Saviours of the sea

Staithes & Runswick Lifeboat.  Photo: Dave Manship
Staithes & Runswick Lifeboat. Photo: Dave Manship
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As it prepares to enter a new era, Grant McKee 
celebrates the stirring record of the Staithes and Runswick lifeboat station.

Tomorrow is a special day in the history of Staithes on Yorkshire’s north east coast. At the close of the charismatic little fishing village’s annual Lifeboat Weekend celebrations, the families and friends of the lifeboat crew will gather above the slipway to sing the 150-year old hymn Eternal Father, Strong to Save with its poignant chorus prayer, For those in peril on the sea.

There will be those in the congregation for whom the words carry real meaning, the relatives and descendants of lifeboat crew members, fishermen and merchant seamen who have perished in the cold North Sea.

Although there are fewer than 100 permanent residents in the old village these days it still retains great pride in its rich seafaring heritage and the Staithes and Runswick RNLI lifeboat station lies at the heart of it.

As long ago as 1920, the Yorkshire Post reported how Staithes boasted “a lifeboat record as thrilling in its story of heroism and disaster as can be found at any station in the British Isles”. And on Sunday the continuing story of that record will be assured with the formal opening and dedication of an enlarged and refurbished lifeboat house in readiness for the arrival of a new and larger boat.

It is a stirring example of commitment. The refurbishment has cost more than £250,000. All the money has been raised locally and nationally by volunteer fund-raising, the weekly pub quiz in the Cod and Lobster, auctions and coffee mornings. There have been notably generous bequests, too; in the last few years two women from the district left a combined total of £385,000 to the station.

But it is the Lifeboat Weekend festivities that are the centrepiece of the Staithes year when some 2,000 people descend down the narrow streets to enjoy the lifeboat rescue demonstrations, the stalls, live music, a fireworks spectacular, the nightgown parade featuring the traditional Staithes bonnets (and cross-dressing crew members), the raft races and then crowd the beckside paths to cheer on 800 sponsored yellow plastic ducks as they race in slow motion down Roxby Beck into Staithes harbour.

And if the visitors venture into the lifeboat house they will see its walls and roof covered with the station’s beautifully painted honour boards recording more than 400 lives saved at sea since the first lifeboat arrived at Runswick in 1866. Staithes received its first boat in 1875. A far cry from today’s sleek three-man, high speed inflatable craft, it was a heavyweight 32-foot sailing and pulling vessel that needed “six strong horses” to haul it from Loftus railway station. Then it took a 13-man crew with 10 oars to undertake the gruelling job of going to sea. Not that that first boat the Hannah Somerset was a crude design. Its London builders tested its buoyancy by dropping it upside down from a crane into the Regent’s Canal; it self-righted and emptied all its water in 30 seconds.

The need for a lifeboat at Staithes requires little elaboration. This has always been a wrecking coast. Colliers shipping coal from Newcastle to London regularly foundered on the treacherous scaurs – reefs – that jut out from the towering cliffs. Before the lifeboats arrived the colliers’ crews relied on fishing cobles bravely heading into the storms to rescue them. The cobles themselves were highly vulnerable; some 50 Staithes fishermen drowned in as many years before the lifeboat.

There were a string of epic rescues, some tinged with tragedy. In 1888, the Winefride Mary Hopps set out with a 12-man crew to rescue the last coble of 40 caught in a gale. As night fell there was no sighting of either boat. Then two lifeboat men struggled ashore with the grim news that although the three fishermen had been taken aboard the lifeboat a huge wave had tipped everyone into the sea. All night the village waited with dwindling hope, worsened at dawn when lifeboatman John Crookes’s body was washed up on the rocks.

Then came astonishing news. A telegram to the Post Office said that the men feared lost were coming home by train from Middlesbrough. They had clambered back aboard the lifeboat and were picked up by a passing steamer which had, by popular legend, heard them singing hymns as they awaited their fate – the same hymns still sung at the end of Lifeboat Weekend.

One of the rescued crew that night was the gentle giant Joseph Verrill, Staithes’s first coxswain. He had retired from the lifeboat but was decorated for his gallantry in putting together a scratch crew. Years later the lifeboat saved him when his coble capsized after 24 hours in terrible seas but the experience broke the local hero. A journalist found him near skeletal, an impoverished recluse and asked: “Can nothing be done to help the Lifeboat Wreck?”

Another hero was Robert Patton, coxswain of the first motor lifeboat at Runswick. He died in 1934 after being crushed between two vessels in the act of rescuing a crippled seaman. He was posthumously given the RNLI’s highest award, the Gold Medal. More than 4,000 people turned out for his funeral and the lifeboat was re-named Robert Patton – The Always Ready.

Heroics and tragedy continued hand in hand into the modern era. While Runswick Bay now operates an independent rescue boat, Staithes men like Steve Iredale, Sean Baxter and David Porritt, all still heavily involved at the station, are prominent among those who have collected a variety of honours for rescues at sea. Steve Iredale, one of the four current helmsmen, won the Bronze Medal in 2000 for the night-time rescue of an elderly yachtsman in heavy seas.

It was typical of the work the crew do today – rushing out to bring safely home stricken yachtsmen, fishing boats whose engines have failed, holidaymakers cut off by the tide walking along the foreshore. There will always be peril on the sea and the Staithes and Runswick lifeboat has never failed to muster a crew.

Today the village can call on four 
helms and 13 crew members, including three women, volunteers all, ready to respond to their pagers which are with them around the clock, ready to launch their Atlantic 75 Pride of Leicester within seven minutes of a Mayday call, speeding out of the harbour, hitting its top speed of 32 knots.

And as the crowds assemble down Staithes’ cobbled High Street for next weekend’s frolics, some will spare a moment to read the plaque commemorating the former head launcher George Hanson who died after saving a boy swimmer struggling in the harbour.

Or imagine how the lifeboat crew must have felt when the drowned body of their colleague and coxswain Colin Harrison was recovered in 1973.

His coble Boy Colin had been capsized by two huge waves. His 12-year old son Colin was found semi-conscious floating in the sea. Young Colin grew up to follow his late father on to the lifeboat, as crewman, helmsman and now one of the launching authority, the fourth generation of his family to serve.

Such is the tradition that will bring lumps to the throat when the seafarers’ hymns are sung and the new Staithes and Runswick lifeboat station is blessed next Sunday evening.