Despite the grim reality of local tragedies, the history of British lifeboats is mostly one of bravery, heroism and self-sacrifice. Many lifeboat stations along the Cornish coast have tales to tell and successful rescues to be proud of. In fact, lifeboats from the ports of Cadgewith, Lizard, Coverack and Porthlevin together hold the record for the most people saved from a single shipwreck in the whole of British seafaring. It all began on Sunday 17 March 1907, when the 12,700 tonne Suevic ran at half speed onto the Clidgas rock, part of the larger Maenheere Reef off the Lizard Point. She was carrying 456 people.
The Suevic had travelled 19,000 kilometres in perfect weather and perfect safety only to encounter rain, fog, a southwest gale and rough sea conditions in the English Channel. She strayed too far north and ran aground, but both the Cadgewith and Lizard lifeboats were swiftly dispatched to assist.
Approaching the wreck, the Lizard lifeboat came upon two of the ship’s boats, crowded with women and children in considerable danger. The coxswain burnt white flares, indicating the need for assistance, put a man onboard one of the boats to take the helm, and towed her back to the safety of Polpeor Cove.
The Cadgewith boat responded to the flares and took charge of the second ship’s boat. None other than the Royal National Lifeboat Institute secretary, the Reverand Henry Vyvyan, volunteered to pilot the ship’s lifeboat along the rock-strewn coast. This he did with some skill, but when he tried to return to the Suevic to rescue more people, the boat was swamped by the breakers and cast ashore. The Reverand survived and went to join the Lizard lifeboat when she returned with her second load of passengers.
Meanwhile, it had become apparent that the passenger ship was in a very dangerous situation. If all the passengers were to be rescued, more help would be needed. The Coverack and the Porthlevin lifeboats were called out, plus as many tugs from Falmouth as could be requisitioned. It was now 3 am on a very dark morning and the gale had increased in intensity. That made it impossible to land any more survivors at Polpeor beach, which was the closest landing point, and all other loads had to go to Cadgewith. It was much further away but the tugs helped by towing the lifeboats.
The Cadgewith lifeboat rescued 227 souls that night. The Lizard boat saved 167, the boat from Coverack saved 44 and the Porthlevin boat – the last to arrive – saved 18. Altogether, 380 passengers and 180 crew were landed, a total of 456. This record still stands today. The remaining 68 people were landed in the ship’s boats or by the tugs.