Launches & Call Outs

Last year RNLI lifeboats rescued almost 8,000 people, an average of 21 people per day.


Article by David Chamberlain


The gallant crew of the Walmer Lifeboat would have felt slightly uncomfortable in the plush surroundings of the Royal Hotel. Although this Deal hotel was frequented by Nelson in the past, it was not the normal drinking establishment of these men. They were being honoured by the French Consul-General.


 Monsieur Gauther said in faulting English ‘Thanks to you thirty eight of my compatriots are still alive, and so French sailors are still happy and peaceful. I do not think I can say more in praise for the rescuers.’


 All those who attended that meeting were in the same frame of mind; once again the lifeboat had safely plucked lives from the dreaded Goodwin Sands. After a few drinks the crew started to relax and enjoy the glowing fire and comforts of the leather armchairs; their thoughts, no doubt, drifted back to that horrific night three weeks before.


 Black rain clouds had brought darkness an hour early on Sunday 13th January, 1952, and the townspeople of Deal and Walmer were soon to realise that this was going to be the worst gale they had witnessed all winter. Slates flew off roofs, as the wind suddenly reached storm force and the torrential rain stained many a ceiling.


 Quite a few prayers were said by those who heard the maroons explode just after 11 o’clock; but the crew of the Walmer Lifeboat merely shrugged off the elements, cursed the weather and ran to man the lifeboat. A ship was reported aground on the Goodwins near the South Sand Head.


 As Coxswain Upton conned the lifeboat Charles Dibden towards the South Goodwin lightship he wondered why he could not see the casualty’s deck lights.


 He searched the inside edge of the Sands; however with the freezing, driving rain squalls his men were finding it difficult to peer through the darkness. Suddenly they spotted the faint red glimmer of a flare on the seaward side of the Goodwin Sands. The coxswain put the wheel hard over and tried to steam directly across the turbulent sandbank. Before he got halfway he found the seas so huge in the shallow water that he had to go about – before his own craft became yet another statistic of the Goodwins.


 After going the long way around the massive sandbank, and being at sea for nearly five hours, he finally found the French steamer, Agen. It was then that he realised the reason for the lack of radio information and lights; the 4,186 ton La Rochelle registered ship had broken in two.


 Fourteen times he tried to put the lifeboat alongside the bow section of the freighter. That was where 38 of her crew were huddled, trying to get protection from the tremendous seas that were breaking over the two halves of the wreck. Freddy Upton recognized the danger, and not wishing to be swept on to the deck of the Agen, had to stand off until six the next morning. When the tide and sea had moderated slightly, he then conned the lifeboat between the two jagged sections – which were only thirty feet apart – and rescued the crew. As they slid down a rope, they were physically man-handled aboard the lifeboat by the seat of their trousers and coats.


 Again and again the lifeboat coxswain pleaded with the captain of the Agen to abandon his vessel, but he stubbornly refused. He could hardly believe that his journey from Dakaar should end like this, so near to his port of destination, Hamburg.


 With the lifeboat low on fuel and one of the French crew in distress with a back injury – the rest suffering from exposure – Coxswain Upton reluctantly made his way back ashore. By 8a.m. he had landed the steamer’s crew, snatched some cans of petrol and had returned to the strickened ship with its sole inhabitant. As the lifeboat came alongside, Captain Maurice Landreau perceived the impossibility of the situation. His deck cargo of 300 mahogany logs, many weighing over three tons apiece, was shifting. The cabin cruiser which had been lashed aft had been smashed to pieces and the cotton and coffee cargo was spoilt. His ship had also broken in two, completely unsalvageable.


 It was just before eleven that morning when the Charles Dibden was winched up the beach and released her remaining survivor from the wreck. The lifeboat crew, after hot drinks, flopped into their beds to get some well deserved sleep.


 Some hours later on Monday afternoon, frantic radio messages were being sent to Dover Coastguard. Puzzled skippers of ships and trawlers had found that huge baulks of timber were floating around in the very busy shipping lanes of the Dover Straits. The Trinity House vessel Ready, with its buoy lifting crane, dealt with most of these obstructions; which were worth several hundred pounds per log. As evening closed the Goodwins was beginning to swallow its latest victim and only the masts of the Agen were showing above the water at high tide.


 In the aftermath of the gale a more fortunate ship was being towed off the shore. Less than six miles distant from the ill fated Agen, was the Panamanian registered tanker Sovac Radiant. She was a vessel of 17,598 tons which had lain broadside on, her bows into the white chalk cliffs, less than a mile from Dover. With the aid of local coastguards, who had climbed down the cliff face, and tugs, she was salved.


The picture of the Agen was kindly provided by David Chamberlain.

If you would like to know more about David's publications about the Goodwin Sands and the Downs please refer to the links page.


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