Days of Sail and Oar: The First RNLI Lifeboats

Although the RNLI was involved in providing funds for the early lifeboats, the station was only fully taken over in 1866, when the lifeboat Broadwater was placed “on station" at Ilfracombe. A boathouse was built at the foot of Lantern Hill, and, enlarged from time to time, it housed the Ilfracombe lifeboats until the completion of the new boathouse at the head of the inner harbour. The Broadwater, built on the Thames, was of a standard self-righting type, 32 feet long, and rowing 10 oars. She made 9 effective services and saved a total of 45 lives. The first, and one of her most distinguished services, was in April, 1867, to the full-rigged ship ‘Nor’Wester’ of Boston, USA, bound for Montevideo with a cargo of coal, and in grave danger, dragging her anchors, off Morte Point in a severe north-west storm. The captain’s wife and children were lowered by basket into the lifeboat, which brought them safely to Ilfracombe. The lifeboat returned to the ship, and, at the captain’s further request, stood by all night in case of need. Fortunately, by the morning, the wind had abated, and the ship was towed back to Cardiff.

Off Bull Point and Morte Point, to the west of Ilfracombe, when tidal currents ebbing over rocky shoals are met by westerly gales, heavy breaking seas build up very quickly. Changes in wind direction can turn sheltered bays into dangerous lee shores. Recognising these hazards, the RNLl opened an auxiliary lifeboat station to Ilfracombe on the shores of Morte Bay in 1871. A lifeboat house was built, at a cost of £185.10s, on land given by Sir Bruce Chichester. This building can still be seen on Woolacombe Beach.

The first Morte Bay Lifeboat, on station at Woolacombe, was crewed by lifeboatmen from Ilfracombe. She was 33 feet long and rowed by ten oars. Originally called the ‘Jack-a-Jack’, she was intended as a gift from the Society of Bristol Shipmasters in the Africa Trade, but they failed to meet the cost. The name was changed to ‘Grace Woodbury’ in 1872 when a different legacy met the cost of this lifeboat. She was launched to the brigantine ‘Annie Arby’ of Dublin, disabled by easterly gales on December 16, 1874, but its crew of seven were rescued by Co-Operator No 2 from Ilfracombe.

Launching through surf on an open beach had its problems, and in the 29-year history of the Morte Bay station, the only successful service of its lifeboat was to the steamship ‘Lynx’, beached after springing a leak off Morte Point on March 6, 1883. The following day a heavy swell built up, and the crew was landed safely by the lifeboat. The steamer was now abandoned, but salvaged by the lifeboat crew and towed to Appledore. The ‘Grace Woodbury’ was "sold out of the service" in 1892, and replaced by the larger 36 foot, 12-oared ‘Theophilus Sydney Echalaz’. This lifeboat carried out no services and was transferred to Watchet when the Morte Bay station was closed in 1900.

ln 1886 a new lifeboat was provided at Ilfracombe, the Co-operator No. 2, a gift from the Co-operative Wholesale Society. She was one of the standard 34 ft self-righters, pulling 10 oars, and during her time at Ilfracombe she was launched on senrice 9 times and is credited with the saving of 4 lives. These four were saved in 1890 from the ketch-rigged trawler ‘Pioneer’ of Brixham, which had lost her sails and been badly damaged in a full gale with very heavy seas.

Two years later, a second, and larger Co-operator No. 2, 37 ft and 12-oared, was presented by the same Society. She made a distinguished service to the trawling ketch ‘Olive and Mary’ of Brixham in appalling weather conditions. The ketch was totally disabled, west of Lundy, by mountainous seas which had washed away her sails, bowsprit, main boom, bulwarks and compass. She was eventually towed to safety after a difficult passage, with her crew of four. A similar service was made in 1904 to the fishing boat ‘Bonnie Lad’ of Sennen Cove, which had lost its mast and sails in severe gale force winds. After a night of pumping and baling, the father and son crew were found in an exhausted and helpless condition. They were rescued, and their craft towed back to Ilfracombe. The lifeboat’s only First World War service was to the steamship ‘Bengrove’ of Liverpool, torpedoed 5 miles north-east of Ilfracombe. Risking a similar fate, the lifeboat rescued her crew of 33.

