The service described in this article was the service to the s.s. Plawsworth, a 2,500-ton steamer of Newcastle-on-Tyne, which went ashore at Workington, on 17th January last . A south-west gale was blowing, so that the wreck was six miles to windward of Maryport. Coxswain Thomas Q. Keay was awarded the bronze medal, in recognition of the conspicuous skill] with which he handled the life-boat; and the motor mechanic, Mr. A. E. Jolly, the author of this account, received the thanks of the Institution inscribed on vellum. A letter of thanks was sent to Mr. Walker T. Moore, the honorary secretary of the Maryport station, and the coxswain and each member of his crew received an award of £2 8s. 6d. An account of the service appeared in The Life-boat for last June.
… [note: in 1934 Life-boat did not become Lifeboat until later. Spelling and most punctuation remains as it was written in 1934] …
It was a showery morning, with very strong winds. A gale had blown all through the night and was increasing all the following morning, reaching its maximum at high water that afternoon. I had put on my sea-boots and oilskins and gone down to the boathouse to run the life-boat engine. The second mechanic arrived at the boathouse, and together we cleaned the sparking plugs and gave the engine a short final run. We left the boat-house about 11.15 a.m. and stopped to talk with a group of fishermen. I cracked with the bowman of the life-boat, and we passed remarks about the seas that were running outside the harbour. He said : ” It’s not to be wondered at if somebody wants us to-day.” I said : ” We could not grumble if we did get a call in such a sea. It’ll be the worst that we have been out in.“
I left the group of men at about 11.30 a.m. to go home to dinner. Getting near to Coxswain Reay’s house in High Street, I saw the coxswain come running out. He had his sea-boots on, and was pulling on his pilot jacket. Before I could reach him he his hand, and I heard the word “ower ” which is ” Cumberland ” for “away.” Without waiting to hear more, I set off back to the boat-house at the double. Passing the fishermen, I gasped out that the boat was wanted and set off running once more. The s.s. Rathmore was in the dock. Steve, the mate, asked what was the matter. “A steamer aground near Workington,” I replied. I must have got it from the coxswain, for it was a correct message. The coxswain and honorary secretary, with helpers, arrived in Jackson’s lorry at the boat-house at the same moment as myself.
The rockets fired, and five minutes saw the rollers out on the runway and lined up. In that five minutes the head launcher had left his untouched midday meal and arrived at the boat- house. In another five minutes the boat was down on the permanent slipway. Soon the mast was up and rigged.
The second mechanic cranked the engine while I was setting the controls. Another quick swing on the starting handle and then the engine fired and was soon running smoothly. The hum the engine fixes the crowd’s attention. It gives life to the boat. With a final look round at each man’s lifebelt to see that they are all correctly strapped the shoulders, the coxswain gives the signal to the head launcher to slip the boat from its cable. We are off. The boat gathers speed as it slides down the slipway; the air rushes at your face; a joy ride, giving promise of more fun to follow. Splash! We are afloat; the launch is a good one, one of the quickest, perhaps a record for the boat. The time is approximately twelve o’clock noon.
The coxswain immediately ordered “ahead.” I put the gear into the “ahead ” position and speeded up the engine to full throttle. In a few seconds we were abreast the red turning buoy in the new dock basin. Here the coxswain ordered the men forward to put a reef in the sail and make ready to hoist it. Half-way along the south pier the boat began to pitch and roll, the spray breaking right over us. In the run from the bottom of the slipway to the harbour-mouth the coxswain was able to fix his mica shield to his sou’-wester, a device to protect the eyes from the slashing wind and spray.
We were at the end of the south pier, the sail was hoisted, and warning shouts were sung out. The hoisting of the sail in such conditions can be extremely dangerous. It calls for good seamanship combined with speed. This can be readily understood when one realizes the force that a 60 to 70-miles-an-hour wind can exert on all shackles and sheets that hold the sail to the wind. I saw very little of this operation, as I was sitting down on my stool pumping up the air pressure under the canopy by which the engine controls are protected. I saw little, but I heard the straining ropes and shackles continually drumming on the canopy. Then we got the full force of the wind and sea. The boat was pitching and rolling, with seas coming in over her port shoulder, running right aft, and then out by way of the relieving valves. Turning my head a little to port, I could see the end of the south pier, a welcome sight. That part of the business was over. We were clear of the piers.
