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Lifeboats And Lightships
When our noble Lifeboat Institution was in its infancy, a deed was performed by a young woman which at once illustrates the extreme danger to which those who attempt to rescue the shipwrecked must expose themselves, and the great need there was, thirty years ago, for some better provision than existed at that time for the defence of our extensive sea-board against the dire consequences of storm and wreck. It is not, we think, inappropriate to begin our chapter on lifeboats with a brief account of the heroic deed of:—
There are not many women who, like Joan of Arc, put forth their hands to the work peculiarly belonging to the male sex, and achieve for themselves undying fame. And among these there are very few indeed who, in thus quitting their natural sphere and assuming masculine duties, retain their feminine modesty and gentleness.
Such a one, however, was Grace Darling. She did not, indeed, altogether quit her station and follow a course peculiar to the male sex; but she did once seize the oar and launch fearlessly upon the raging sea, and perform a deed which strong and daring men might have been proud of—which drew forth the wondering admiration of her country, and has rendered her name indissolubly connected with the annals of heroic daring in the saving of human life from vessels wrecked upon our rock-bound shores.
Grace Darling was born in November 1815, at Bamborough, on the Northumberland coast. Her father was keeper of the lighthouse on the Longstone, one of the Farne Islands lying off that coast; and here, on a mere bit of rock surrounded by the ocean, and often by the howling tempests and the foaming breakers of that dangerous spot, our heroine spent the greater part of her life, cut off almost totally from the joys and pursuits of the busy world. She and her mother managed the domestic economy of the lighthouse on the little islet, while her father trimmed the lantern that sent a blaze of friendly light to warn mariners off that dangerous coast.
In personal appearance Grace Darling is described as having been fair and comely, with a gentle, modest expression of countenance; about the middle size; and with nothing in the least degree masculine about her. She had reached her twenty-second year when the wreck took place in connection with which her name has become famous.
The Farne Islands are peculiarly dangerous. The sea rushes with tremendous force between the smaller islands, and, despite the warning light, wrecks occasionally take place among them. In days of old, when men had neither heart nor head to erect lighthouses for the protection of their fellows, many a noble ship must have been dashed to pieces there, and many an awful shriek must have mingled with the hoarse roar of the surf round these rent and weatherworn rocks.
A gentleman who visited the Longstone rock in 1838, describes it thus:—
“It was, like the rest of these desolate isles, all of dark whinstone, cracked in every direction, and worn with the action of winds, waves, and tempests since the world began. Over the greater part of it was not a blade of grass, nor a grain of earth; it was bare and iron-like stone, crusted, round all the coast as far as high-water mark, with limpet and still smaller shells. We ascended wrinkled hills of black stone, and descended into worn and dismal dells of the same; into some of which, where the tide got entrance, it came pouring and roaring in raging whiteness, and churning the loose fragments of whinstone into round pebbles, and piling them up in deep crevices with seaweeds, like great round ropes and heaps of fucus. Over our heads screamed hundreds of hovering birds, the gull mingling its hideous laughter most wildly.”
One wild and stormy night in September 1838—such a night as induces those on land to draw closer round the fire, and offer up, perchance, a silent prayer for those who are at sea—a steamer was battling, at disadvantage with the billows, off Saint Abb’s Head. She was the Forfarshire, a steamer of three hundred tons, under command of Mr John Humble; and had started from Hull for Dundee with a valuable cargo, a crew of twenty-one men, and forty-one passengers.
It was a fearful night. The storm raged furiously, and would have tried the qualities of even a stout vessel; but this one was in very bad repair, and her boilers were in such a state that the engines soon became entirely useless, and at last they ceased to work. We cannot conceive the danger of a steamer left thus comparatively helpless in a furious storm and dark night off a dangerous coast.
In a short time the vessel became quite unmanageable, and drifted with the direction of the tide, no one knew whither. Soon the terrible cry arose, “Breakers to leeward,” and immediately after the Farne lights became visible. A despairing attempt was now made by the captain to run the ship between the islands and the mainland; but in this he failed, and about three o’clock she struck heavily on a rock bow foremost.
