Devon

Salcombe lifeboat disaster: How sand bar claimed 13 lives in 1916

Image copyright RNLI

Fifteen men launched the Salcombe lifeboat into a severe gale on 27 October 1916 - but only two survived.

Their boat, the William and Emma, was flipped over on to the sand of the notorious Salcombe Bar by a massive wave.

James Cooper, 33, whose great grandfather Eddy Distin was one of the two survivors, looks out over the Salcombe Bar from South Sands, where the old lifeboat station still stands.

A century after the tragedy the dangers of the sandy ridge at the mouth of the Salcombe estuary are the same and sailors coming in and out mess with it at their peril.

More on the Salcombe lifeboat disaster story, and other news in Devon and Cornwall

Image caption RNLI crewman James Cooper with a picture of his great grandfather Eddy Distin, who at the age of 26 was one of the two survivors of the ill-fated crew from the old lifeboat station at South Sands

"The bar can be a horrendous stretch of water if all the conditions such as wind and tide come together at the same time," said Mr Cooper, known as "Coops", who is maintaining the family tradition of crewing the Salcombe RNLI lifeboat.

"Even with the bigger boat we have now you know you are on some big seas.

"For the crew back then, who only had oars in an open boat and without the safety equipment we have now, that was some going."

Image copyright Google
Image caption Approximate track of the William and Emma, on 27 October 1916

Even with the modern lifeboat, the crew might have to take shelter in Dartmouth or Plymouth "if the conditions are that bad over the bar".

"That's the nature of the beast - you can't underestimate the sea because it will come and bite you," he said.

And reflecting on what happened to his 26-year-old great grandfather and crew, Mr Cooper said: "There was nothing they could do do about it."

At the time the lifeboat men of the William and Emma faced some of the most terrifying seas they had ever witnessed, according to local historian Roger Barrett.

The men had launched from the lifeboat station at South Sands at 06:50, to reach the crew of the Western Lass, which had been wrecked in a storm near Prawle Point, less then four miles to the east.

Image copyright Roger Barrett
Image caption Salcombe Bar, the sandy ridge at the mouth of the estuary, is created by the push and pull of currents and waves

How is the Salcombe Sandbar created?

  • The sandbar is created at the convergence point of waves pushing sand inwards from the sea and the outgoing current pushing sand to the sea
  • The sandbar changes shape and position dependent on the size of waves and the strength of the current
  • Waves break abruptly on the sandbar because of the relatively shallow water above the sand
  • Waves are also drawn to the sandbar by refraction, which "focuses" them as they approach

Paul Russell, professor of coastal dynamics, Plymouth University

But when they got there they found the crew had been rescued by a breeches buoy, which consists of a rope and winch fired by rocket to the Western Lass crew by coastguards.

So the crew of the William and Emma faced a gruelling return against a force nine gale, with the prospect of crossing the Salcombe Bar at the end of their journey.

Image copyright Roger Barrett
Image caption The crew, wrapped in oilskins, were thrown into the water

About three hours later, soaked through and exhausted, they were facing the bar and sailed back and forth debating whether to cross it or head back east to the shelter of Dartmouth.

They decided Dartmouth would be too far and, according to Mr Barrett, the coxswain sailed into deeper ground to avoid the worst of the swell.

"It was at this point that a mountainous wave towered up behind them," said Mr Barrett.

"It hit the port quarter, lifted the stern high in the air and pitch-poled the lifeboat stern over bow."

Image copyright Roger Barrett
Image caption The crew had only oars to power themselves over the Salcombe Bar
Image copyright RNLI
Image caption A plaque remembering those who died will be dedicated by the Bishop of Plymouth

The loss of the crew was then the joint fourth largest loss of life in the RNLI's history.

The centenary of the disaster is being marked with a wreath laying on the bar by the RNLI crew, a church service and dedication of a plaque by the Bishop of Plymouth.

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