John Fish B.Sc.Publishers of Tenby in Wales
A TENBY LIFEBOAT FAMILY
Alan was three months old, when our father was to take part in one of Tenby Lifeboat's most memorable rescues. I have to quote the details as I was only two myself.
In the early hours of January 15th 1938 the phone rang for dad. The Coastguards informed him that the Lifeboat was on call-out, distress flares had been sighted out to sea off Saint Catherine's Island.
My father's sea clothes were always laid in readiness on the floor beside the bed, his size nine boots with thick white socks placed ready for his feet to slide into. It must be a mile or more from Broadwell Hayes to the Castle Hill and the Lifeboat Station. He had to cycle as fast as he could against a very strong wind and driving rain. Down the Maudlins, across the Green, up Saint John's Hill [nowadays a one-way street in the opposite direction] across the Norton and down Crackwell Street [again nowadays one-way] to the Lifeboat Station.
The conditions this morning were so bad ... he had to crawl on his hands and knees to get across the foot-bridge linking the Lifeboat Station to the Castle Hill, clinging to the wooden slats or he would have been blown away. Hurricane force winds and torrential rain. The sea was so rough ... it was breaking over the Napoleonic fortress on Saint Catherine's Island.
At 05:15 am within minutes of the first call the Tenby Lifeboat, of name John R Webb II, was launched on her fearful mission. Her crew anticipating a dangerous rescue, darkness and extreme weather conditions against them. Her Coxswain George Hooper was away at the time, his place taken by Second Coxswain John Rees.
Just handling the Lifeboat was a feat in itself in the severe conditions. Visibility was very poor due to the driving rain and spray from the waves. When they sighted the stricken ship they found her aground on the treacherous Woolhouse Rocks - which lie between Caldey Island and the mainland and are submerged at high water. She was identified as a coaster, the SS Fermanagh of Belfast.
The Lifeboat went into rescue procedure. Firstly to circle the ship, inspecting her position, checking for damage and searching for anyone in the water - priority always being given to these first. The ship seemed to be lying on an even keel and did not show signs of breaking up. The Coxswain decided it would be best to stand by and wait for better light, keeping a careful watch on any change in her position.
Within a short time of this decision the Fermanagh came off the rocks and was drifting before the gale. Her bows were up in the air and her decks awash two thirds of the way aft to her funnel and bridge. The Lifeboat crew could now see men aboard her.
The Acting Coxswain, John Rees, at once took the Lifeboat alongside her, handling his craft with great skill in the heavy seas, even so she could only stay alongside for a few seconds. In that short time the eight man crew of the Fermanagh were aboard the Lifeboat. My father told us that in order to exercise this feat the crew had to hook their feet in the scuppers and lean out with their arms outstretched, ready to grab any man who might not succeed in the jump.
It was then discovered that her Master was not among them. Before the Lifeboat had arrived he had launched the ship's boat, but with the heavy seas he had been swept away.
The Lifeboat had already searched around the Fermanagh as she lay on the rocks and seen nothing of the Master or the ship's boat. The rescued men were in a state of shock and exhaustion. The Lifeboat headed for Tenby arriving at 08:30 am - just three hours and fifteen minutes from launch. They landed the rescued men and then went back to search for the Master. They searched for a further two hours but could find no trace of him. The Lifeboat returned to Tenby at 10:45 am, she had been out for over five hours and her crew were severely shaken in the heavy seas. They had been in continual danger of being washed overboard, and two of them were nearly lost when the Lifeboat went into a deep trough.
The highest praise possible must go to any man prepared to offer his life to save that of another.
The crew were: Second Coxswain, Acting Coxswain, John Rees - awarded the RNLI's Silver Medal; Mechanic Alfred Cottam - awarded the RNLI's Bronze Medal; the rest of the crew - all Tenby men, they were from old Lifeboat families - Fred Harries, Thomas E Lewis, Frank Hooper, Alexander Harries, Bertie Lewis, Henry Thomas and James N Crockford - were awarded Vellum Certificates for Gallantry from the RNLI.