The scene of consternation that followed is indescribable. Immediately one of the boats was lowered, and with a freight of terror-stricken people pushed off, but not before one or two persons had fallen into the sea and perished in their vain attempts to get into it. This party in the boat, nine in number, survived the storm of that awful night, and were picked up the following morning by a Montrose sloop. Of those left in the ill-fated ship some remained in the after-part; a few stationed themselves near the bow, thinking it the safest spot. The captain stood helpless, his wife clinging to him, while several other females gave vent to their agony of despair in fearful cries.
Meanwhile the waves dashed the vessel again and again on the rock, and at last a larger billow than the rest lifted her up and let her fall down upon its sharp edge. The effect was tremendous and instantaneous; the vessel was literally broken in two pieces, and the after-part, with the greater number of the passengers in the cabin, was swept away through the Fifa Gut, a tremendous current which is considered dangerous even in good weather. Among those who thus perished were the captain and his wife. The forepart of the steamer, with the few who had happily taken refuge upon it, remained fast on the rock. Here eight or nine of the passengers and crew clung to the windlass, and a woman named Sarah Dawson, with her two little children, lay huddled together in a corner of the fore-cabin, exposed to the fury of winds and waves all the remainder of that dreadful night. For hours each returning wave carried a thrill of terror to their hearts; for the shattered wreck reeled before every shock, and it seemed as if it would certainly be swept away into the churning foam before daybreak.
But daylight came at last, and the survivors on the wreck began to sweep the dim horizon with straining eyeballs as a faint hope at last began to arise in their bosoms. Nor were these trembling hopes doomed to disappointment. At the eleventh hour God in his mercy sent deliverance. Through the glimmering dawn and the driving spray the lighthouse-keeper’s daughter from the lonely watch-tower descried the wreck, which was about a mile distant from the Longstone. From the mainland, too, they were observed; and crowds of people lined the shore and gazed upon the distant speck, to which, by the aid of telescopes, the survivors were seen clinging with the tenacity of despair.
But no boat could live in that raging sea, which still lashed madly against the riven rocks, although the violence of the storm had begun to abate. An offer of 5 pounds by the steward of Bamborough Castle failed to tempt a crew of men to launch their boat. One daring heart and willing hand was there, however. Grace Darling, fired with an intense desire to save the perishing ones, urged her father to launch their little boat. At first he held back. There was no one at the lighthouse except himself, his wife, and his daughter. What could such a crew do in a little open boat in so wild a sea? He knew the extreme peril they should encounter better than his daughter, and very naturally hesitated to run so great a risk. For, besides the danger of swamping, and the comparatively weak arm of an inexperienced woman at the oar, the passage from the Longstone to the wreck could only be accomplished with the ebb-tide; so that unless the exhausted survivors should prove to be able to lend their aid, they could not pull back again to the lighthouse.
But the earnest importunities of the heroic girl were not to be resisted. Her father at last consented, and the little boat pushed off with the man and the young woman for its crew. It may be imagined with what a thrill of joy and hope the people on the wreck beheld the boat dancing an the crested waves towards them; and how great must have been the surprise that mingled with their other feelings on observing that one of the rowers was a woman!
They gained the rock in safety; but here their danger was increased ten-fold, and it was only by the exertion of great muscular power, coupled with resolute courage, that they prevented the boat being dashed to pieces against the rock.
One by one the sufferers were got into the boat. Sarah Dawson was found lying in the fore-cabin with a spark of life still trembling in her bosom, and she still clasped her two little ones in her arms, but the spirits of both had fled to Him who gave them. With great difficulty the boat was rowed back to the Longstone, and the rescued crew landed in safety. Here, owing to the violence of the sea, they were detained for nearly three days, along with a boat’s crew which had put off to their relief from North Sunderland; and it required some ingenuity to accommodate so large a party within the narrow limits of a lighthouse. Grace gave up her bed to poor Mrs Dawson; most of the others rested as they best could upon the floor.
