WATCH: Salcombe commemorates the Salcombe Lifeboat Disaster

By Sam Acourt in Emergency Services

HUNDREDS of people joined the flotilla and lined the banks of Salcombe on Thursday to watch the Salcombe Lifeboat Disaster centenary procession.

One hundred years to the day that thirteen of the fifteen lifeboatmen aboard the William and Mary were lost at sea trying to cross the Bar, Salcombe RNLI organised a church service and wreath laying.

The Salcombe Lifeboat crew, both past and present, attended the service, along with representatives from the RNLI and the Coastguard, decedents of the 1916 crew, and hundreds of people who filled the church. For those who couldn’t find a seat inside, a marquee was set up in the church grounds with a live streamed video of the service, so everyone could watch.

The church service, led by the Rt Rev Nick McKinnel, the Bishop of Plymouth, and Father Daniel French, was held at Holy Trinity Church, Salcombe, and featured the Salcombe Community Gospel choir singing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ by Paul Simon and ‘Crossing The Bar’ by Tennyson.

John Given, great-grandson of Sam Distin, the coxswain on that day, read Mark 4:35-41 and James Cooper, great-grandson of Eddie Distin, who survived the disaster and went on to be the coxswain of the Salcombe Lifeboat, read ‘The Bar’ by RI Partridge.

Stuart Popham QC, chair of the RNLI, read the tribute, explaining the events of the fateful day on October 27, 1916, when the William and Emma capsized trying to cross back over the bar in ‘near Hurricane force winds’.

What makes the story more tragic is that the lifeboat wasn’t needed. The crew they were going to rescue were ashore two minutes before the William and Emma was launched, but without radios, no one could tell them.

Thirteen of the fifteen men who went out in the lifeboat that day never made it home.

It was those men, and the two survivors, that were remembered on Thursday in Salcombe. The Rt Rev McKinnel spoke of the ‘fragile lifeboat, battling its way over the Bar, the crew, well aware of the risks, the relatives and villagers watching as disaster struck’. He described the disaster as the ‘heart being ripped out of a small fishing community’.

He said: ‘In essence, that is what still happens today. Its likely to be a mobile phone call or a pager instead of the maroons, but a ship in trouble calls for help and ordinary people - office workers, plumbers, fishermen, students - drop everything and put to sea. Whatever the weather, no questions asked, risking their lives to help strangers.’

After the service, a flotilla travelled down the Salcombe estuary to the Bar, led by the Salcombe inshore lifeboat Joan Bate, the all-weather lifeboat the Baltic Exchange III, the Plymouth all-weather lifeboat Sybil Mullen Glover and four ex-lifeboats including ex-Salcombe lifeboat Samuel and Marie Parkhouse, now named Onoros, who served Salcombe between 1938-1962.

Hundreds of people in their own vessels joined the flotilla to Remember the 1916 crew, making it quite a sight to behold.

When the flotilla reached the Bar, wreaths were laid and the Rt Rev McKinnel performed a blessing. The flotilla returned to Salcombe, led by a lone piper, Reggie Gough, who served on the Salcombe Lifeboat and is currently a winchman on the Search and Rescue Helicopter, playing on the bow of the Baltic Exchange III.

A thirteen-gun salute, one for every man lost a hundred years ago, was performed by a small arms attachment from Britannia Royal Naval College at the Bolt after HMS Sutherland, who was due to attend, was called away at the last minute.

Andrea Hemsley, grand-daughter of James Canham one of the crew members lost in 1916, said: ‘My mum was only four-and-a-half when her father died, but she remembered the day clearly. She talked about it all of her life, it deeply affected her and her family and had a devastating impact on the community in Salcombe.

‘It’s been incredible to come back to commemorate and hear such stories, it brings the whole thing to life. It’s emotional and upsetting but my mother, if she was around would have been so thrilled that the anniversary is being marked in such a fitting way. On behalf of all the descendants I would like to say thank to all the people involved in the organisation.’

Dr Sarah Wollaston, MP, was on board the Baltic Exchange III and described the flotilla as ‘very moving’ and spoke of the bravery of the men who went out that day.

Those lost were Sam Distin, coxswain, Albert Distin, Sam’s brother, Peter Foale Snr, his sons Peter Foale Jnr and William Foale, James Canham, James Cove, Ashley Cook, Frank Cudd and his brother John Cudd, and William Lamble. Eddie Distin and William Johnson survived.

Salcombe Lifeboat crew would like to thank the following for their generous support of the Centenary commemoration: The Baltic Exchange, The Noyce family, Salcombe Harbour Hotel, Salcombe Gospel Choir, Hatch Marquee Hire, Bloor Homes, The National Trust, Rickham Farm, Nick Rowell Haulage, Adrian Mundy Monumental Mason, John McLaren and Coast and Country Cottages.

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