40th Anniversary of Silver medal shout remembered by Wells lifeboats

Lifeboats News Release

Wells RNLI lifeboat celebrate the 40th anniversary of the silver medal service to the Savinesti, a Romanian cargo ship with 28 people on board.

RNLI/Peter Rainsford

David Cox standing on the deck of the restored Ernest Tom Neathercoat

On Friday evening (5 February), Wells Lifeboat Station held a buffet evening at the Golden Fleece pub on Wells Quay to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the silver medal service to the Savinesti, a Romanian cargo ship with 28 people on board.

Retired Coxswain David Cox, 92, was the guest of honour and gave a talk, vividly describing the events of 15 February 1979 to an audience of current and past volunteer crew, families, guild members and supporters.

An extract from the Journal of the RNLI tells the story: 'On Thursday morning February 15 1979 a Romanian cargo ship, Savinesti, with 28 people on board was reported in distress approximately 12 miles off Wells by the Race Bank; she had engine failure and was dragging her anchor. The bigger lifeboats at Cromer and the Humber were unable to launch immediately; Cromer because of the heavy seas breaking against the boathouse doors and the Humber because of another incident. It was decided that Wells lifeboat should launch to stand by the casualty until larger boats and a tug arrived on scene. The morning was heavily overcast with continuous snow blizzards and poor visibility; the wind was north-easterly strong gale force 9 to storm force 10.

'Maroons were fired at Wells at 10:05am and at 10:24am the 37ft Oakley lifeboat Ernest Tom Neathercoat launched from her carriage into Wells Harbour and set out to sea. It was 2½ hours after high water. By 10:40am the lifeboat had reached the harbour bar and was confronted by heavy rolling seas and the full force of the wind. The lifeboat was being continually hit and filled by the seas and she lost her radar, MF radio and echo sounder. By 11:00am Coxswain David Cox realised that the lifeboat was labouring to clear the water that she was shipping and had to reduce speed. Although this prevented the labouring, she was still filling and all crew throughout the service had to remain in the after cockpit as the heavy breaking seas made the forward well untenable.

'At 12:13pm Coxswain David Cox considered that the Wells Lifeboat was near South Race Buoy and asked if either of the two big ships that were standing by the casualty, the Annuity or the Norwave, could see him on radar, but in that weather, neither could. A minute later the lifeboat sighted a ship and by 1:07pm was standing by the Savinesti. For the next two hours, Wells lifeboat stood by the casualty as she held her own just north of South Race Buoy. The wind over this period was north-easterly storm to violent storm, force 10 to 11 and there was a very heavy swell with 40ft breaking seas; the banks nearby were making the rollers run for several hundred feet and the continuous heavy snow and blown spray brought visibility at times down to nil. At times all that could be seen of the other vessels by the lifeboat was the tips of their masts. Several attempts were made by the Annuity and the Norwave to pass a tow line to the casualty, but it could not be done.

'Throughout this period the lifeboat VHF transmissions had to be relayed to Yarmouth Coastguard by Norwave (because transmissions from the lifeboat were compromised by the loss of her aerials which had been swept away by the breaking seas). Meanwhile the tug Lady Moira was on her way to help and Humber lifeboat was also on her way at ten knots, stopping occasionally to chip ice and fix position. At 3:00pm Humber lifeboat was only seven miles away and Wells lifeboat was released to try to make the Norfolk coast in daylight. By now the wind was east north east, violent storm force 11 gusting to hurricane force 12. A course and distance to South East Docking Buoy of 212° ten miles was given to the Wells lifeboat by Norwave and with her drogue streamed she started her return trip.

'It was soon found that the only course she could sustain without violent movement was south west and she was held down to about half speed. The snow was now blowing directly into the after cockpit and it was one crew member’s task to keep the screen and compass glass clear. Heavy white water was seen ahead at 5:00pm. At first it was thought to be the shore but it proved only to be the banks, so course was held. At 6:15pm some shore lights, thought to be Brancaster, were glimpsed. A parachute flare was put up and an auxiliary coastguard ashore confirmed the lifeboat’s position as being just north of Brancaster Golf Club. An easterly course was then set for Wells harbour. The remaining seven miles took two hours to make good with frequent use of the helm and engines to bring the lifeboat up into the breaking seas.

'At 8:26pm the lifeboat was just west of Wells Bar but no leading lights could be seen through the blizzard. A local fishing boat, Strandline, came down channel to act as a leading light and give pilotage help on VHF and, at 9:10pm, with her drogue out to its full extent, the lifeboat entered over the bar, being completely swept by three seas as she came over the bar. As the lifeboat could not be re-housed, due to the conditions, she berthed in the harbour at 9:50pm. The crew were all helped ashore and most found that they were unable to walk. They were helped into a change of clothes and driven to their homes.

'In all, Ernest Tom Neathercoat, an open 37ft lifeboat, was at sea for 11 hours 24 minutes in violent storm conditions with very heavy swell and phenomenal seas frequently washing right over her, with a continuous blizzard (Wells was cut off by snow for the following three days), poor visibility and sub zero temperatures.

'For this service the RNLI silver medal was awarded to Coxswain David J. Cox of Wells lifeboat and medal service certificates were presented to Second Coxswain Anthony T. Jordan, Motor Mechanic Albert Court, Assistant Mechanic Alan M. Cox and Crew Members Albert Warner, John R. Nudds, Graham B Walker and John W. Betts.

'The bronze medal was awarded to Superintendent Coxswain Brian W. Bevan of Humber lifeboat and medal service certificates to Second Coxswain Dennis Bailey, Motor Mechanic Barry ‘Bill’ Sayers, Assistant Mechanic Ronald Sayers and Crew Members Michael B. Storey, Peter Jordan and Dennis Bailey, Jnr. of Humber lifeboat. Framed letters of thanks signed by Major-General Ralph Farrant, chairman of the Institution, were sent to the master of Norwave, Captain Wally Patch, and to the skipper of MFV Strandline, John Ward.'

Text extract from The Lifeboat - The journal of the RNLI, Volume XLVI, number 468, Summer 1979.

The Ernest Tom Neathercoat retired from service at Wells in 1990 and passed into private ownership. After a career as an inshore fishing vessel she was acquired by David Hewitt, boatbuilder of Stiffkey, who has carried out an extensive refit. She is now moored on Tugboat Yard in Wells Quay.

Full extract from the Lifeboat – the Journal of the RNLI here -


Montage of News coverage from 1979 here -


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For more information please contact John Mitchell, RNLI Volunteer Lifeboat Press Officer on: 07831 103166. Or email: jmitchell@Hotmail.co.uk

RNLI/Peter Rainsford

92 year old retired coxswain David Cox in the cockpit of the restored Ernest Tom Neathercoat

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