The romantic circumstances of this rescue, the isolated position of the girl, her youth and modesty, and the self-devoting heroism displayed upon this occasion, thrilled through the length and breadth of the country like an electric shock, and the name of Grace Darling became for the time as well known as that of the greatest in the land, while the lonely lighthouse on the Longstone became a point of attraction to thousands of warm admirers, among whom were many of the rich and the noble. Letters and gifts flowed in upon Grace Darling continually. The public seemed unable to do enough to testify their regard. The Duke of Northumberland invited her over to Alnwick Castle, and presented her with a gold watch. A public subscription, to the amount of 700 pounds, was raised for her. The Humane Society presented her with a handsome silver tea-pot and a vote of thanks for her courage and humanity. Portraits of her were sold in the print-shops all over the land; and the enthusiasm, which at first was the natural impulse of admiration for one who had performed a noble and heroic deed, at last rose to a species of mania, in the heat of which not a few absurdities were perpetrated.
Among others, several of the proprietors of the metropolitan theatres offered her a large sum nightly on condition that she would appear on the stage, merely to sit in a boat during the performance of a piece illustrative of the incident of which she was the heroine! As might have been expected of one whose spirit was truly noble, she promptly declined all such offers. God seems to have put his arm tenderly round Grace Darling, and afforded her special strength to resist the severe temptations to which she was exposed.
All proposals to better her condition were rejected, and she returned to her home on the island rock, where she remained with her father and mother till within a few months of her death. The fell destroyer, alas! claimed her while yet in the bloom of womanhood. She died of consumption on the 20th of October 1842, leaving an example of self-devoting courage in the hour of danger, and self-denying heroism in the hour of temptation, that may well be admired and imitated by those whose duty it is to man the lifeboat and launch to the rescue on the stormy waves, in all time to come.
A lifeboat—that is to say, the lifeboat of the present time—differs from all other boats in four particulars. It is almost indestructible; it is insubmergible; it is self-righting; it is self-emptying. In other words, it can hardly be destroyed; it cannot be sunk; it rights itself if upset; it empties itself if filled.
The first of these qualities is due to the unusual strength of the lifeboat, not only in reference to the excellence of the materials with which it is made, but also to the manner in which the planks are laid on. These cross one another in a diagonal manner, which cannot be easily described or explained to ordinary readers; but it is sufficient to say that the method has the effect of binding the entire boat together in a way that renders it much stronger than any other species of craft. The second quality—that of insubmergibility—is due to air-chambers fixed round the sides of the boat, under the seats, and at the bow and stern. These air-cases are sufficiently buoyant to float the boat even if she were filled to overflowing with water and crowded to her utmost capacity with human beings. In short, to use an expression which may appear paradoxical, she can carry more than she can hold—has floating power sufficient to support more than can be got into her. The third—her self-righting quality—is also due to air-chambers, in connection with a heavy keel. There are two large and prominent air-cases in the lifeboat—one in the bow, the other in the stern. These rise considerably above the gunwale, insomuch that when the boat is turned upside-down it rests upon them as upon two pivots. Of course it cannot remain stationary on them for a moment, but must necessarily fall over to the one side or the other. This is the first motion in self-righting; then the heavy keel comes into play, and pulls the boat quite round. Being full of water, the lifeboat would be comparatively useless but for its fourth quality—that of self-emptying. This is accomplished by means of six large holes which run through the floor and bottom of the boat. The floor referred to is air-tight, and is so placed that when fully manned and loaded with passengers it is a very little above the level of the sea. On this fact the acting of the principle depends. Between the floor and the bottom of the boat—a space of upwards of a foot in depth—there is some light ballast of cork or of wood, and some parts of the space are left empty. The six holes above-mentioned are tubes of six inches in diameter, which extend from the floor through the bottom of the boat. Now, it is one of nature’s laws that water must find its level. For instance, take any boat and bore large holes in its bottom, and suppose it to be supported in its ordinary floating position, so that it cannot sink even though water runs freely into it through the holes. Then fill it suddenly quite full of water. Of course the water inside will be considerably above the level of the water outside, but it will continue to run out at the holes until it is exactly on a level with the water outside. Now, water poured into a lifeboat acts exactly in the same way; but when it has reached the level of the water outside it has also reached the floor, so that there is no more water to run out.