The coxswain and second coxswain now had a moment to spare, and I heard the second coxswain say : “She seems to be making a little headway. Will you keep her off ? ” I heard no reply. The coxswain was weighing in his mind the chances of his next move. Then he sang out to the men forward to stand by to stay her. He was going over on the other tack. At the same time he put his helm over and brought the boat round. The shackles drummed on the canopy again as the wind came to the sail. The second mechanic got a blow from one of them. I heard him say that it would leave a mark. The wind was south-west, blowing full gale at the shore, and we were now heading slantingly for the shore. One thing was certain—we were making headway.
The coxswain sang out again for the men to stand by for the other tack, which would take us out to sea again. All was bustle as we came about. The sail caught the wind, and slowly, very slowly, at times almost at a standstill— when the waves curled up in front of us and filled the boat—she fought her way out to sea once more. We tacked again before getting very far from the shore, and then made another and longer tack out to sea.
I had been sitting on my stool since we left harbour, three-quarters of an hour before, when my head began to swim; the heaving, rolling boat was all mixed up with the seas and clouds. It was the first symptom of seasickness. I was annoyed, and I decided it should not get me. I stood up to help me in my decision, there being now no immediate need to stand by the engine controls. No sooner had I raised my head above the canopy than—smack! came the sea in my face. It was a good tonic. It cleared away any thought of the sickness and it did not return.
While I was standing up the coxswain, knowing that my watch was on my wrist, asked me the time of day. I sang it out, and again at intervals of a quarter of an hour, and he commented favourably on the progress we had made.
By this time we were well off the land, shipping seas one after another. Some had spent their force by the time they had reached aft to me, but occasionally we received them full weight, which made us hang on to whatever was handy.
The coxswain now gave orders for a look out to be kept for any signs of the steamer down towards Workington, and also a look out towards Maryport for recall signals; but at the moment there was nothing of either steamer or signal to be seen. Visibility was poor, about four miles at the best of times, and we were lucky if we got a clear view at all. It was generally a blurred picture, due to the constant slashing in the face by the wind and sea. Such expressions as “It washes my eyes right out of me,” and “I’ve no eyes left in me,” were given out.
Just a word about the coxswain’s mica eye-shield. He had worn it since leaving the harbour and was receiving a good deal of protection to his eyes. About this time he decided to take it off, or it may have been a little later, when the bowman sang out that he could see the steamer. I can remember at various times when I had glanced round that the shield was flattened by the force of the wind against his face. His reason for removing it was to get a clearer view than was possible with it on, owing to the constant water striking it and running down it.
We were now in very big seas, the biggest so far encountered, approximately half-way between Seaton Scar and Siddick Slag Banks, and a mile or so off shore. When in the trough of a sea all that we could see was a wall of water. We were looking up at it. We saw its crest merged into the stormy sky. We approached each other. It is a thrilling experience to sail against one of these huge walls of water—David meeting Goliath. The boat appears to be almost stationary, but the wall of water comes rapidly nearer. Will it curl and-break in over us, or will the boat rise to it? The bow of the boat goes up at a steep angle, a gradient of one in one and a half. Will the wave knock her off? No, there is a man at the wheel. We are at the top; and what a sight from the top there is! We can see the mighty seas ahead of us. Now we are scooting down the other side, the windward side. The trough of this sea is longer. The wave in front of us is building up, but has not yet reached its maximum. Now we are sailing up its side. This wave is peculiar to me; it is like sailing over the South Downs. It has a nice easy slope, but it is a moving one. We appear to be sailing houses high. This may be an illusion, but I do not think so. Our boat is 35 feet 6 inches long. The side of the wave we are now sailing up is two and a half times the length of the boat. The gradient is approximately one in four. Occasionally a wave would come along that was father of them all. There is time to look round on a wave like this. Over our stern is the last wave that we rode, already yards away, with the tops of others beyond it. I thank my lucky stars that I can enjoy this majestic scenery.
