Lifeboat Disaster Centenary

1916 – 2016

Eddy Distin was an oarsman in the ill-fated lifeboat William& Emma and one of only two members of the fifteen-man crew to survive the disaster. He later became the coxswain of the replacement lifeboat, the Sarah Anne Holden until the closure of the Salcombe station in 1925. When it reopened in 1930 he was appointed coxswain of the new boat, the motor and sailing Alfred and Sarah Heath. He completed his service as coxswain with the motor lifeboat Samuel and Marie Parkhouse from her arrival in 1938 until his retirement in 1951.

At the time of the disaster, Eddie was 25 years old. His account begins in the early hours of Friday 27 October 1916, when he was awoken by coxswain Sam Distin: “There was a bang on the door about a quarter past five in the morning and Sam shouted ‘There’s a ship ashore at Prawle. The boat’s wanted. Rise and shine, Eddie.’ Well. I got dressed, then ran out to the boathouse at South Sands. Well, ran and walked, it’s a long mile to South Sands even going through The Moult grounds. It was getting daylight, a right rough old morning, squally rain and blowing a full gale.”

“When we got there we got rigged up in our oilskins and kapok lifejackets. There was big Sam Distin the cox and his brother Albert, Peter Foale senior, the second cox, his son Peter the bowman and his other son, William. There was Tom Putt, who had just left his wife in labour with their third child. He took a bit of stick from the lads like ‘you’m better off with us than walking up and down the kitchen Tom.’ Then someone asked ‘D’you think you’ll get her out over [the Bar] skipper?’ Sam replied ‘No trouble and it will be a fair wind once we’re over. Just you wait an’ see’.” The bar is a ridge of sand across the mouth of Salcombe Harbour. The crew would have heard and seen the huge waves breaking on it as they made their way from the town to South Sands. As well as the lifeboat crew of fifteen there would have been a launching team of about twenty.

“Two of the crew were late so the cox shouted ‘Who’ll stand in then? What about it, Jack?’ he asked the brother of Frank Cudd, one of the crew. Cudd replied ‘I’m with you.’ Can’t think who else was late, but there was James Cove, James Canham, Ashley Cook, Albert Wood, William Johnson and William Lamble.” [The last named arrived late but in time to take his place in the crew.]

“In them days you needed about twenty launchers to get the boat out of the house, down the slip and across the sand into deep water because the boat was on a carriage with four big wheels. An’ you had a pair of shafts just like an ‘orse an’ cart. You’d put a man in them shafts like an ‘orse but wrong way round so he could guide the carriage into the water. It was all done backwards you see. The head launcher would get his men to move the boat out onto the slip, then call ‘Right, all hands’ and you’d clamber on board and sort yourself out. Then he would call ‘Ready Cox?’ The skipper would check that all were on board an’ in their place, then reply ‘Ready!’ The pin [retaining the boat on the carriage] would be knocked out and off you’ll’d go. ‘Twas high water that morning, an easy launch, we were away quickly.

“We got out all right, no easy matter though. You had to have a good pair of hands to use those paddles [oars]. They weren’t light as you know. [Two are slung up on the opposite wall.] It took a while to battle our way out with tons of water breaking over us, but eventually we made it.”

“When we got out over the bar the skipper said `Up sticks’ and after you had put up the masts you put on the canvas. We had two reefs in the mainsail, a reef in the foresail and close-reefed mizzen. Away we went on a starboard tack straight for Prawle Point. On rounding Prawle we saw the vessel in distress, a tops’l schooner but we couldn’t see if there was anyone aboard or not. There was too much sea for us to get near the vessel and we couldn’t see anyone on shore. But in fact the people had all got ashore before we had left home but the telephone lines were down and they couldn’t get a message through. We could see that we couldn’t do anything but we hung around for a while then the skipper said ‘That’s it. Let’s go home.’ We had a terrible time trying to get back round Prawle [Point] with the sea really burying us down, but we were on our way home.”

