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RNLI volunteers mark centenary of loss of Newquay lifeboat James Stevens No.5

Lifeboats News Release

100 years ago this week, Newquay suffered a near disaster with the loss of the town’s lifeboat James Stevens No.5, when the RNLI volunteers launched into a gale to rescue sailors from a steamship in difficulties at Holywell.

Newquay lifeboat James Stevens No.5 prepares to launch at Towan Head


Newquay lifeboat James Stevens No.5 prepares to launch at Towan Head

In extreme conditions, the lifeboat was wrecked on rocks soon after launching from her station at Towan Head, but fortunately the lifeboat crew survived, and now Gareth Horner, Newquay's current Lifeboat Operations Manager, pays tribute to those involved. The account is taken from RNLI archives and from the late Campbell Docking, who watched the lifeboat launch as a schoolboy and recounted the incident to Gareth Horner in his 80s.

At daybreak on 17 December 1917, with a north easterly gale blowing directly onto the lifeboat slipway, the steamship Osten, of Copenhagen, was seen drifting helplessly towards Penhale Point at Holywell with her funnel and other gear swept away. The Rocket Brigade rushed to the scene where they found the Osten at anchor. Shortly after, the lifeboat signal mortars exploded over Newquay, calling the RNLI volunteers to the lifeboat station at Towan Head. The James Stevens No5, a 35-foot rowing & sailing lifeboat had been stationed at Newquay since 1899 and in that time her crews had saved 26 lives.

However, the newly appointed regular coxswain thought that the conditions on 17 December 1917 made it impossible to launch the lifeboat. James Gill, who had retired as coxswain earlier that year, said that he had been out in worse weather and volunteered to take command. By this time the Osten was dragging her anchor and was in a very dangerous position, so 12 men volunteered to launch the lifeboat, namely James Gill, Coxswain, Richard Bumpers Trebilcock, Second Coxswain, J. Clemens, Bowman, Reginald Pearce, F. Pearce, R. Woodward, J. Grigg, R.Trethewey, Joe Hicks, S. Hoare, Captain Hicks and Captain J. Pappin, leaving them one short of a full crew.

The lifeboat launched down the slipway and was immediately knocked sideways onto her beam-ends by the rough seas, however, she managed to get clear of the slipway and, to the applause of the crowd that had assembled to watch, weathered several more heavy seas. Shortly after, she was struck by a large wave and slewed around, before another wave threw the lifeboat over so that her sails were in the water. Coxswain Gill and crew member J. Pappin were washed overboard, Gill swimming ashore and Pappin being washed exhausted onto a small beach from where he was rescued. The lifeboat righted herself and came ashore below the Atlantic Hotel, where several men went down the cliffs with ropes to rescue the lifeboat crew. Bowman J. Clemens was badly injured after being trapped between the boat and the rocks but was saved from the wreck and the rest of the lifeboat crew scrambled on to rocks and were hauled up the cliff in an exhausted condition.

The lifeboat was wrecked on the rocks, while the steamship Osten, which had been the cause of the launch, drifted rapidly along the coast and was eventually towed to safety by a naval patrol boat. In recognition of the gallantry and leadership he displayed in the face of overwhelming danger, the RNLI awarded Coxswain James Gill the charity's Silver Medal, and Second Coxswain RJ Trebilcock was awarded the Bronze Medal and promoted to Coxswain.

Gareth Horner said: 'This centenary should remind us all to respect the water and never take the sea for granted. The very nature of sea rescue can place danger in the way of our crews at any time, and our lifeboat volunteers face that danger in the full knowledge of the possible consequences, without expectation of reward of any kind, other than the satisfaction of a job well done. This is as true now as it was in 1917'.

'The actions of our predecessors evokes an immense sense of pride and respect, which inspires those who have followed and who continue to serve their community with the RNLI to this day and, I have no doubt, will continue to do so in the future. The lifeboat crew will meet outside the old lifeboat station at Towan Head at 10am on Sunday morning to pay tribute to the bravery and commitment of our predecessors who responded to the call for help 100 years ago'.

RNLI media contacts

Andy Hobkinson, volunteer Lifeboat Press Officer, Newquay RNLI lifeboat station. Email: Mobile: 07880 507464. Alternatively, Amy Caldwell, RNLI Regional Media Manager (South). Email: Mobile: 07920 818807

Key facts about the RNLI

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is the charity that saves lives at sea. Our volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service in the United Kingdom and Ireland from 238 lifeboat stations, including four along the River Thames and inland lifeboat stations at Loch Ness, Lough Derg, Enniskillen, Carrybridge and Lough Ree. Additionally the RNLI has more than 1,000 lifeguards on over 240 beaches around the UK and operates a specialist flood rescue team, which can respond anywhere across the UK and Ireland when inland flooding puts lives at risk.

The RNLI relies on public donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. As a charity it is separate from, but works alongside, government-controlled and funded coastguard services. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824 our lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved at least 140,000 lives. Volunteers make up 95% of the charity, including 4,600 volunteer lifeboat crew members and 3,000 volunteer shore crew. Additionally, tens of thousands of other dedicated volunteers raise funds and awareness, give safety advice, and help in our museums, shops and offices.

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The RNLI is a charity registered in England and Wales (209603) and Scotland (SC037736). Charity number 20003326 in the Republic of Ireland