By this time I was wet to the skin. It is surprising how the water finds its way past our splendid oilskins. It cannot pass through them, but it creeps in at the neck and past the storm cuffs when the arms are raised above the level of the shoulder. I think there is a remedy, but it is out of fashion at the present time. It is the natural protection of the whiskers to be seen on the throats and chins of the veterans of the life-boat service.
We are seven all told in the boat. Standing up in the bows, with his back to the mast, using it as a stay to steady himself, is the bowman. He faces the oncoming waves. His duty at the moment is to keep a sharp look out. Next in order coming along the boat are the two extra volunteers. It is the first trip in a life-boat for one of them. On a service call such as this one the actual qualification for a position by the extra fishermen is the simple one of being first down to the boat-house and securing a life-jacket. These two fishermen sit on thwarts facing aft, in a rowing position, as in the old pulling and sailing boats, but in our boat the oars are stowed away, and will only be used in exceptional circumstances. One of them holds the end of the main sail-sheet, which is given a turn round the thwarts, and then held in the hand, so that it can be let go in case of emergency. Each man also holds on to a life-line. Many a time when the seas came on board these two were for a few seconds up to their waists in water.
Next in position comes the second mechanic, sitting down the side. Next in the aft part of the boat is myself at the controls of the machinery. Behind me stands the second coxswain, and the coxswain, who is at the wheel, and many a time his body is brought into use to jam it on the course that he has set.
As I look round me I can see how the buffeting of the wind and the slashing of the water is telling on every man. All would have welcomed a five minutes’ breather, but in an open boat there is no shelter—except the canopy—and no referee to call time. We were beginning to feel spent. Conversation dropped. Any chance remark was answered by a nod or a shake of the head. . . . Then, unexpected, but not the less welcome, came a shout from the bowman that he could see the steamer. The effect on us all was wonderful. Had the rum ration been dished out, it could not have been more effective in reviving our spirits. The wreck was clearly defined, but as yet too far away for us to see any of the crew.
As we had kept well off shore since passing Seaton Scar, our course would take us wide of the steamer. When we got level with her we were about a mile out to sea, so that the coxswain could drop down to her with the wind on our starboard quarter instead of ahead. This meant that we could lower the sail well before we reached the wreck, and what headway we had to make could be made by the engine alone. The coxswain made for the wreck. The wind blew us down to it. It was easy going with the wind. That everyone knows, but I do not remember ever before to have realized it so much. It gave every man a chance to take a long-awaited breather. The first part of the battle was over. It had lasted an hour and twenty-five minutes. Now for the second.
Someone said that the wreck was deserted, but as we drew nearer we could see the crew in the sheltered parts of the ship. Very soon we were abreast, and I sat down to the engine controls, saying to the coxswain that I would do my best to give him all the power he wanted.
The wreck was bow on to the wind and sea, so that there was no lee side on which to shelter while we took the men off. We came down, passing her starboard to starboard, with fifty or sixty yards between us, and then turned to come round under her stern to her port side. We had a glimpse of the slag banks, with the spray flying high over the heads of the men of the life-saving apparatus and people assembled there. Then once more we were battling head to wind and sea. As we came up the port side the first wave that struck us swept us away. Another like that at once would have carried us on to the rocks, but before it came the boat had recovered herself. She was under control and took it bow on. Then, inch by inch, as it seemed, we crept along the steamer’s side, at the same time closing in to her, making progress between waves, losing it again as the waves struck us and carried us back.
As we closed in towards the stern we received signals to come farther ahead to the forward-deck. This surprised the coxswain, who had intended to get alongside the after-deck, where there was more shelter, but he sang out : “All right,” and again we struggled ahead, with the engine all out. Then someone called out that the steamer was split in two amidships, and the plates rent open above the water-line.
