It’s lives we’re after, not ships. by Thomas Austin

Padstow Lifeboat first Published in Aigust 1995

Severe stormforce winds, some structural damage may occur. That warning is always ominous, and all of us on hearing such a forecast will immediately offer a fervent hope that our home will be spared, followed in the instant by thoughts of insurance, renewal dates, amount of cover, and then, finally, as we make our way to bed, the wind bat-tering the windows to be let in, the rain lashing against the panes, we are consoled with the comforting thought that, unless we should be particularly unfortunate, even though we sleep but fitfully, we will at the least be warm, dry and secure. But there are those around the coast of Britain and Ireland who, at such times, will take to their beds partially dressed. Will sleep, but with one ear turned to the howling wind, instantly alert should it change direction, intensity; every subconscious sense aware to pitch and ferocity; radio-pagers checked and double checked and stood close to the bedside; and, should the pager burble its successive bleep-ing call, then ready to leap for the bathroom door as two thunder claps burst through the storm, the lifeboat maroons rocketing into the night sky.
As the lifeboat man struggles into his sea clothes, his wife or mother will be waiting at the door, to open it, to let him out without pause, her thoughts and fears kept to herself, and then he will be gone, perhaps a quick hug expressing all that words could ever say. It was such a storm one night before Christmas Eve that the crew of Cornwall’s Padstow Lifeboat launched the James & Catherine McFarlane, to go to the aid of the Lady Camilla, a Danish ship carrying china clay out of Par, bound for Liverpool; disabled and sinking, fore and aft hatches stoved in. There’s no need to edit the words of former mechanic Eddy Murt B.E.M., forty years with the lifeboat service, now retired. Nor need for journalistic gloss. “I was calling the skipper over the radio,” said Eddy, “Trying to fix his position. I kept calling and calling and he heard us but I couldn’t always make out what he was shouting. They were in a bad way out there. It was a black hole of a night. Hell can’t be worse than that. We were all bruised, knocked about, but that didn’t matter. The people on that ship were much worse off’n we. Well, after a while there was no answer over the radio – nothing, so all we could do was keep on searching. A helicopter had taken off to help find them but the weather were so bad it heavy landed on Trevose Head. We searched for about ten hours and the coastguard radioed to say they were calling it off, the ship had gone down, but our Cox’n, Trevor England, he wouldn’t have it. He d’say, `No, we’ve fuel for five more hours so we’ll keep on searching’ .” At that point Eddy let out a huge sigh and shook his head. “We never did find them. We heard later that the mate and his wife had been picked up, but the skipper, he had his own wife and two kiddies aboard – well – he’d tied `em into life jackets as the ship went down and then threw them overboard. Now that’s a hell of a thing for any man, any father to have to do, but he was desperate, nothing else he could do, but they were lost. I think it was the lit-tle girl that was washed up on Constantine (beach) and the boy was recovered from the (river) Camel. We came back with our heads down that morning. Didn’t fancy Christmas after that – none of us. But that mood didn’t last long – couldn’t. We’d done our best in a fine boat and there was no more to be done, except make ready for sea again, for the next time.” Like Eddy, the James and Catherine McFarlane, an Oakley class wood hull lifeboat is also retired, out of ser-vice now, sitting on stocks at Land’s End, her bow pointing proudly into the Atlantic; thousands of visitors each sum-mer clambering over her, camera shutters clicking, just a few of the more curious or interested taking time to read the plaques that tell of long and distinguished service, so many lives saved – including a dog, for, as Eddy was to add, “It’s lives we’re after – not ships. Ships can be replaced, perhaps salvaged and rebuilt, but a life, cat or dog even, that’s what matters. That’s why we put to sea and that’s what the lifeboat service is all about.” Many times the James & Catherine McFarlane stood into danger; launched into the most ferocious of seas, but none more so than on another night when, mercifully, there came a brief lull in the storm without which it is doubtful boat or crew could have survived. Coxswain Trevor England B.E.M., and twice awarded the R.N.L.I.’s silver medal, took up the story. “We were called out one night on a false alarm but it was really genuine well-intentioned mistake. We heard someone had seen a red flare whilst driving from Newquay to Padstow. Now I know that road well and later I experienced the same thing. Coming down the hill in a particular sort of weather the red beam of the Trevose lighthouse can reflect from a certain type of sky. As the light revolves the reflec-tion is there and then gone and you can easily make the same mistake as did that motorist. The weather had been bad for nearly a fortnight, terrible seas and we launched about an hour from low water. Tony Warnock was cox’n then, I took over when he retired, and as we came out of the shelter to round Trevose Head with Tony at the helm we were met by mountainous seas. The first two seas we went over but the next stove in the wheelhouse windows, blowing the doors off their rollers, fifty tons of water crashing in on us. Tony yelled he couldn’t see, had blood in his eyes, all of us cut by the glass whilst another had broken ribs. But then came a lull and for certain someone was looking after us, had to be. It gave us chance to recover, to turn about and head back to the boathouse, but no sooner had we done that than another huge sea came at us from astern. If it had broken on board as did the one that done all that damage than only God knows what would have happened. We were no longer watertight and the men in the more exposed positions might easily have been washed overboard. Later, all the boats of that class had strengthening bars put in. The bar holding the centre of the wheelhouse window had given way due to the sudden weight of water on the deck overhang which was about four feet long with no stanchion beneath, and that was the cause of the problem. So, thanks to the false alarm we all learned a lot and perhaps, who knows, another crew and boat of the same class might have been saved because of our experience.” Trevor continued, “I’m often asked if we’re frightened but to be truthful there’s no time for that. There’s too much to do. Afterwards perhaps you might think, God was that close! But at the moment of launching there’s those you’re hoping to rescue to think about. Whatever the state of the sea, they’re in a far worse condition than the lifeboat crew. They’re desperate for a hand to reach out to them, to pluck them to safety, and they’re the ones you must think about. Especially the cox’n. It’s no good thinking, well, that’s the boat and this is me. You have to become part of the boat, a living breathing part, an extension of yourself. You have to feel every jolt, every quiver and literally slide your way into a situation. You become as one, as does the crew, any lifeboat crew. “The lifeboat service is one great family. We all know each other here in Cornwall, or wherever there’s a lifeboat station, and there’s over 200 in all, and we’ll let each other know what’s going on, keep up to date.

