THE SALCOMBE LIFEBOAT DISASTER
Salcombe's 1916 Memorial to its volunteer lifeboatmen
© Richard J. Brine
A contemporary account
From The Devonian Year Book of 1917:
"On Friday, October 27the 1916, an appalling calamity befell the South Devon port of Salcombe. the lifeboat (the William and Emma) had been called out about six o'clock in the morning to render assistance to the schooner Western Lass, which was reported to be wrecked on Meg Rock, near Prawle Point.
In spite of the furious gale that was raging and the tempestuous breakers on Salcombe Bar, the gallant crew of fifteen succeeded in getting out to sea, and in reaching the vessel that was in distress; then, finding that the schooner's crew had been rescued by the rocket apparatus of Prawle, and that no further help was needed, they started on their return voyage, but in crossing the bar their little craft capsized, and all but two of their number were drowned. Most of them were married men, who leave not only their widows, but also twelve very young children to mourn their loss.
The victims were
Samuel Distin (coxswain)
Peter Heath Foale senior (second coxswain)
Peter Heath Foale junior (son of the second coxswain)
William James Foale (son of the second coxswain)
Francis (Frank) Cudd
John Ambrose Cudd ( a volunteer)
James Alfred Canham
James Henry Cove
The two survivors were William Johnson and Edwin (Eddie) Distin, the former of whom gives the following graphic account of the disaster:
"It was between six and seven o'clock when we had the summons to turn out, and the crew quickly assembling we were soon ready to start. There was never any hesitation about our ability to get over the Bar. We knew we could do that all right. We did. The boat, as a matter of fact, went out splendidly, though a little jumpily, because there was, no doubt about it, a very nasty sea. We had two reefs in the mainsail, a reef in the foresail, and a close-reefed mizzen. We went up around the Prawle, and when we got there we saw the vessel which was in distress - a two-masted schooner. We ventured inshore as far as we dared, and discovered that the crew could almost walk ashore, and were therefore not wanting any help from us. Finding we were not wanted we started to go back to Salcombe, and as there was no recall signal continued on our way.
As we sailed homeward the sea got worse, and we all got pretty wet from the heavy seas breaking over us. Some of the crew suggested as we neared Salcombe the advisability of not attempting to cross the bar, but the majority had confidence that the lifeboat would prove equal to carrying us over; and as we were all, moreover, wet, now so near, the verdict was given in favour of returning over the bar to Salcombe. We saw, of course, how badly the sea was breaking over the bar, and then the coxswain put her head away for the breakers.
At last our opportunity seemed to come. We took in the sails and put out the drogue, and were in the act of unshipping the mast and getting the oars out for the pull in when a tremendous sea struck and capsized the boat. We clambered on to her bottom but were twice washed off, and each time I managed to grab and help a chum back. The coxswain looked to me and asked me what I thought of our chances and I told him "not much". Then we were all swept into the sea again, and I remembered nothing until I found myself on a rock some little distance from the shore, with Eddie Distin on another a few feet off. The waves broke over the rock and swished and swirled round it, but somehow I managed to hold on. then the rescuers came, and of what happened subsequently I have only the haziest recollection. My watch stopped at 11.20 am so that must have been the time, I suppose, that we were thrown in the water."