Such are the principal qualities of the splendid lifeboat now used on our coasts, and of which it may be said that it has reached a state of almost absolute perfection.
The accompanying sections of the lifeboat exhibit the position of the air-cases and discharging tubes. In Figure 1 the shaded parts give a side view of the air-cases. The line A A indicates the deck or floor, which lies a little above the level of the water when the boat is loaded; B B is the water-tight space containing ballast; C C C are three of the six discharging holes or tubes; the dotted line D D shows the level of the sea. Figure 2 gives a bird’s-eye view of the boat. The shaded parts indicate the air-cases; and the position of the six discharging tubes is more clearly shown than in Figure 1. There are three covered openings in the floor, which permit of a free circulation of air when the boat is not in use, and in one of these is a small pump to clear the ballast-space of leakage. It will be observed that the boat draws little water; in fact, there is much more of her above than below water, and she is dependent for stability on her great breadth of beam and her heavy keel.
These four qualities in the lifeboat are illustrated every year by many thrilling incidents of wreck and rescue. Let us glance at a few of these. First, then, as to the almost indestructible quality. Take the following evidence:—
On a terrible night in the year 1857 a Portuguese brig struck on the Goodwin Sands, not far from the lightship that marks the northern extremity of those fatal shoals. A shot was fired, and a rocket sent up from the lightship as a signal to the men on shore that a vessel had got upon the sands. No second signal was needed. Anxious eyes had been on the watch that night. Instantly the Ramsgate men jumped into their lifeboat, which lay alongside the pier. It was deadly work that had to be done,—the gale was one of the fiercest of the season,—nevertheless the gallant men were so eager to get into the boat that it was overmanned, and the last two who jumped in were obliged to go ashore. A small but powerful steamer is kept to attend upon this boat. In a few minutes it took her in tow and made for the mouth of the harbour.
They staggered out right in the teeth of tide and tempest, and ploughed their way through a heavy cross-sea that swept again and again over them, until they reached the edge of the Goodwins. Here the steamer cast off the boat, and waited for her, while she dashed into the surf and bore the brunt of the battle alone.
With difficulty the brig was found in the darkness. The lifeboat cast anchor when within about forty fathoms, and veered down under her lee. At first they were in hopes of getting the vessel off, and hours were spent in vain endeavours to do this. But the storm increased in fury; the brig began to break up; she rolled from side to side, and the yards swung wildly in the air. A blow from one of these yards would have stove the boat in, so the Portuguese crew—twelve men and a boy—were taken from the wreck, and the boatmen endeavoured to push off. All this time the boat had been floating in a basin worked in the sand by the motion of the wreck; but the tide had been falling, and when they tried to pull up to their anchor the boat struck heavily on the edge of this basin. The men worked to get off the shoals as only those can work whose lives depend on their efforts. They succeeded in getting afloat for a moment, but again struck and remained fast. Meanwhile the brig was lifted by each wave and let fall with a thundering crash; her timbers began to snap like pipe-stems, and as she worked nearer and nearer, it became evident that destruction was not far off. The heavy seas caused by the increasing storm flew over the lifeboat, so that those in her could only hold on to the thwarts for their lives. At last the brig came so near that there was a stir among the men; they were preparing for the last struggle—some of them intending to leap into the rigging of the wreck and take their chance; but the coxswain shouted, “Stick to the boat, boys! stick to the boat!” and the men obeyed.
At that moment the boat lifted a little on the surf, and grounded again. New hope was infused by this.
