This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99

100 mph gales caused a lifeboat to capsize off the Cornish coast

Posted in Boats, Disasters, Historical articles, History on Friday, 29 November 2013

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about maritime disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 469 published on 9 January 1971.

The lifeboat from St Ives, picture, image, illustration

The lifeboat from St Ives, Cornwall, the John and Sarah Eliza Stych, was itself almost shipwrecked in 1939, by Ken Petts

The first vital requirement of a lifeboat is that she shall be stable enough to remain on an even keel in the roughest water; the second is that, if she should overturn in abnormal conditions, she should automatically right herself. Such lifeboats are known as “self-righters.” St. Ives, on the gale-swept Atlantic coast of Cornwall, one of the most dangerous in the British Isles, possessed a lifeboat of this type, the John and Sarah Eliza Stych.

Shortly after midnight on 24th January, 1939, distress-signals were reported a mile out to sea off the Pendeen Light. It was a night of phenomenally bad weather even for a coast accustomed to Atlantic gales. The anemometer at the St. Ives coastguard station that night recorded a wind speed in excess of 100 miles an hour. It was blowing directly on shore, from the nor’-nor’-west. No ship in distress lying off shore that night could hope to survive. So, the St. Ives boat was called out.

She carried a crew of eight, with Coxswain Thomas Cocking in command. On that night, however, one crew member was on sick leave, and his place was taken by a volunteer, Will Freeman. It was the first time he had ever served aboard a lifeboat. So furious was the wind that it took more than 70 men to launch the lifeboat, even in the partial shelter of St. Ives Point. Coxswain Cocking steered her boldly out into St. Ives Bay in order to clear the headland before turning due west along the coast to search for the distressed ship, believed to be about 12 miles distant. He had confidence in the powerful engines installed in his lifeboat, but so formidable was the gale into which he was now headed that he wondered whether they could master it.

Off Clodgy Point, a mile or two west of St. Ives Point, disaster struck. Coxswain Cocking found himself unable to keep the lifeboat’s nose pointing into the gale. The wheel was snatched from his hands and the lifeboat slewed round as she climbed yet another great wave, tilted to port as she descended the cliff-like side of the wave, and capsized as a following wave caught her broadside-on on her starboard side. As a self-righter, she recovered within seconds. But of the eight men who had been on board, four, including the coxswain, had vanished. Two others had been swept overboard but had managed to hang on to the rope grips. By a superhuman effort they were hauled inboard, badly shaken. One of them was the “spare” man, Will Freeman, who seems to have borne a charmed life.

Richard Stevens, the Motor Mechanic, re-started the engines. There was only one thing to do now: turn back to their base; a crew of four could not possibly handle a lifeboat in such seas. But those seas had not yet done with the John and Sarah Eliza Stych. Now her nose was turned back towards St. Ives Bay and both wind and waves were driving astern of her. Had her engines continued to run, she might have been all right; but apparently the propeller had been damaged, and every time the engines were started they immediately stalled.

It was pitch dark. The men found the red flares and lit them. The searchlight was switched on. Both flares and searchlight were seen from land, but there was nothing that anyone could do. The lifeboat carried a small triangular sail of extra-tough canvas, for use in emergency. This was rigged on the stumpy mast.

The sail was torn to tatters in a moment by the gale. For the second time in a quarter of an hour the lifeboat was slewed sideways as she climbed up the side of a giant wave; for the second time she was overturned by the sheer weight of water that slammed against her. For the second time she righted herself. But by now another man had been swept overboard to his death.

Now there were only three men left aboard the badly battered lifeboat, as she was driven furiously across the open mouth of St. Ives bay. It is a horseshoe-shaped bay, the two points, St. Ives and Godrevy, being almost exactly four miles apart. The nor’-nor’-westerly gale was driving straight into the bay. Clinging as best they might to the bulwarks and stanchions, the three men wondered where their craft would be driven ashore. The choice seemed to lie between the long stretch of sand backed by Upton Towans and Phillack Towans and the rocks below Godrevy Point.

But the lifeboat no longer answered to the helm. Every effort to turn her head into the bay and the comparative safety of the sands proved in vain. The lifeboat held on an almost straight course in the direction of the terrible rocks scattered at the foot of Godrevy Point, two short miles distant.

Will Freeman, clinging to the side of the lifeboat, half-sheltered beneath the curved steel canopy of the forward part of the structure, was staring into the darkness to starboard when he heard a shout from one of his two companions: “Look out! WAVE!” Jerking his head back he became aware of a huge sea, as high as a house and moving, it seemed to him, with the speed and power of an express train. For an instant it loomed, apparently motionless, above them, a cliff of dark water. Then it fell; and as it fell, engulfed the lifeboat and her three-man crew within its maw. With furious momentum it first lifted the lifeboat and then slammed her down on water as hard as concrete. For the third time she capsized; and for the third time she righted herself. But this time there was only one man still on board: Will Freeman. He caught a glimpse in the searchlight’s beam of his two companions being swept away in the darkness to certain death. And only minutes later he was thrown violently into the bottom of the lifeboat as she piled up on the jagged rocks at the foot of Godrevy Point.

“When I opened my eyes,” Will Freeman later reported, “everything all about me had gone still. I looked over the side of the lifeboat. To my astonishment, there was no water. The tide was out, the sea had retreated. I don’t know how many hours had passed. I got up from where I was lying, and stepped out through the huge hole that the rocks had driven into her port side. I found myself on the rocks on which she had been wrecked. I climbed and climbed. I was weeping through sheer exhaustion. Then I found a cottage, and had just strength left to hammer on the door.” He was safe!

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.