The coxswain took the boat on until we had got some distance ahead of the steamer, then he gave orders to the bowman to drop anchor. He obeyed, but the anchor did not hook. It was hauled in again, but the life-boat had now lost the right position. We had to do it over again. The coxswain gave no sign, except that he put a sharper edge to his orders, and I heard him say that he “would have to take a round turn out of her.“
When the life-boat came into position once more he ordered the anchor to be thrown overboard and not paid out as before. This time it held. He ordered me to stop the engine. Then, with the men paying out the cable, the life-boat was carried by the wind nearer and nearer to the steamer. We were tossed and carried hither and thither like a cork—in fact, more than a cork, for a life-boat is more exposed to the wind and is just as buoyant. We would be swept broadside against the wreck. Ten seconds later we would be as many yards away.
Most of the crew of the steamer were now on the forward-deck. All of them wore life-jackets. At least two were standing on the taffrail and clinging to the rigging, ready to jump at the first chance. Our coxswain warned them not to rush it; to come one at a time ; and I think they soon saw that they could not rush it, for when the opportunity came it came from a combination of circumstances, and in a second it had gone again.
From now onwards, as I sat under the canopy at the controls, I could only see in fragments what was happening. I was receiving orders from the coxswain thick and fast: “Ahead,” “Stop,” ” Astern,” and I could only see above and at right angles. The canopy cut off my view forward. On the starboard side was the huge bulk of the steamer; on the port was the open sea.
From what I could gather from the orders of the coxswain to the men forward, things were not turning out to his liking. The two vessels had separated, and could not come close with each other. All the manoeuvring of engine and helm failed to place and keep the life-boat where the ship- wrecked crew could jump aboard her. So much I gathered, but I was feeling out of the game. I refer to the robot-like way in which I was working, altering the controls to the orders given without knowing the results, or even the why or the wherefore.
It was only next day that I learned that a rope securing the life-boat to the steamer was continually snapping in two, due to the strain it had put upon it, and also that one of the crew when jumping missed his footing and finished up sprawling half in and half out of the life-boat, from which dangerous position he was quickly hauled into safety. This last item I first heard on the radio in the second news bulletin that night, while I was enjoying a comfortable smoke by the fire, after a hot bath and a change into dry clothing.
I believe it was when the rope parted for the second time that the life-boat was dashed hard up against the steamer. The breaking of the rope had caused her to swing out from the steamer. The next wave lifted her up and swung her in by the stern. She received the blow on her aft end-box and rudder yoke. Her steering gear was damaged, the yoke being bent down and falling foul of the end-box casing, so that the steering gear was out of action for starboard helm. The second coxswain came down aft to inspect the damage, but as nothing could then be done with it, the coxswain ordered him forward again to the assistance of the men there.
I remember one of the first men to jump came aft, partly for shelter—none of the rescued had oilskins on—and partly to give all the available deck space forward for the crew to jump on. This man called out the Christian name of a man who was still on board the steamer, and as it was also my name, I naturally turned to look at him. He said : “Where are you from?” I answered : “Maryport.” Just then I got a dig in the back from the coxswain. “I gave you astern. Mind your work,” he jerked out. I obeyed the order and took the hint. Questions could wait until there was more time for them.
Some ten or twelve men had now been transferred to the life-boat. How they had fared when taking the leap, I cannot say, but of the last one I have a clear impression. He would be a man getting up in years, between fifty and sixty, probably more. As the life-boat dipped in the trough of the sea he appeared in my angle of view over the canopy. He had climbed up on to the steamer’s taffrail, and was hanging on to the rigging for balance. As the life-boat rose on the next wave he was cut out of my view, but as we came up on the top of the wave I heard a warning shout:’‘Not yet.” The warning was justified, for the life-boat swept aft and away from the side of the steamer, and the man was still in the same position when I saw him again; and there he had to remain, buffeted by the wind and drenched by the spray, until we manoeuvred into position again, a matter of some minutes. What his thoughts were, I do not know, but if he were anticipating his coming jump into a small boat that was tossed like a cork moving in three directions at once, it would test his nerve. Up or down, backwards or forwards, in towards the steamer or away from it. Imagine all three, and then add to them a rolling deck, always inclined one way or the other, and you will see that it was a test for a young man’s nerve, let alone for an elderly man’s.
