The steamer, ‘Monte Gurugu’ of Bilbao, loaded with a cargo of coal, had left Newport, South Wales, bound for Genoa on November 12. Conditions in the Bristol Channel were the worst for many years, and after being pounded by heavy seas for many hours, her rudder was wrenched away by a particularly vicious wave. The crippled vessel was now at the mercy of the elements, and very soon her hull was damaged and the cargo hold flooded. There was only time for the briefest radio message; "Send help quickly. Now abandon ship." In the tradition of the nearest vessel going to the assistance of a stricken ship, the tanker ‘Fort Frederica struggled through heavy seas to find the abandoned ‘Monte Gurugu’ burning fiercely. By this time her Spanish crew had drifted in the ship’s lifeboats for many miles, and were desperately seeking a place to land. Meanwhile the coastguard had called out the lifeboats at Clovelly, Appledore and Ilfracombe in response to their distress flares.
At llfracombe the maroons were fired at 6.58 a.m. and the Richard Silver Oliver was launched at 7.18 a.m. The Hon. Sec.’s report reads: "Response to call exceptionally good. Have doubts as to the possibility of boat being able to get outside pier, owing to north-west gale, and exceptionally heavy sea. Consulted coxswain, instantaneous request from him to order boat put to sea. Boat heavily swamped before getting past pier and shipped heavy seas past Capstan Point, but continued to make headway towards Morte Bay, wind rising and sea much worse. Constant contact kept by radio."
After a very difficult passage the lifeboat eventually found a ship’s lifeboat near Baggy Point with 23 survivors struggling with oars to keep their boat head to sea on the edge of the pounding surfline. A grapnel was thrown, and secured at the second attempt. The boat was pulled clear of immediate danger. All 23 were rapidly transferred to the lifeboat and saved from an almost certain death. The completely exhausted survivors were landed safely at Ilfracombe. Four needed immediate hostpltal treatment. The lifeboat put to sea again in a fruitless search for more survivors.
Mr Fred Barbeary, a local fisherman, was a crew member for this service. He clearly recalls: "lt was Nobby lrwin’s knowledge and seamanship, particularly in the seas off Morte Point, which saved those men’s lives." Bodies were landed at Ilfracombe. Mr Barbeary and other crew members served as bearers at their funerals.
For this service to the ‘Monte Gurugu’, Cox. Irwin of the Ilfracombe Lifeboat was awarded the Silver Medal of the RNLI: a bronze "Second Service Clasp" went to Cox. Cann of Appledore, and extra awards were made to the crews of all three lifeboats. The Spanish Lifeboat Society awarded its Silver Medal to each of the three coxswains and diplomas to each crew member.