The men pulled at the hawser, and shoved might and main with the oars. They succeeded in getting out of immediate danger, but still could not pull up to the anchor in teeth of wind and tide. The coxswain then saw plainly that there was but one resource left—to cut the cable and drive right across the Goodwin Sands. But there was not yet sufficient water on the Sands to float them over; so they held on, intending to ride at anchor until the tide, which had turned, should rise. Very soon, however, the anchor began to drag. This compelled them to hoist sail, cut the cable sooner than they had intended, and attempt to beat off the Sands. It was in vain. A moment more, and they struck with tremendous force. A breaker came rolling towards them, filled the boat, caught her up like a plaything on its crest, and, hurling her a few yards onwards, let her fall again with a shock that well-nigh tore every man out of her. Each successive breaker treated her in this way.
Those who dwell by the sea-shore know well the familiar ripples that mark the sands when the tide is out. On the Goodwins these ripples are gigantic steps, to be measured by feet, not by inches. From one to another of these banks this splendid boat was thrown. Each roaring surf caught it by the bow or stern, and, whirling it right round, sent it crashing on the next ledge. The Portuguese sailors appeared to give up all hope, and clung to the thwarts in silent despair; but the crew—eighteen in number—did not lose heart altogether. They knew their boat well, had often gone out to battle in her, and hoped that they might yet be saved if she should only escape striking on the pieces of old wrecks with which the Sands were strewn.
Thus, literally, yard by yard, with a succession of shocks that would have knocked any ordinary boat to pieces, did that lifeboat drive during two hours over two miles of the Goodwin Sands. At last they drove into deep water; the sails were set; and soon after, through God’s mercy, they landed the rescued crew in safety in Ramsgate Harbour.
What further evidence need we that the lifeboat is almost, if not altogether, indestructible?
That the lifeboat is insubmergible has been proved to some extent by the foregoing incident. No better instance could be adduced to prove the buoyancy of the life boat than that of the Tynemouth boat, named the Constance, at the wreck of the Stanley, in the year 1864. In this case, while the boat was nearing the wreck, a billow broke over the bow of the Stanley, and falling into the Constance, absolutely overwhelmed her. Referring to this, the coxswain of the lifeboat says: “The sea fell over the bows of the Stanley and buried the lifeboat. Every oar was broken at the gunwale of the boat, and the outer ends swept away. The men made a grasp for the spare oars; three were gone—two only remained.” Now, it is to be observed that the coxswain here speaks of the boat as being buried, sunk by the waves, and immediately, as he says, “the men made a grasp for the spare oars.” The sinking and leaping to the surface seem to have been the work almost of the same moment. And this is indeed the case; for when the force that sinks a lifeboat is removed, she rises that instant to the surface like a cork.
In order to prove the value of the self-righting quality, and the superiority of those lifeboats which possess it over those which are destitute of it, we will briefly cite three cases—the last of which will also prove the value of the self-emptying quality.
On the 4th of January 1857, the Point of Ayr lifeboat, when under sail in a gale, upset at a distance from land. The accident was seen from the shore; but no help could be rendered, and the whole boat’s crew—thirteen in number—were drowned. Now, this was deemed a good lifeboat, but it was not a self-righting one; and two of her crew were seen clinging to the keel for twenty minutes, by which time they became exhausted and were washed off.
Take another case of a non-self-righting boat. In February 1858 the Southwold lifeboat, a large sailing-boat, and esteemed one of the finest in the kingdom, went out at the quarterly period of exercise in rough weather, and was running before a heavy sea with all sail set when she suddenly ran on the top of a wave, broached to, and upset. The crew in this case were fortunately near the land, had on their cork belts, and were dragged ashore, though with difficulty; but three amateurs, who were without belts, perished.
These two cases occurred in the day-time.
The third case happened at night—on a very dark stormy night in October 1858. A wreck had been seen about three miles off Dungeness, and the lifeboat at that place—a small self-righting and self-emptying one belonging to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution—put off, with eight stout men of the coast-guard for a crew. On reaching the wreck, soon after midnight, it was found that the crew had deserted her; the lifeboat therefore returned towards the shore. On nearing it she got into a channel between two shoals, where she was caught up and struck by three heavy seas in succession. The coxswain lost command of the rudder; she was carried away before the sea, broached to, and upset, throwing her crew out of her. Immediately she righted herself, cleared herself of water, and the anchor, having fallen out, brought her up. The crew, meanwhile, having on cork belts, floated, regained the boat, clambered into it by means of the life-lines hung round her sides, cut the cable, and returned to shore in safety.