By this time crowds of people including the wives and families of the lifeboat’s crew had assembled on the cliffs on the western side of the mouth of the harbour to watch the lifeboat’s return. “Just past Gammon Head the skipper decided to take the canvas down. We lowered the mizzen but kept our course for the bar. Then he said, ‘What about it lads, are we going to give it a try?’ Some said ‘Yes’, others said ‘No’, so we turned out to sea away from the bar. We came in a second time towards Jones’s Wall. Again it was not fit to have a try. On the next attempt the skipper ordered us to ‘Haul up the fore centre-plate’. It came up to within six inches and then it jammed, but we lashed it there. The after centre-plate was down and quite alright. [Centre plates are drop keels which are lowered when a boat is sailing into the wind. When down they also help to steady the boat.] About a half mile off the bar the skipper said ‘Shall we try it?’ By this time we were all pretty cold, wet and miserable and wanted to get home and the thought of having to go up to Dartmouth made most of us say ‘Yes’”

“The skipper said ‘We’ll get her across [to the westward]. She will go never fear. She’s bound to. Down mainsail. Up after centre plate. Get out the drogue’ [used to keep the boat’s stern facing the waves.] The skipper had just given the order to lower the jib when he shouted ‘Man your life lines.’ That’s when we met with the disaster. A bloody great sea struck us on the port quarter [the left side of the boat’s stern] and pipped us. That’s tipped us end over end. We must have been almost a mile from the bar when it happened.
“All fifteen of us got back on the bottom [of the upturned lifeboat] and I can remember the skipper saying to Bill Johnson ‘What do you make of it Bill?’ Not much Sam’ Johnson replied. We got washed off two or three times and each time there was less of us who managed to scramble back. It was impossible to swim, you just got rolled over and over and I did not see the boat again.”

When it was realised that the lifeboat had capsized, a number of men organized themselves into a life saving corps. With lifebuoys, ropes and other appliances they crossed to the Portlemouth side of the harbour, made their way to Limebury Point and then went on round to Rickham where it was thought that there might be a chance of giving aid to any survivors. There were no other fit craft available to go to sea in such conditions. Lieutenant A.E. Wilcock RN tried in a patrol boat but was forced back. Hope Cove lifeboat could not be launched to assist and the Plymouth boat was too far away.

“I was washed up on a big rock near Jones’s Wall but clear of the mainland. And there was Bill Johnson. I hadn’t seen him in the water and there we were side by side. We hung onto that rock like grim death because the sea was trying to wash us off again. It was not long before someone was scrambling down the cliff and shouting to us to hang on. I don’t know what they thought we were doing. Anyway a rope was thrown about twenty yards I suppose. Anyway I caught it with one hand while hanging on with t’other. Bill was getting on in years so I lashed in a bight [a loop in the rope] and those ashore hauled him in while I steadied the rope. Some of the rescuers waded in the sea to try and save Johnson as much as possible from the jagged rocks. When it was my turn I had to lash myself up the best I could round my lifejacket and then jump. That’s when I got knocked about pretty bad [no steadying rope for Eddy.] The sea washed me onto the rocks and off again but they got me ashore in the end. They took us to a shed [the pavilion of the Rickham Golf Links] and I remember Dr Dan Twining asking if I wanted a fag which he gave me and a drop of lotion [brandy] too.”

“Bill and I were very lucky. We were the only ones to be saved. Some of the bodies were washed ashore the same day, some later and two were never found. I was at Rickham Farm for three weeks. Johnson was there for longer. He never got over the disaster. He wouldn’t go in a boat so they brought him back home by road via Kingsbridge. It wasn’t very long before it was decided that there ought to be another lifeboat here. Well they came to me and asked me to take it [be coxswain] I said I don t really think I can’ Then they came down from London [R.N.L.I. Headquarters] and they kept on pestering me until in the end I agreed. Then I had to go round and pick up some new blood and old. They were a rough crew at first, but we made out.”

In October 1973 Eddie Distin died aged 82. His ashes were taken on board the lifeboat Baltic Exchange and scattered over the sea where he had been washed ashore fifty- seven years earlier