1899: Launch from Porlock Weir

During a severe gale, Lynmouth volunteers dragged their lifeboat for 13 miles to launch in aid of a vessel in distress.

An oil painting of the Lynmouth lifeboat Louisa by artist Mark Myers
An oil painting of the Lynmouth lifeboat Louisa by artist Mark Myers

On 12 January 1899, RNLI lifeboat volunteers undertook one of our most arduous feats to date – dragging a lifeboat overnight in terrible weather to launch in aid of a ship in distress.

The Forrest Hall was a 1,900 ton ship sailing from Bristol to Liverpool, which carried 13 crew and 5 apprentices. The stormy weather threatened to run the ship ashore at Porlock, several miles east of Lynmouth. It had been under tow, but the cable had snapped and the rudder washed away in the strong winds.

At 7.52pm, the Lynmouth Lifeboat Station received a telegram reporting that the Forrest Hall was drifting ashore at Porlock Weir. The squally weather prevented the crew from launching their lifeboat from the harbour, but Coxswain Jack Crocombe proposed the lifeboat be taken overland and launched from Porlock Weir, where it was more sheltered. This was a 13-mile journey which included a quarter gradient climb of 434m over Countisbury Hill and a trek across Exmoor.

The overland launch

Around 100 local people gathered to haul the Louisa, which was 10m long and weighed 10 tons, aided by 18 horses sent from a local farm. Six men were sent ahead with shovels to widen parts of the road.

After the difficult climb up Countisbury Hill, the crowd stopped for refreshments at the Blue Ball Inn, where they had to repair a carriage wheel that had fallen off. Most of the 100 helpers turned back, leaving just 20 men, including the 14 lifeboat crew, to control the boat down the hill into Portlock. At one stage, the boat was dragged on skids, as the road was too narrow for the carriage and could not be widened.

The 20 men were able to safely navigate their way down the hazardous terrain of Portlock Hill – even having to break down part of a garden wall to let the carriage and horses through.

The rescue

Lynmouth lifeboat Louisa in 1903
Lynmouth lifeboat Louisa in 1903

The men finally reached the sea at 6.30am on 13 January, after a nearly 11-hour journey. Although they were tired and hungry, they immediately launched the boat. It took them another hour to reach the Forrest Hall, rowing through the rough seas and ferocious storm. The ship had anchored close to Hurlstone Point and the lifeboat stood by, rowing continuously to keep a safe position. 

At daylight, two tugs arrived and managed to get a rope across to tow the ship. Several lifeboatmen from the Louisa went onboard the ship to help the exhausted sailors raise their anchors. The tugs towed the ship across the channel to Barry, accompanied by the lifeboat in case any difficulties arose. They arrived safely at 6pm that evening. The Lynmouth lifeboat crew rowed back that night, finally reaching home at 11.30am on 14 January. 

Their heroic and incredibly difficult rescue meant that the 18 crew of the Forrest Hall all survived. It still stands as one of the most challenging feats undertaken in RNLI history.

The centenary

The overland journey was re-enacted in daylight on 12 January 1999 to commemorate its centenary. Although the roads had improved, the weather was almost as poor as it was in 1899. 

The 1999 re-enactment of the Porlock Weir launch

Photo: Steve Guscott

The 1999 re-enactment of the Porlock Weir launch