by Dennis Bardens
This article first appeared in the magazine "Everybody's Weekly" in 1955
and is reproduced by kind permission of Dennis Bardens.
Photos Dennis Bardens
Here is the story of the Ramsgate lifeboat and the men who sail in her...
it is symbolic of all those who have no thought of profit and are indifferent to the perils of the seas
Into such stormy seas lifeboatmen go fearlessly-each year saving nearly five hundred souls
HUMANITY, not fame, is the spur of those lifeboatmen who almost every day answer distress calls around the coasts of Britain. Strangely, radar, radio telephony and all manner of devices have not lessened the demands on the lifeboat service.
It is certainly not for gain that these men risk their lives to save others. Nominal payment of £1 for the first two hours and five shillings for every other hour at sea-with the possibility on every job that your wife may be left a widow and your children fatherless-is not in itself an incentive.
Last year 668 launchings from 151 stations was the highest figure ever recorded in time of peace. The lifeboats rescued 490 lives; three Lifeboatmen lost their lives in the service of the Institution. These three were members of the Scarborough lifeboat which overturned after escorting fishing boats into harbour one day in December.
What of the drama which crowds round the men who go down to the sea?
If you turn the pages of wartime newspaper files, you might find that the school-children of Hailsham, Sussex, had saved their pennies to present to a 15-year-old boy who had risked his life going backwards and forwards to Dunkirk, helping his father rescue our stranded soldiers.
Only by writing to the mayors of all the South Coast towns was the anonymous hero traced. He was Joe Reed of Ramsgate, whose father owned-and still owns-a pleasure boat. With this vessel Joe and his son brought home nearly 3,000 men.
Bombs and bullets could not-deter them. Men were in danger, and needed help. That was that.
But Joe was brought up amongst lifeboatmen, whose quiet courage and selfless devotion-almost all of them are volunteers-are one of the most splendid traditions of British life. From the foundation of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1824 to December 31, 1954, no fewer than 79,058 lives have been saved by lifeboatmen.
Joe Reed has seen a good many more rescues since the miracle of Dunkirk. But the seas are cruel and unpredictable, and often bravery is unavailing. In the early hours of the morning of November 27 last year, the South Goodwin light-vessel began to drift. The first man on shore to notice anything amiss was the Deal coastguard, who wondered why the lightship was not showing her light.
He rang the Ramsgate coastguards, who listen for distress signals and keep an eye on all lightships off the coast. The Ramsgate coastguard passed a message to the coxswain, Arthur Vernon, of the Ramsgate lifeboat Michael and Lily Davis. The time was just nine minutes past one.
Neither the South Goodwin nor the East Goodwin lights could be seen because of misty rain. Tremendous gales had been blowing for days, and it was feasible that the South Goodwin vessel might be drifting. Yet there was no murmur from her radio telephone; she had no fore and aft lights; she fired no distress rockets or flares, nor, as it now transpires, did she drop her spare anchor when she was drifting.
At 1.27 East Goodwin lightship reported by radio telephone that the drifting vessel was bearing north-west by west of her. From Ramsgate pier the lifeboat maroons were fired. Soon Tommy Cooper, the second coxswain, came running towards the pier, followed by Charlie Crisp, the chief engineer, Bob Cannon, second mechanic and bowman Joe Reed.
More hands were needed. Bob Cannon, who paints yachts for a living, hurried around on his motor cycle rustling up the others; Bert Pettitt the lorry loader, Jimmy Gisby, who works for Ramsgate Corporation as a life-saving safety boatman and has rescued 200 people from drowning; David Ayes the whelker and shrimper, and Harry Goldfinch the shrimper. The howling wind had prevented them hearing the maroon, and this was the only way.
The lifeboat Michael end Lily Davis is always afloat, and always in trim, ready for an instant take-off. The men boarded her, the twin Diesel engines roared into action and by 2.42 she put to sea with a full crew. A full south-west gale was blowing and the sea was breaking heavily on the sand banks.
Somewhere in the blackness a lightship with its crew of seven and a passenger was drifting helplessly, how, why or where nobody could yet tell. The lifeboat's searchlight prodded the darkness; the engineer listened anxiously and hopelessly for distress signals.
Charlie Crisp spoke to the Dover lifeboat by radio and it was agreed that the Ramsgate lifeboat should search to the south while Dover searched to the north-east. But not until just before seven o'clock did the Dover boat get a message that the lightship had been located. At dawn, the Ramsgate lifeboat found the South Goodwin vessel lying on her beam ends on the treacherous Goodwin sands, the white letters on her side pointing to the sky.
The crew of seven had perished. The sole survivor, a bird-watcher, was rescued by an American helicopter.
Once again lifeboatmen had braved the seas. That time the weather had won.
Four men with danger as their job