Guest Blog: Remembering the Salcombe Lifeboat disaster in its centenary year

Guest Blog: Remembering the Salcombe Lifeboat disaster in its centenary year

David Arnold, Chairman of Peninsula Care Homes Ltd looks into the centenary year of the Salcombe Lifeboat disaster.

On October 27th 2016 we mark the centenary of the Salcombe lifeboat disaster, which saw the sinking of the Salcombe lifeboat William and Emma with the loss of 13 of its 15 man crew. Several special events have been arranged to recognise the incredible bravery of those who were lost. 

Having grown up in Salcombe after my parents moved there from Lancashire I feel a very personal connection to the town, the sea and the lifeboat service. The names of the crew who died are commemorated on the war memorial that overlooks the harbour. 

On October 27th 1916, in the middle of the First World War, the lifeboat was called out to save the crew of the Western Lass which had run aground off Prawle Point. People described the conditions as the worst in living memory, with huge breakers over the Salcombe bar.   The bar is a ridge that runs across the mouth of the harbour and at low tide and in any stormy weather must be treated with great respect.

Against all the odds the lifeboat crew managed to row out over the bar and reach the Western Lass. However on arriving there they found that all the crew had been rescued using rocket apparatus from the shore. It was a terrible irony that the lifeboat needn’t have left its base at South Sands, the crew of the Western Lass had already been rescued minutes before the lifeboat set off but in those days communications were slow and very basic.


When the crew tried to return to Salcombe huge waves over the bar caused the boat to capsize. Thirteen out of the fifteen crewmen died including more than one from the same family. This happened in full sight of families positioned on the cliffs but there was nothing anyone could do to help.

Of the two survivors one never wanted to go to sea again, whilst the other Eddie Distin agreed to become coxswain of a new lifeboat which he led from 1938 to 1971.

I was lucky enough to grow up in Salcombe and remember Eddie Distin as a larger than life figure in the town. As boys we were always thrilled to hear the double rockets whoosh into the sky and explode, calling men to station on a shout and frightening every seagull in the harbour but also telling every boat in the harbour to clear a way for the lifeboat. 

Sadly the rockets have been banned for ‘health and safety’ reasons and the crew are alerted with pagers. All eyes turn to the sea as the lifeboat sets off on another rescue.  I am very fortunate to have returned to Salcombe after many years away and the sound of the lifeboat engine is immediately recognisable and we get up to look at what is happening every single launch. 


There are many people in the emergency services and armed forces who are willing to risk their lives and wellbeing to keep us all safe. So as we mark the centenary of the Salcombe lifeboat disaster on October 27th let’s take a moment to think about all the brave men and women who put themselves in harms way to protect us, and let us have a special prayer for those in peril on the sea.

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