For instance, my wife will ring another Coxn’s wife if she hears anything dur-ing a bad blow, or perhaps the other way round. In some respects it’s worse for the women left at home. Their men have got a job to do whilst the women can only wait and wonder and hope and I’ve always reckoned that waiting and not knowing is the worst.
“But it becomes a way of life. My grandfather, my great uncle and my father were all lifeboat men. That was in the days of oar and sail when many ships would end up on the Doom Bar at the entrance to the Camel estuary. It’s a long spit of sand that’s hidden at high water so a vessel making for shelter, well – a skipper unfamiliar with this coast would tend to think he had a clear run, but during bad weather you can have twenty foot of water over the bar yet in the instant no more than an inch or two, so many ships came to grief. That’s why we had to move the lifeboat station. With some tides it was becoming impossible to get out for a couple of hours or more and that kind of delay could be fatal. We did have a boathouse at Hawker’s Cove near the bar, but as the sand built up it had to be abandoned, so now the boathouse is five miles from Padstow at Trevose Head. It’s the only place it could be sited, so it means when there’s a shout, the crew have to board the Transit van or, if they miss that, make their own way as best they can. It’s not too bad in win-ter despite the narrow twisting lanes, but come the summer with so many tourists here, the roads packed with family cars, we have to use the blue light and klaxon to get through.” With the arrival of a new lifeboat at Padstow, The James Burrough, a 47′ steel and aluminium Tyne class, with twice the speed at 18 knots, the beloved slower James & Catherine McFarlane was transferred to the Lizard and from there into retirement, but though the type of boat may change, the men that crew them do not. The Padstow lifeboat station has some twenty-two crew members, including Michael, Trevor’s son, thus carrying on a proud tradition. Just seven are needed to man the boat, but another seven are necessary for launch and recovery and the latter, the recovery crew, are the unsung heroes of the lifeboat service; seldom seem by the public as they stand, in all weathers, at the end of a long wet slipway, just a few feet from thrashing propellers as the boat is guided astern, the heaving lines attached to a steel hawser readied to throw to the crewmen on deck. The recovery crew can be and sometimes are swept into the water as the sea engulfs them, and there is always the danger from those life saving yet threatening propellers. All signals are made by whistle. Words and shouts can be carried away in a storm, and the winchman, at the far end of the boathouse, almost con-cealed by the massive winch, must know exactly when to take up the slack; take the strain on the specially manufac-tured hawser, a cable that will, when suddenly freed of the boat’s weight, drop inert and dead instead of slicing through the air. They come from all walks of life, volunteers all. Fishermen and salesman, guesthouse owner and painter, carpenter and college student. There’s no large financial reward for their freely given dedication, for the risks they take. Just a small token payment that scarce compensates for lost working hours, lost wages, lost orders. And yet, to a man, whether speeding to a rescue or launching into the  teeth of a gale on what they modestly call a rough weather exercise, to practice their skills, they seldom lose their inbuilt sense of humour, often finding something hilarious-ly funny in the most dire of situations, such as the call to the sinking Greek freighter. Eddy continues the story. “We came up to the ship in hurricane force winds of 110 miles an hour. There was a crew of nine on board but they wouldn’t jump, not that I could blame them. One moment we were level with the stern and the next forty foot down, staring at the slowly revolving propeller. If any of them mis-judged their leap with that kind of rise and fall they could find themselves slamming into the deck as the lifeboat lift-ed or, falling the full forty feet. But eventually one of them tried a dummy run, threw his suitcase to us and I reported this over the radio to the Coastguard. Would you believe it? Customs & Excise came on the air. Would we hang on to the suitcase? They’d like to take a look at it when we got back!” So perhaps Eddy should have the last word. Asked by a Brazilian radio reporter if he could swim, Eddy shook his head. “But what will you do if you fall overboard?” came the astonished response, to which Eddy replied, “Oh – I’ll sink to the bottom – then run like hell!” Footnote: Sadly, three Padstow Lifeboat crewmen have recently lost their lives at sea. Coxswain Trevor England, after a severe illness borne with typical fortitude and humour, died shortly after retiring from the R.N.L.L. Many are alive today because of the bravery and dedication of such men.