What made matters worse was that we were gradually but definitely becoming the weather side of the ship. This was due to her dragging her anchors. As her stern was aground, she could only move sideways. That was what was happening; her bows were very slowly moving to starboard. Every minute was making our position more difficult and more dangerous.
I have held you in a state of suspense as to the old man’s fate. Well, that was just how he was kept as he waited for a chance to jump. Time after time, as we dipped, did I catch sight of him still clinging to the rigging. At last his chance came. ” Now,” shouted the coxswain—and down he came into the life-boat, falling plump on the second mechanic—a nice soft fall.
No more men climbed on the taffrail, but two officers in their gold and silver-badged and peaked caps stood behind the bulwark. One of them, cupping his hands to his mouth, sang out: “That’s the lot; the rest are staying on for the present.” “How many ? ” asked the coxswain. ”Five,” came the reply. “Sure you won’t come ? ” asked the coxswain. The answer was again negative. So the coxswain ordered the rope to be cast off, and “ahead ” with the engine. At the same time that we steamed up to our cable the men forward pulled it in, and then finally the anchor was hauled on board.
“Give the engine full speed,” said the coxswain to me. I replied that she was already “full out.” We made very slow progress as we tried to make headway without the aid of the sail. Eventually we drew away from the steamer, and once more I was free to stand up, stretch my legs, and take a look round.
We received many thanks and there were many expressions of gratitude— “Thank God for that,” and such-like— from the rescued men. One man gave the coxswain a half-pound packet of shag tobacco, and this the coxswain gave to me to stow away. It was already saturated with sea-water, so I placed it under the canopy, which protected it from the spray and the occasional waves that broke over us. To protect the rescued men from these waves, a canvas dodger had been spread over them, and was doing good service. They now began to tell us about their bad luck after eight days of gales from Hamburg, through the Channel and Irish Sea; three days overdue, with consequent shortage of food; two days on biscuits and such-like emergency rations; and how they had arrived off Workington the night before with a gale still blowing. And then the finish when she was swept fore and aft by one huge wave that put her steering out of action, leaving her at the mercy of the storm; her anchors failing to hold, and her final grounding on the bank; how she was quickly going to pieces; her plates bursting, some of her holds full of water, her after-deck working under their feet; and how they abandoned that deck for the better half of the ship.
Our coxswain still had his hands full, for the life-boat was crippled. The helm jammed when put over to starboard, making steering more difficult, and adding to his responsibility, but the handicap did not prevent him from making a good position from which he could run for the harbour, which we reached in some fifteen or twenty minutes from the time of leaving the wreck. Over the bar we safely passed into calmer water. Up Workington harbour we steered for a landing. People appeared everywhere and cheered heartily.
We put the men—thirteen in number —ashore, into the care of the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society. Then we inspected the damage to the steering, and checked over the machinery to see that everything was in order. The damage to the steering required immediate attention, so the bolts securing the yoke to the stock were removed and the yoke lifted off the rudder. The coxswain was told of a firm of ship repairers who could straighten the damaged yoke, and the blacksmith who was detailed for the job made it the next one to go into his forge.
We had now time for a smoke, and some of us would have enjoyed a little refreshment, but the coxswain was at the ship-repairers’ supervising the work, so the opportunity passed.
A shout from the other side of the harbour attracted our attention as we were replacing the yoke and screwing up the securing bolts. A man was waving his hand towards the position of the wreck, and shouting that we were wanted. We hurried up with the work ; replaced our life-belts, which we had removed to obtain a little freedom ; started up the engine; reversed a little; then ahead; and off we went again from the calm and shelter of the harbour out into the raging storm. This time the wreck was to leeward of us. We bore down towards her, but the coxswain could see that it was impossible to get alongside. She was now broadside on, lying in the broken water of the receding tide, her sides reaching high out of the water, and the waves breaking right over her bridge. To get over the bank and under her lee was hopeless. Our coxswain could judge the amount of water round the steamer by the height of her propeller arch, which was showing above the breakers.
