Heroes of the storm

St Ives is one of Cornwall’s most beautiful little fishing havens. Every summer it attracts thousands of holidaymakers from Britain and abroad who little suspect, as they stroll around the sun-lit blue waters of the harbour, that there is another more dangerous side to this port. When winter sets in the area is subject to some ferocious storms, and in the days of sail many ships foundered on the granite-bound coast. Countless seafarers lost their lives.

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St Ives harbour at low tide. Image by Hans Splinter CC BY-ND

For centuries it was the practice of Cornish fishermen to go out in their own boats and render assistance to those in distress at sea, occasionally at the cost of their own vessels or even their lives. With the establishment of the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwrecks in 1824, which later became the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, things became more formerly organised and specially built boats were provided to Cornish seaports. St Ives received their first boat, a nine-metre double-ender called Hope, in 1840.

By 1938 the St Ives lifeboats – for there had been a number of them over the intervening years – were renowned for saving over 400 souls and assisting many distressed vessels. On the night of January 31, 1938, the reputation of the lifeboat station was further strengthened by the heroic rescue of the Panamanian steamship Alba. She had struck rocks on the northwest side of St Ives Island, and the 11-metre self-righting motor lifeboat, the Caroline Parsons, was launched into the teeth of a ferocious storm to go to her aid.

The coxswain, Thomas Cocking, managed to bring the lifeboat into the lee of the Alba, close enough for all 23 of the stranded crew to jump aboard. But as he backed away an extra large wave caught her broadside and rolled her right over on her beam-ends, spilling rescuers and rescued into the boiling sea. A great cry of terror went up from the hundreds of people – including the wives, mothers and relatives of the lifeboat men – who were watching the drama from a nearby cliff-top. The coastguard had set up lights onshore to assist in the rescue, and the drama was unfolding as clear as day.

The boat was designed to right herself, which she soon did, and most of those in the water were dragged aboard, including Thomas Cocking who was hauled in with a boat hook by his own son John. Two crewmembers of the Alba were lost. The boat’s engine refused to start and without a motor she was completely unmanageable. Pushed across the bay by wind and sea, she was finally driven onto the rocks at Porthmeor. A line was fired out by the St Ives Life Saving Apparatus crew and along this the men were brought ashore by the courageous efforts of the local people, at times wading up to their necks in the raging sea. Three more of the Alba’s crewmen died during the rescue, bringing the loss of life to five. Eighteen in total were saved.

Coxswain Cocking was awarded a silver medal for his bravery, and all the crew received a bronze medal. The Caroline Parsons was so badly damaged that the local Lifeboat Institute committee decided she would be burnt where she lay on the rocks rather than remain there as a sad reminder of the incident. Although none of the lifeboat men had lost their lives, it was a real disaster to lose their vessel in such circumstances. Worse was to follow.

A replacement boat of similar design was paid for from a legacy of Mr and Mrs J Stych. She was the John and Sarah Eliza Stych and in August 1938 saw her first service rescuing a rowing boat and one person in reasonably calm conditions. Then, on 23 January 1939, almost a year since the Caroline Parsons was wrecked, she was called out to a ‘vessel in a dangerous position, two miles NNE of Cape Cornwall.’ A particularly violent storm was raging and it took 80 men to assist in the 2 am launch. Thomas Cocking, at the helm again, headed bravely out into the heavy seas but shortly afterwards the boat sheered sideways as she came down the slope of a large wave. The following wave struck the starboard bow and capsized her. She came up again almost immediately, but four of her crew, including Cocking, were not seen again.

The engine had shut itself off, as it was designed to do, but despite many attempts to restart it the motor continued to stall, which meant that the propeller was well and truly fouled. In order to stop the boat from being swept onto the rocky shore, their only course of action was to drop their anchor. Michael Barber, who had taken over as coxswain, also ordered the mizzen mast to be raised so that they could keep the boat’s head to windward and avoid another capsize, but with only half the crew this proved beyond their strength. Without the mizzen sail to keep them steady, the John and Sarah Eliza Stych sheered around wildly in the terrible confused seas.

The crew burnt flares that were seen on shore and the Penlee lifeboat was ordered to go to their assistance, but to no avail. The strain on the anchor line proved too great and it snapped, leaving the boat to drift across the mouth of the bay. Then a huge sea struck her broadside and turned her over again, trapping William Freeman in a pocket of air. When she righted, Freeman managed to hang on to the starting handle of the motor and came up with the boat, but Richard Stevens, the motor mechanic, had disappeared into the sea.

When she capsized for the third time, both Michael Barber and the coxswain’s son John were washed out of the boat and drowned.

Eventually, the lifeboat was picked up by a huge wave and crashed onto the rocky shore. William Freeman, the only surviving crewmember, managed to crawl onto a fairly flat ledge of rock when the boat got close enough, but was overtaken by a huge wave and washed back. He picked himself up and managed to jam his body into a gap from which he climbed up the cliff to safety. He made his way through the storm to Godrevy Farm and roused Mr Delbridge the farmer, who got on his bike and cycled to Hayle, the closest town, to telephone for a doctor and inform the coastguard.

By 7 am the whole of St Ives had heard of the tragedy. The community went into grief and shock at the sudden loss of seven of their brave men. The wreckage and bodies from the vessel they had been called out to assist, the SS Wilston of Glasgow, were later found at Tregerthen Point, but the bodies of the seven brave lifeboat men were retained by the sea.

After the tragedy, the Lifeboat Institute committee decided that St Ives could not be asked to risk more men in this way. The remains of the John and Sarah Eliza Stych were burnt on the rocks where she had ended her short career, and the lifeboat station was closed. Within a year though, World War II had begun and the fishermen of the Cornish port decided they needed to reopen the station to rescue war casualties. It has functioned ever since, a tribute to the hardiness of the seamen of St Ives.

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