The Salcombe lifeboat disaster: A tale of incredible bravery, and unimaginable loss
Friday 27 October 1916 starts with a rescue and ends in tragedy - one of the worst in RNLI history. It is a story of courage, sacrifice and loss. 100 years on, a lifeboat town remembers the crew who never came home.
A war is raging on one side of the English Channel while, on the other, gale force winds are battering the Devon coast, putting lives at risk. At the lookout station at Prawle Point - the county’s most southerly point - extra volunteers have been drafted in.
At around 5am, their worst fears are realised: a topsail schooner Western Lass runs aground near rocks at Langerstone Point, half a mile east of Prawle Point. Chief Officer May - responding to a distress signal from the ship’s crew - phones the Senior Coastguard in Salcombe to request help, then mobilises a shore rescue team.
Western Lass is fortunate to be driven onto a sandy cove, narrowly missing rocks that could tear her apart. In the teeth of a force 9 severe gale, volunteers from the East Prawle Lifesaving Apparatus Company evacuate the ship’s crew using rescue lines fired from a rocket on the shore.
Because of a fault on the phone line, there is a delay before the call from Chief Officer May reaches the Coastguard in Salcombe. It means the lifeboat - the pulling and sailing William and Emma - launches just minutes before the last man on Western Lass is hauled ashore.
To reach the open sea, the lifeboat crew, clad in their oilskins and lifejackets, must first row across Salcombe Bar - a hazardous sand spit guarding the mouth of Kingsbridge Estuary.
Conditions on the Bar that day are worse than anyone can remember. A force 9 south-westerly severe gale whips the shallow water into a frenzy of breaking waves. The greatest danger for the crew is a mistimed stroke, which could easily turn them broadside into the waves, resulting in a capsize. But the crew are confident in their ability and their craft.
Summoning every ounce of strength, they pull the 6¼-ton William and Emma straight out over the surf into deeper, calmer water beyond.
The elements are now in the crew’s favour. With the wind filling their sails, they power along the rocky coastline towards Langerstone Point. Although Chief Officer May can see the lifeboat approaching, with darkness lifting, he has no way of signalling the crew to turn back.
Strike for home
As Coxswain Sam Distin steers a wide course around Prawle Point to stay clear of the treacherous surf, he catches his first glimpse of Western Lass. Realising the schooner’s crew have already been rescued, he stands the lifeboat down.
The next few minutes decide the lifeboat’s fate. Aware of the risks of crossing back over Salcombe Bar, the crew consider the safer option of sailing on to Dartmouth, 13 miles to the east. A short hop for today’s all-weather lifeboat, in 1916 it would have taken much longer - an enormous physical challenge for already tired limbs. There is also the cost of the overland journey back to Salcombe to consider; many of the crew are poorly paid fishermen. Confident in their lifeboat, and anxious to get home to their loved ones, they vow to return via the Bar.
To retrace their path, the crew now have to sail into the teeth of the wind. It takes a supreme physical effort, sapping much of their energy. Ahead of them, they can see, and hear, the thunderous roar of the breakers over Salcombe Bar drawing ominously near. The water over the Bar is unusually shallow. This fact and the weather combine to devastating effect, sending huge breakers crashing down. Holding out for conditions to abate, the coxswain twice gives the order to turn about and head back out to sea. This takes a heavy toll on the crew, who are by now drenched, cold and exhausted. If they are to reach the sanctuary of South Sands on the other side of the Bar - tantalisingly near, yet agonisingly far - it is a case of crossing now or never.
No amount of experience can prepare the crew for what happens next.
Approaching the Bar via the western channel, they lower the sails, deploy the drogue to keep the boat pointing straight ahead, and make ready to take down the masts.
Before they can take up the oars, a mountainous wave rises up and explodes over the lifeboat’s port side. It delivers a fatal blow. Pitchpoled, stern over bow, the lifeboat rolls to starboard, catapulting the 15 crew into the raging sea.
From the shore, friends and families look on in horror. The crew’s oars, suddenly useless, scatter like matchsticks. In the chaos, hands reach out and grab the hand battens and lifelines on the upturned hull.
Those who can, hang on. The next wave to hit spills them into the sea once more. Back they go again. But as the breakers keep coming, the men’s resolve, and their grip, is finally broken.
Thirteen crew members lose their lives that day. Miraculously, two survive: Eddie Distin and Bill Johnson are discovered clinging to a rocky outcrop, metres from the shore. A rescue party, using throw lines, scramble down to the shore and pull the men - dazed, dashed and bruised - to safety.
A community in mourning
There was barely anyone in Salcombe whose life was not touched by what happened. With younger crew members away fighting in the trenches, the average age of William and Emma’s crew had risen to 40. Many of them had families and several were related, including three members of the Foale family.
As lives and livelihoods were destroyed, their families fell on hard times. Nine of those who died were fishermen. Their loss tore through the local fishing industry, already depleted by the First World War. The RNLI set up a Relief Fund to support the 8 widows and 20 children left behind.
The community rallied, and it took just a few weeks to recruit a replacement lifeboat crew. In less than 6 months a new lifeboat went into service. Eddie Distin was persuaded to rejoin the crew, serving as coxswain until he retired in 1951.
The tragedy may have passed from living memory, but there is a quiet determination among lifeboat families in Salcombe to remember the sacrifices of the past, and keep the story alive for future generations.
Find out more
There are further displays in the station’s Lifeboat Museum, and Salcombe Maritime Museum.
The full story is told in The Salcombe Lifeboat Disaster written by Roger Barrett. We are grateful to the author for allowing us to reuse some of his research here.
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