The Royal National Lifeboat Institution was founded on 4 March 1824 although it did not receive its ‘Royal’ epithet until Queen Victoria awarded that honour to the charity in 1854. Since 1824 it is estimated that across Britain, the RNLI has saved the lives of more than 140,000 people - sailors and holiday-makers alike.

In Wales, with its dangerous coastline, the RNLI has always had a high profile. Lifeboat stations have come and gone but at the present count there are no fewer than 30 such bases in Wales. Since 2012 the lifeboat service has been greatly expanded with its lifeguards covering many of the country's ever-popular beaches.

In 2013 the busiest lifeboat station in Wales was Rhyl, the boat being launched 80 times, with Whitmore Bay at Barry Island being listed as the busiest lifeguard beach - 221 incidents having taken place there during 2013 alone.

Trearddur Bay RNLI, Anglesey. Photo: Ian

The history of the RNLI in Wales is long and distinguished, too long and distinguished to recount here in any great detail. The stories and the history require a full book to do them anything like justice.

Some of the stories around the lifeboats - such as the loss of the Mumbles boat during its attempted rescue of the Liberty ship Samtampa in 1947 - are well known. Others are less familiar and while in no way denying or trying to play down the heroism of the brave men of Mumbles, those other stories also need to be mentioned.

The Rhyl lifeboat Anthony Robert Marshall has the distinction of affecting the world's first rescue from a hovercraft. That event took place in 1963, when hovercraft were being tried on the seas around Wales – a short-lived experiment that was doomed to failure – and the lifeboat coxswain Harold Campani was awarded the Silver Medal for his efforts.

When the Angle lifeboat rescued 27 passengers and crew from the Loch Shiel in 1890, it proved almost impossible for the boat to get alongside the stricken vessel. Crew members actually crawled along the cliffs of Thorne Island, where the Loch Shiel had struck, in order to pass a line to the vessel. It was dangerous work on sheer rock and resulted in two crew members and the honorary secretary of the station being awarded gallantry medals.

The story of the Loch Shiel wreck is commonly called The Welsh Whisky Galore as 7,000 cases of whisky from the ship floated ashore. They were gratefully received by the people of Angle but the humorous element of the story has tended to overshadow the bravery of the Angle lifeboat men.

There are many other significant moments in the story of the RNLI. The Tenby boat, for example, once rescued the crew of a lightship that was in difficulties out in the Severn Estuary. For a long while the common - indeed the only - way to call the first coxswain at Llandudno was to go to the copper mine where he worked and beat out a call on copper piping that would carry the message to the tunnels below.

One of the least publicised but most difficult rescues around the Welsh coast involved the Criccieth boat which was called out to help the sailing barque Spanker on 7 February 1885.

The Spanker was en route from Jamaica to Liverpool with a cargo of wood and at 10pm on 6 February struck the coast off Morfa Harlech. It was a dark and stormy night but, undaunted, the lifeboat crew set out for the wreck as soon as the news was received.

The Criccieth lifeboat was a pulling boat, powered by 10 men on the oars and commanded by a first and second coxswain. It was hard, gruelling work, rowing a heavy lifeboat in dangerous seas, a job that required both courage and stamina.

So keen were the lifeboat men to get going that they did not stop to pick up supplies, something that was to cause them more than a few hunger pains during the long night ahead. As they were approaching the Spanker all of the lights on the wrecked ship suddenly went out and the lifeboat crew, in the days before radar, were left with no idea where the wreck lay.

The boat was now faced by total darkness and with a heavy sea running the decision was taken to ‘lay to’ and await morning. There was nothing else to be done as nobody could see anything in the blackness. It was a miserable night, spray and sea water pouring into the boat and within a few minutes everyone was soaked to the skin.

At first light the lifeboat moved in. The wreck had now broken in two but seven men were seen clinging to the remains of the rigging. These men were rescued but the captain of the barque and three of his crew had already been washed overboard and drowned. The boat returned to shore and the rescued men were looked after by the people of Criccieth. The rescue was typical of the work carried out by the lifeboats around Wales.

Bravery, compassion and selfless devotion to duty are qualities that mark, not just the men of the Criccieth boat but all of the lifeboat crews around the coast. They always have and undoubtedly always will.


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  • Comment number 4. Posted by Phil

    on 17 Feb 2014 09:35

    The story of the Gem and the rescue of the Democrat crew is a classic tale of courage and sacrifice. You're right about Sydney Mortimer, later the youngest lifeboat coxswain in Britain, but his was just one of two local boats that pulled the survivors off the Bitches. The other boat, crewed by Ivor and Adrian Arnold, Eleazer James and two men both called John Davies, has never had the recognition it/they deserved - at least not by the public. The Lifeboat Committee, however, knew what the men had done and praised both boats and their crews.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by rmacmhor

    on 15 Feb 2014 11:29

    One can have nothing but admiration for the courage and bravery of Lifeboat crews. I have witnessed a few lifeboat launches, and the sight – which can be spectacular – filled me with dread, not excitement, because I knew it meant that some poor souls were in trouble at sea and the Lifeboat crews were putting their own lives at risk to save them. The last launch I witnessed was the Angle lifeboat. It was fairly calm inside Milford Haven, but outside, where the Lifeboat went there was a huge swell running, and a strong wind blowing the tops off the waves on top of the swell. Courage and skill to navigate in such conditions.
    To add to Phil’s excellent tribute, one sad lifeboat epic that sticks in my mind is the account of the St David’s lifeboat, the Gem which is another illustration of the self sacrifice of Lifeboat crews. The Gem, powered by 12 oars set out in 1910 to rescue the 3 man crew of the Ketch Democrat, in distress in Ramsey Sound. This has to be one of the most dangerous stretches of water round the Welsh coast. They successfully rescued the crew of the ketch but the Gem was then driven onto the Bitches Reef in the Sound. Sadly, 3 of the lifeboatmen were drowned but the remainder plus the crew of the ketch managed to scramble onto the reef where they spent 14 hours in appalling conditions before being taken off by 2 small shore boats manned by the stalwart men of St. David’s. One of these men, Sidney Mortimer, became the next lifeboat coxswain at the age of 18.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by Noreen

    on 14 Feb 2014 10:21

    I totally agree with Raymondo. What drives men - and women as well - to go out to sea in gale force winds, putting their lives at jeopardy, is beyond me. It's courage of the highest order, I think. I'd like to think I was that brave but I know I'm not, know I never could be. My favourite hymn "For Those In Peril On the Sea," sums it all up.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by raymondo

    on 11 Feb 2014 19:03

    Thanks for this fine tribute to the lifeboat crews of Wales and the RNLI as a whole. The mere thought of spending much of the night in heavy seas in a large rowing boat, having nothing to eat or drink and getting soaked through, fills me with terror.

    And whilst we listen to and read these epic tales of lifeboat crews in former days, it's great to know that their spirit of selflessness and bravery has not died and there are still people willing to risk their lives to save the lives of others at sea. We should not forget too that, currently, over eight percent of lifeboat crew volunteers are women and this figure is rising. Many of these women serve around the Welsh coast.

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