So much for the nature and capabilities of our lifeboats. We cannot afford space to say more in regard to them than that they are the means, under God, of saving many hundreds of human lives every year on the coasts of the United Kingdom, besides a large amount of shipping and property, which, but for them, would inevitably be lost. The noble Institution which manages them was founded in 1824, and is supported entirely by voluntary contributions.
Along with the lifeboat we may appropriately describe here another species of vessel, which, if it does not directly rescue lives, at all events prevents disaster by giving timely warning of danger. We refer to:—
These floating beacons are anchored in the immediate vicinity of the numerous sand-banks which lie off the mouths of some of the principal ports of the kingdom, especially in England, and on other parts of our shores. There are numerous floating lights around our coasts, marking shoals on which lighthouses could not easily be erected. Their importance to shipping is inconceivably great. The accompanying illustration shows a vessel passing the lightship at the Nore. The impossibility of shipping getting safely into or out of the port of London without the guiding aid of lightships, as well as of buoys and beacons, may be made clear by a simple statement of the names of some of the obstructions which lie in the mouth of the Thames. There are the Knock Shoals, the East and West Barrows, the John, the Sunk, the Girdler, and the Long Sands, all lying like so many ground sharks waiting to arrest and swallow up passing vessels, which, unfortunately, they too often accomplish despite the numerous precautions taken to rob them of their prey. Most people know the appearance of buoys, but we dare say few have seen a buoy or beacon resembling the one in our engraving, which is a sort of cage, fastened to a buoy, with a bell inside that rings by the action of the waves. It must have been something of this sort that was used at the famous “Bell Rock” in days of yore.
Lightships are usually clumsy-looking, red-painted vessels, having one strong mast amidships, with a ball at the top, about six feet in diameter, made of light laths. This ball is a very conspicuous object, and clearly indicates a lightship to the passing vessel during the day. At night a huge lantern traverses on, and is hoisted to nearly the top of, the same mast. It is lighted by a number of argand lamps with powerful reflectors. Some lightships have two masts, and some three, with a ball and a lantern on each. Some of these lanterns contain fixed, others revolving lights—these differences being for the purpose of indicating to seamen the particular light which they happen to be passing.
Thus, the Goodwin Sands, which are upwards of ten miles in length, are marked by three lightships. The one on the north has three masts and three fixed lights. The one on the south has two masts and two fixed lights. The one that lies between the two—off Ramsgate, and named the Gull—has one mast and one revolving light.
The crew of a lightship consists of about nine or ten men, each of whom does duty for two months on board, and one month on shore, taking their turn by rotation; so that the number of men always on board is about seven. While on shore, they attend to the buoys, anchors, chain-cables, and other stores of the Trinity House, which has charge of all the lights, buoys, and beacons in England. They also assist in laying down new buoys and sinkers, and removing old ones, etcetera.
Lightships run considerable risk, for besides being exposed at all times to all the storms that rage on our shores, they are sometimes run into by ships in foggy weather.
The Gull lightship, above referred to, occupies a peculiar and interesting position. Being in the very centre of all the shipping which passes through the Downs, she has frequent narrow escapes, and has several times been damaged by collisions. The marvel is that, considering her position, she does not oftener “come to grief.” She also signals for the Ramsgate lifeboat, by means of guns and rockets, when a ship is observed by her crew to have got upon the dreaded Goodwin Sands.
We had the pleasure of spending a week on board of the Gull lightship not long ago, and one night witnessed a very stirring scene of calling out the lifeboat. We shall conclude this subject by quoting the following letter, which we wrote at the time, giving a detailed account of it.
Ramsgate, March 26, 1870.
