The Lynmouth overland launch
By Rob John, based on real events of 1899
A long time ago, when I was little, my grandad used to tell me stories about his adventures as a lifeboat man down at Lynmouth. Most of the time my grandad was a farm-worker...but if there was a storm and a ship got into trouble the call would come and he’d stop his farm work and run down to the beach with his mates. They’d sail out in the lifeboat - the Louisa - and do their best to bring the sailors safely back to shore.
I loved my grandad’s lifeboat stories because I knew they were all true. At least I thought they were true...until he told me of the night they set off to rescue some sailors on a ship which was in trouble in a very bad storm...
‘But this was no ordinary rescue,’ said Grandad. ‘This time the Louisa didn’t sail out to sea. On this wild night in 1899 her voyage took her up the lane and over the hill and down the road to Porlock.’
‘Is that true, Grandad?’ I asked. ‘How could a huge boat sail over a hill?’
My Grandad lit his pipe. ‘I’ll tell you the story,’ he said. ‘Then you can decide for yourself if it’s true...’
'There was a fierce storm that night,’ said Grandad. ‘A ship was in trouble and we needed to get the lifeboat in the water as quick as we could and sail her round to Porlock. Trouble was the sea was too rough at Lynmouth. We couldn’t get her in the water. The waves were too big.'
'We were about to give up when our skipper, Jack Crocombe, said: "Hold on boys. We could launch the boat from Porlock harbour. Why don’t we take her there by road?"'
'Some of us laughed when we heard that. We thought Jack was joking. But he was dead serious. He sent word round the town asking for help...and inside half an hour we had a hundred men and twenty horses all ready for the big adventure. We put the Louisa on a huge set of wheels, hitched up the horses and off she rolled up the hill towards Porlock.’
Grandad looked at me and I looked at him. A boat travelling by road? A true story? I didn’t think so...
‘It was the toughest journey that boat ever took,’ said Grandad. ‘The Louisa weighed nearly 10 tons and we had to get her over Countisbury Hill - and you know what a steep climb that is - and then just as we got to the top of the hill a wheel came off the carriage! Took about an hour to fix it...and then we carried on. After a while the road got so narrow that there was no way the carriage wheels would get through. Some of the men gave up at this point. They said the boat would never get to Porlock. They said we were wasting our time and they went home to bed.'
‘Did you give up Grandad?’ I asked.
‘No, I did not!’ said Grandad. ‘We were the lifeboat crew and Jack Crocombe knew we’d never give up. He told us to take off the carriage wheels and we put the boat on bits of wood - like skis - and we just dragged her through the narrow gap.’
First the boat was on wheels and now it’s on skis. Did this really happen..?
Grandad carried on with his story...
‘Next thing that happened we came round a corner and there was a huge tree in the way.
‘"Cut it down men,"’ said Jack. And that’s what we did...'
'Then we came to a cottage which had a garden wall right next to the road. There was no way past that wall.'
‘"Knock it down, men,"’ said Jack Crocombe.'
'An old woman who lived in the cottage came running out in her nightgown.'
‘"What d’you think you’re doing?"’ she said.
'Jack Crocombe explained everything and when she heard that we were on our way to save lives the old lady said: "Well you’d better hurry up and knock down that wall."’
'And so we did.’
'It was nearly morning by the time we got to Porlock,’said Grandad. ‘We were hungry, tired and soaking wet but we didn’t stop. We put the Louisa in the water and sailed her out to sea. We got them. We saved them all. Fifteen men. Got them off the drifting ship and brought them safely back to land. We didn’t give up see. We kept that boat moving...through the night...thirteen long miles...over the hill to Porlock.'
My grandad's pipe had gone out when he'd finished telling his story. I’d just about decided that he was making the whole thing up... but then I looked at him...I saw there were tears in his eyes...and I knew: he was remembering the whole thing.
‘It’s true isn’t?’ I said.
My grandad nodded. ‘12th January 1899,’ he said. ‘The proudest night of my life.’