Here’s a feel good story for Christmas. It’s the true story of one of the most amazing lifeboat rescues ever. The 1899 ‘Overland Launch’ of the Lynmouth Lifeboat. It’s a story about people who go that extra mile. And then thirteen more.
On the evening of January 12th 1899, a severe storm hit the south west coast of Britain. It was one of the worst for years. At 7:52pm a telegram was sent to the Lynmouth Post Office. The Forrest Hall, a 2,000 ton 3-masted ship carrying 13 crew and 5 apprentices, was in trouble off the North Devon coast. Severe weather had prevented the Watchet lifeboat from launching and the Lynmouth lifeboat was now the only hope.
Jack Crowcombe, the coxswain of the Lynmouth boat, knew that there was no chance of launching anything at Lynmouth. Several houses in the harbour were already flooded and the waves were crashing into the heart of the village.
So he proposed they carry the lifeboat 14 miles overland to Porlock Weir where the harbour was more sheltered.
Fourteen miles. The lifeboat weighed ten tons and in between Lynmouth and Porlock stood all 1,423 feet of Countisbury Hill. There was no way around it. Lynmouth was a tiny harbour surrounded by steep hills and cliffs. And the road to Porlock was one of the steepest in Britain with a gradient of one in four and a half going up, and one in four going down the other side.
And did I mention the storm?
A crowd grew as word spread about what the lifeboatmen were proposing to do. One hundred men, women and children volunteered to help. Men were sent off to get horses. Six men were sent up the track with picks and shovels to widen the parts of road that were too narrow.
With eighteen horses and 100 volunteers they hauled and cajoled the ten ton boat for several hours up Countisbury Hill. Then a carriage wheel broke. The landlord of the nearby Blue Ball Inn opened his pub to provide food and drink to the exhausted volunteers while others worked on repairing the wheel.
Most of the volunteers now turned back leaving twenty men to finish the journey across Exmoor and down Porlock Hill. On they went, breaking down hedges, digging out banks and, when even that wasn’t enough, putting the boat onto makeshift skids and dragging the boat over the moor itself.
As they approached Porlock, the road became too narrow. A garden wall had to be dismantled. This woke up the elderly owner of the property who was somewhat surprised to see a dozen men taking her garden wall down. But when she heard the reason she came out and helped – and let them dismantle a corner of her house when the passage was found to be still too narrow.
In Porlock they found that the coast road was impassable as the sea wall had been washed away. So they had to move to a higher road – which meant they had to fell a large tree to get the boat past.
Eleven hours after setting off from Lynmouth, the men arrived at the weir and, despite being soaked, cold and exhausted, the fourteen lifeboatmen immediately launched their boat.
They rowed for one hour into the teeth of the storm. The Forrest Hall had lost its rudder but its anchors were holding. The crew of the lifeboat held position next to the Forrest Hall, rowing all the time to keep alongside until daybreak when two tugs arrived. The lifeboat crew then helped get a line from the tugs to the Forrest Hall. They even sent men aboard the stricken three-master to raise the anchors when the ship’s crew were found to be too exhausted to do it themselves.
The Forrest Hall was then towed to Barry in Wales. The lifeboat followed in case the lines broke, reaching Barry around night fall.
The lifeboat crew went 36 hours without sleep.