The eye-witness of a battle from an unusual point of view may, without presumption, believe that he has something interesting to tell. I therefore send you an account of what I saw in the Gull lightship, off the Goodwin Sands, on the night of Thursday last, when the Germania, of Bremen, was wrecked on the South-Sand-Head. Having been an inhabitant of the Gull lightship for a week, and cut off from communication with the shore for several days, I have been unable to write sooner.
Our never-ending warfare with the storm is well known. Here is one specimen of the manner in which it is carried on.
A little before midnight on Thursday last (the 24th), while I was rolling uneasily in my “bunk,” contending with sleep and sea-sickness, and moralising on the madness of those who choose “the sea” for a profession, I was roused—and sickness instantly cured—by the watch on deck suddenly shouting down the hatchway to the mate, “South-Sand-Head light is firing, sir, and sending up rockets.” The mate sprang from his “bunk,” and was on the cabin floor before the sentence was well finished. I followed suit, and pulled on coat, nether garments, and shoes, as if my life depended on my own speed. There was unusual need for clothing, for the night was bitterly cold. A coat of ice had formed even on the salt-water spray which had blown into the boats. On gaining the deck, we found the two men on duty actively at work, the one loading the lee gun, the other adjusting a rocket to its stick. A few hurried questions from the mate elicited all that it was needful to know. The flash of a gun from the South-Sand-Head lightship, about six miles distant, had been seen, followed by a rocket, indicating that a vessel had got upon the fatal Goodwins. While the men spoke, I saw the bright flash of another gun, but heard no report, owing to the gale carrying the sound to leeward. A rocket followed, and at the same moment we observed the light of the vessel in distress just on the southern tail of the Sands. By this time our gun was charged, and the rocket in position. “Look alive, Jack! get the poker,” cried the mate, as he primed the gun. Jack dived down the companion hatch, and in another moment returned with a red-hot poker, which the mate had thrust into the cabin fire at the first alarm. Jack applied it in quick succession to the gun and the rocket. A blinding flash and deafening crash were followed by the whiz of the rocket as it sprang with a magnificent curve far away into the surrounding darkness. This was our answer to the South-Sand-Head light, which, having fired three guns and three rockets to attract our attention, now ceased firing. It was also our note of warning to the look-out on the pier of Ramsgate Harbour. “That’s a beauty,” said our mate, referring to the rocket; “get up another, Jack; sponge her well out. Jacobs, we’ll give ’em another shot in a few minutes.” Loud and clear were both our signals; but four and a half miles of distance and a fresh gale neutralised their influence. The look-out did not see them. In less than five minutes the gun and rocket were fired again. Still no answering signal came from Ramsgate. “Load the weather gun,” said the mate. Jacobs obeyed; and I sought shelter under the lee of the weather bulwarks, for the wind appeared to be composed of pen-knives and needles. Our third gun thundered forth, and shook the lightship from stem to stern; but the rocket struck the rigging, and made a low, wavering flight. Another was therefore sent up; but it had scarcely cut its bright line across the sky, when we observed the answering signal—a rocket from Ramsgate Pier.
