The RNLI in Wales

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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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