In September 1916, co-opertor No. 2 made the twenty-mile voyage to Lundy in only three hours in a full gale of wind. The service return for the passage notes that the seas were "very heavy" and "feathery white". It records that the boat "filled with water over a hundred times", and that the crew, despite protective oilskins, were "soon drenched to the skin".

Early records, give an interesting picture of conditions and problems experienced in rowing/sailing lifeboats, as well as the harshness of life in a community dependent on the sea. Lifeboats would be sailed to a casualty if the winds were from a favourable direction. The sails could be "reefed down" (reduced in area) in severe weather. When alongside a casualty, the lifeboat would be manoeuvred by oars, requiring fine judgement by the coxswain and skilled teamwork by the crew. Launches were to small fishing vessels caught by sudden changes in the weather, or to boats which had run aground in fog. In a particularly poignant case, the lifeboat was not able to save a woman who was picking laver on rocks to the east of Combe Martin. She was washed away by the rising tide and drowned. The service return for the attempted rescue reports: "Date, December 3, 1903. Weather, very cold with sleet and hail; heavy ground sea."

Sometimes there were problems communicating with casualties. On one service return, (see example) under "Names of Master and Owner", the entry simply states, "Cannot say. Frenchman."(!) ln the days before radio-communications, signal flags were used, but the true extent of a distress could only be assessed when the lifeboat actually arrived "on scene". Communications onshore, however, were relatively efficient owing to the use of telephone and messengers. All coastal villages had coastguards observing the movements of shipping. They would be permanently on watch during daylight hours, and throughout the night when there was an emergency, or when the weather was foul. Lighthouse keepers, who had telephones, were another important source of information.

Launching the lifeboat in these early days had its difficulties, particularly at low tide in the exposed outer harbour. The lifeboat was hauled in and out on ropes, by at least 60 men, many of whom entered the water. In their enthusiasm, they were on one occasion paid the dubious compliment of “taking to the water like rats". During one call-out a gentleman observing the scene had his "trousers ripped from top to bottom" in a launching accident. He was satisfied with a replacement pair "not to cost more than 10 shillings" and "two bottles of embrocation" to relieve any bruising!

A local newspaper, round about 1950, interviewed the 83-year-old John Comer, who had been coxswain for 28 years at Ilfracombe, and for 10 years at Morte Bay. The account describes how he first pulled a lifeboat oar at 17 in the Broadwater. He said, "We used to go out in terrible weather sometimes, and there were times when it seemed impossible that we should get back to the harbour." He described a service which lasted seven hours, to a Newquay boat, The ‘Mary Orr’, in difficulty off Lundy. "On another occasion," he said, "l think the worst gale l remember was blowing at the time — we were called out to a vessel in distress on this side of Lundy; we were out from 9.00p.m. one day until the following mid-day. Then we had to get alongside a pilot boat to get some hot coffee to revive the crew. The cold was intense."

Mr Comer remembered a very busy Ilfracombe of his youth, with both inner and outer harbours full, and as many as 38 ships coming in on one tide, the smaller vessels replaced in time by the bigger steamships. About smuggling, he said there was plenty of it done in his young day; he could remember being told an old story of a "Spanish galleon going down at Rapparee, and the dead being buried on the cliffs". Mr Comer saw the disappearance of the small quay cottages, and the decline of Ilfracombe as a fishing port. "When l was a young man," he said, "it was possible to make a good living out of fishing, but today it is a great struggle. The herring season was then a regular harvest, and I have caught as many as 12 to 14 maze at a time. The lowest these were sold for was 12 shillings a maze." At 83 Mr Comer was still fishing off his boat ‘Martha’. He felt that the young lads he saw going about had a soft job. "We used to work hard", he said.

In 1921, the ageing Co-operator No. 2 went out of service. By this time she had made 40 service launches, saved 39 lives and landed 55 people who had been in danger. She was replaced by the Richard Crawley, a more modern 37 ft. self-righting lifeboat. Her services included the saving of 5 lives and the landing of over 50 passengers from the paddle steamship ‘S.S. Cambria’ which ran aground in thick fog at Rilledge Point in 1926. By 1935 the ageing Richard Crawley was considered to be obsolete. Local concern was reported in the "Ilfracombe Chronicle". After effective lobbying of the RNLI by the Ilfracombe Branch Committee, the provision of the Rosabella in 1936 ended the era of pulling sailing Iifeboats at llfracombe.