on board fishing vessel “Sasha Emeil”, and Cameron Sims-Sterling who received a Letter of Appreciation for his part in the rescue. Helmsman Sam Viles and crew members Esther McLarty and Matt Davies were commended for the skilful and daring rescue of a surfer in treacherous seas in Soar Mill Cove.

Salcombe ALB “The Baltic Exchange III” in Salcombe Harbour. Photo by Dee White

The Centenary of the Salcombe Lifeboat Disaster was commemorated on 27 October 2016 by a service led by the Bishop of Plymouth followed by a wreath laying ceremony over the site of the disaster. A new inshore lifeboat, the Atlantic 985, “B-905 Gladys Hilda Mustoe” replaced the “Joan Bate” in 2018.

This year of 2019 the ALB has already been launched on 8 shouts and the ILB on 2, including a solo sailor on a damaged yacht, a sailor with leg injuries from his own propeller, a power boat with engine failure taking on water, a dog fallen down the cliff, paddle boarders in difficulty and a fishing boat with mechanical failure.

The Lifeboat Station Today

The RNLI is a registered charity and relies on voluntary contributions and legacies for its income. It receives no Government funding but in Salcombe, as elsewhere, there is a team of fundraisers who throughout the year hold many events in support of the lifeboats. Some people will comment that the RNLI has plenty of money but when you take a look at their running costs, it is easy to see how quickly that money can disappear. The present AWLB cost £2.7m, the ILB cost £240k. All crew members are provided with their own labelled kit which includes wellies and hard hats. Added to this is the phenomenal cost of fuel for the two vessels when they are taken out on a shout or training exercise.

Photo left: Individual kit for the lifeboat crew. Photo right: The engine room of The Baltic ExchangeIII. Photos by Dee White

The volunteer crew are all employed outside the RNLI doing their day jobs, but are available when required. On average their response times from receiving the initial page to being fully crewed and launched onto the water are 6 minutes for the ILB and 9 minutes for the ALB. In that time the crew must leave their place of work, get to the station, get changed into seagoing gear, prepare and launch the boat. Quite impressive!! The strategic location of Salcombe, being the southernmost tip of Devon with challenging headlands and waters, as well as its proximity to busy shipping lanes and lots of leisure craft, requires the Lifeboat Station to be permanently manned.

This year, as they celebrate 150 years of commitment and service towards the Salcombe Lifeboat, there will be a full programme of events leading up to a Lifeboat Festival over the weekend of 21st to 22nd September.

This spring Salcombe RNLI have been kind enough to arrange four tours around their lifeboats for members of the Prawle Point NCI (Coastwatch) and as a watch keeper myself I was fascinated to see the lifeboats close up and learn from the crew about their equipment, what happens when they are called out on a shout and just how much is involved in running a tight unit such as theirs.

We wish them another 150 successful and prosperous years of Saving Lives at Sea.