“That’s all right now, sir; our work is done,” said the mate, as he went below, and, divesting himself of his outer garments, quietly turned in; while the watch, having sponged out and re-covered the gun, resumed their active perambulation of the deck. I confess that I felt somewhat disappointed at this sudden termination of the noise and excitement. I was told that the Ramsgate lifeboat could not well be out in less than an hour. It seemed to my excited spirit a terrible thing that human lives should be kept so long in jeopardy; and, of course, I began to think, “Is it not possible to prevent this delay?” But excited spirits are not always the best judges of such matters, although they have an irresistible tendency to judge. There was nothing for it, however, but patience; so I turned in, “all standing,” as sailors have it, with orders that I should be called when the lights of the tug should come in sight. It seemed but a few minutes after, when the voice of the watch was again heard shouting hastily, “Lifeboat close alongside, sir. Didn’t see it till this moment. She carries no lights.” I bounced out, and, minus coat, hat, and shoes, scrambled on deck, just in time to see the Broadstairs lifeboat rush past us before the gale. She was close under our stern, and rendered spectrally visible by the light of our lantern. “What are you firing for?” shouted the coxswain of the boat. “Ship on the sands, bearing south,” replied Jack at the full pitch of his stentorian voice. The boat did not pause. It passed with a magnificent rush into darkness. The reply had been heard; and the lifeboat shot straight as an arrow to the rescue. We often hear and read of such scenes, but vision is necessary to enable one to realise the full import of all that goes on. A strange thrill ran through me as I saw the familiar blue and white boat leaping over the foaming billows. Often had I seen it in model, and in quiescence in its boat-house—ponderous and ungainly; but now I saw it, for the first time, endued with life. So, I fancy, warriors might speak of our heavy cavalry as we see them in barracks, and as they saw them at Alma. Again all was silent and unexciting on board of the Gull. I went shivering below, with exalted notions of the courage and endurance of lifeboat men. Soon after, the watch once more shouted, “Tug’s in sight, sir;” and once again the mate and I went on deck. On this occasion, the tug Aid had made a mistake. Some one on shore had reported that the guns and rockets had been seen flashing from the Gull and North-Sand-Head lightships; whereas the report should have been, from the Gull and South-Sand-Head vessels. The single word was all-important. It involved an unnecessary run of about twelve miles, and an hour and a half’s loss of time. But we mention this merely as a fact, not as a complaint. Accidents will happen. The Ramsgate lifeboat service is admirably regulated, and for once that an error of this kind can be pointed out, we can point to dozens—ay, hundreds—of cases in which the steamer and lifeboat have gone straight as the crow flies to the rescue, and have done good service on occasions when all other lifeboats would have failed, so great is the value of steam in such matters. On this occasion, however, the tug appeared late on the scene, and hailed us. When the true state of the case was ascertained, the course was directed aright, and full steam let on. The Ramsgate lifeboat, Bradford, was in tow far astern. As she passed us the brief questions and answers were repeated for the benefit of the coxswain of the boat. I observed that every man in the boat lay flat on the thwarts except the coxswain. No wonder. It is not an easy matter to sit up in a gale of wind, with freezing spray, and sometimes green seas, sweeping over one. They were, doubtless, wide awake, and listening; but, as far as vision went, that boat was manned with ten oilskin coats and sou’-westers. A few seconds took them out of sight; and thus, as far as the Gull lightship was concerned, the drama ended. There was no possibility of our ascertaining more, at least during that night; for whatever might be the result of these efforts, the floating lights had no chance of hearing of them until the next visit of their tender. I was therefore obliged to turn in once more, at three a.m. Next forenoon we saw the wreck, bottom up, high on the Goodwin Sands.
On Friday morning, the Alert—tender to the lightships of this district, under command of the Trinity Superintendent, Captain Vaile—came off to us, and we learned the name of the vessel, that she was a total wreck, and that the crew, seven men, had taken to their boat, and succeeded in reaching the South-Sand-Head lightship, whence they were almost immediately after taken by the Deal lifeboat, and safely landed at Deal.
It is to be carefully observed here that, although in this case much energy was expended unnecessarily, it does not follow that it is often so expended. Often—too often—all the force of lifeboat service on this coast is insufficient to meet the demands on it. The crews of the various boats in the vicinity of the Goodwin Sands are frequently called out more than once in a night; and they are sometimes out all night, visiting various wrecks in succession. In all this work the value of the steam-tug is very conspicuous. For it can tow its boat again and again to windward, and renew the effort to save life in cases where, unaided, lifeboats would be compelled to give in. Embarking in the Alert, I sailed round the wreck at low water, and observed that the Deal luggers were swarming round her like flies; the crews stripping her bottom of copper, and saving her stores, while, apparently, hundreds of men were busy upon her deck dismantling her shattered hull.
This, after all, is but an insignificant episode of wreck on the Goodwins. Many wrecks there are every year much more worthy of record; but this is sufficient to give a general idea of the manner in which our great war with the storm is conducted—the promptitude with which relief is rendered, and the energy with which our brave seamen are ready to imperil their lives almost every night, all round the coast, and all the year round.
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