Salcombe to commemorate 1916 lifeboat disaster


This year marks the centenary of one of the worst disasters in the history of the Lifeboat institution. In the early hours of Friday October 27th, 1916, The Salcombe lifeboat, the William and Emma, was called out to render assistance to a schooner, the Western Lass which had been driven ashore near Prawle Point, in near hurricane-force winds. The lifeboat was launched from the South Sands boathouse, it was a pulling and sailing lifeboat, and there were doubts as to whether it could get across the Bar, at the entrance to the harbour, but using all their skill and strength, the crew managed to row out over the Bar, through the breakers, and then set sail for Prawle Point, which was about 2 miles to the south east. Once they rounded Prawle Point, they saw that the Western Lass was ashore, but the crew had already been saved, by the Prawle Point coastguard, so there was nothing for it but for them to return home, which meant sailing back in the teeth of the south-westerly gale. When they reached the Bar, they saw that angry seas were breaking over it and it wasn’t fit to cross, so they turned away, went out to open sea, and some of the crew were in favour of running down to Dartmouth, but the coxwain said let’s go in and have another look, and by the time they got back to the bar, they’d been in the boat for about three hours, and they were cold, wet and exhausted, so they decided to give it a try. But just as they were about to lower the masts, and get out the oars, A huge wave, a mountainous wave, broke over the port quarter, and capsized the lifeboat, stern over bow, and threw all the men into the water. It was a non-self-righting lifeboat, so all the crew could do was try to cling on to the upturned hull, but as much as they tried to hang on to the lifelines, and the hand battens, they were washed away by successive crashing waves, until only two remained: Eddie Distin and Bill Johnson, they were the sole survivors. Many of the townsfolk had gathered on the cliffs above, to watch the return of the lifeboat, and they witnessed the capsize, and for them, the sight of those men, battling for their lives within sight of their homes must have been almost too much to bear. The small, close-knit community of Salcombe was plunged into a state of shock, and eight widows, and twenty dependents (children and other dependents) were left behind, to mourn the loss of those brave men.

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