Our signalman attempted to communicate by semaphore with those left on board. He was not successful in getting their attention, but we saw signals passing in the International Code between the wreck and a steamer in the harbour. The coxswain decided to return to Workington to get the latest information, and we found that the message sent was that the wreck would be dry in an hour’s time. In an hour the men still on board would be safe, unless—which fortunately did not. happen—the steamer went to pieces in the meantime.
There was nothing more that the life-boat could do, but we had still to make our passage home. We bowled along in a following wind, a reef in our sail, and the engine at about three- quarters throttle. There was every promise of a quick passage ; and we got it. There were still two thrills left for us after all the events of the afternoon.
A great wave swelled and then curled as it raced up behind us. I must have felt it coming, for I looked round as it was rearing and roaring high above the stern—then down it came, flooding the boat, and almost broaching her to. I was lifted off my stool, but I held fast to the canopy. The wave buried everything. As I was lifted to my feet it passed on. The men forward were buried in it, then their heads and shoulders came into view, and as it raced ahead it left us partly broadside in the trough of the sea, and the boat filled to the gunwale with water, the men sitting amidships above their waists in it.
Before the next wave reached us the coxswain had again got the life-boat end on, and the relieving valves had emptied out half the water; and then a surprising thing happened. This wave lifted us. but it did not race past us. Instead it carried us along with it. Faster and faster we sped on the back of the monster. The speed took the wind out of the sail. The wave swelled and crested, but still it held us, carrying us on wings of foam. We looked at each other, thrilled with the spectacle. Then the wave left us without any fuss, but a good deal nearer to Maryport, and we had a good laugh at these two experiences in quick succession. I noticed that while we were on the crest of the wave the water still in the boat from the past wave was kept there ; I suppose by the pressure of the wave against the relieving valves. Later we judged the distance we had been carried at several hundred yards.
There is very little more to tell. The bar at the harbour-mouth did not worry us, although I believe it troubled a few on shore, but the coxswain judged there to be ample water, and by this time we were ready to face anything.
Dusk was falling by the time we approached the harbour. The coxswain headed her between the piers. Over the bar it was broken water, but we were through it in quick time, and we sailed up the harbour to the cheers of the patiently waiting crowd. One little girl shouted down to her daddy, and he heard it with delight above all the other voices.
Please click and visit History – Maryport Inshore Rescue (maryportrescue.co.uk)
Please click and visit History – Maryport Inshore Rescue (maryportrescue.co.uk)
Maryport Lifeboat opened the doors to the RNLI station in 1865 built on the southern side of the harbour, the site of our brand new station today. Over the next 85 years five life boats saw active service in the port. 1865 saw the launch of Maryport’s first lifeboat the Henry Nixson, A “pulling-sailing” boat powered by oars and sails, paid for by Henry Nixson of Manchester and served for 21 years until 1886. 1886 saw the launch of first of the two civil service no5 lifeboats to operate from the Maryport RNLI station a crowd of around 7000 attended the launch of the £296 vessel, serving for 19 years before being replaced in 1905 at a cost of £1011, the second civil service no5 served for 26years. Both boats were paid for by the civil service lifeboat fund.Maryports first motorised lifeboat the Priscilla Macbean was launched in 1931. Paid for by Mr. E Macbean and named in memory of his wife, she served for three years.
1934 saw the launch of Maryports last RNLI lifeboat the Joseph Braithwaite on September 27th, The boat was paid for out of the legacy of Joseph Braithwite who had been born in Wigton. She served until 1949 when the station sadly closed its doors. Almost 100 call outs were attended and 150 lives saved. After a distinguished service, with one silver and two bronze medals the station was closed in 1949 due to a build up of silt in the harbour preventing the launch of the lifeboat, no sea based rescue service existed out of Maryport for the following 30 years. The Present independent lifeboat service was founded in 1978 by six local men in response to an accident at sea which sadly cost the lives of three members of the towns community from a fishing boat The Ospray. Since then the station has had five rib (rigid inflatable boat) lifeboats, The current boat E-ON Sprit of Maryport has been on station for six years. The current boat has a crew of over twenty volunteers.