- Modern computer-controlled, fly-by-wire systems allow control of the boat to be transferred between crew without anyone having to leave their seats.
- In one way these modern boats preserve part of their ancestors’ designs, and that is the ability to operate the boat from outside the wheelhouse.
- No amount of technology can make up for a helmsman having an uninterrupted 360-degree field of view …
- It is hard to believe that anyone would put to sea in such horrendous conditions, but go they did.
Jonathan Peers reflects on the
selfless courage of RNLI crews that peppers the history of the Moelfre Lifeboat,
and in particular the story of a true hero, Richard ‘Dick’ Evans …
spine-tingling noise of maroons being fired may have long since disappeared
from our shores, and the double-ended wooden 8-knot open lifeboats consigned to
the history books, but that doesn’t mean that the magic has gone. Yes, those
chest-pounding booms from the maroons (a pair of rockets fired to summon the
lifeboat crew and signal to a casualty that help is on its way) may have been replaced
by the soulless beeping of a pager, and the boats replaced with state-of-the-art
composite, fully enclosed, 25-knot all-weather beasts, but the lifesaving
spirit is still very much alive, not just among the crews but throughout the
towns, which feel so proud to have their own lifeboat.
on the eastern side of Anglesey, North Wales, has very good reason to be proud
of its lifesaving heritage, for this was the home of a true hero, Richard
‘Dick’ Evans. Being born in the village in 1905 and attending the local school
meant that Dick and his schoolmates were never far from the sea. Entertainment
at that time was found in playing a game of identifying the ships that would
seek shelter in the lee of the island, and trying to guess what cargo these
fine sailing and steam vessels would have on board. It’s no surprise, then,
that at the age of 14 he packed his bag and followed his dreams by becoming a
merchant seaman. All was not as imagined for the young Welshman – the work was
hard, and the conditions on board were worse than those endured by a caged
animal. More striking for the young mariner was the loneliness of homesickness
– unsurprising, really, for someone who had rarely strayed far from the village
in which he was born.
the hardships, Dick knew that this was the life for him, and he pushed hard to develop
his own abilities and prove his worth. At the age of just 23, he was appointed master
of a motor-driven coaster called Colin.
the majority of Dick’s time was spent away from home, but even when home on
leave, Dick couldn’t be kept away from the sea, for the call of the lifeboat
beckoned. In those days the lifeboats were powered by sails and oars – an image
that may at first seem romantic, but the reality of which was quite different.
A group of men tasked with taking a heavy, open boat in freezing rain and
mountainous seas, pulling on oars with all their might for hours on end dressed
in crude oilskins at best, is something that is hard to even imagine in a
modern world. It was hardly a glamorous job, and yet it was one that was never
short of volunteers.
Dick’s professional seafaring career was gaining momentum, pressure from his
family saw him give up on his dream in order to run the family butcher’s shop
in the village. Dick’s reluctance was clear – the sea was calling him, and it
hurt to be kept away from it. The one thing that being tied to the village did
offer Dick was the opportunity to spend much more time on the lifeboat – a
cause that he was already so passionate about, but also one that helped to
‘scratch the itch’ and afford him that much yearned-for sea time.
role of bowman, Dick became second coxswain in 1939 at the start of World War II.
In 1940, after the rescue of 60 crewmembers from the torpedoed steamer Gleneden, he was awarded the RNLI’s
thanks inscribed on vellum. A bronze medal followed in 1943 for the rescue of
three airmen from a crashed bomber.
years as second coxswain meant that in 1954 he was the obvious choice for the coxswain’s
role. Five years later, Dick was to be awarded the RNLI’s highest award – the
gold medal, considered by many as the lifeboat Victoria Cross.
27th 1959 was to be the day. A 506-ton coaster from Cardiff named Hindlea was dragging her anchors in a
storm 2 miles north of Moelfre. As the winds shifted from south-westerly to
northerly, the storm turned into a hurricane, with winds of 104mph and wave
heights of 25 feet recorded. With the Hindlea
heading for the rocks, the lifeboat was to be launched. As Dick arrived at
the station he found other members of the crew already there. This was not a
full crew, nor the most experienced, but Dick did not have the luxury of being
able to handpick his finest men. The phone lines around the village had been
downed by the storm, and he knew that the maroons would be useless in summoning
other crewmen to the boathouse. With time for the Hindlea’s crew rapidly running out, the decision was made to
Moelfre’s regular lifeboat at the time was the Watkin Williams, a twin 48hp diesel-engined Watson class. At 42ft
long and weighing 17.2 tons, you can appreciate just how underpowered these old
boats were, achieving a painfully slow 8.5-knot top speed. For this rescue, however,
Moelfre had on station a relief lifeboat by the name of the Edmund and Mary Robinson. This was also
a Watson class, though slightly smaller and with even less power.
hard to believe that anyone would put to sea in such horrendous conditions, but
go they did. After an hour and a half the lifeboat eventually reached the Hindlea, but with his unfamiliar boat
being powered by two petrol engines of just 35hp each, it took every bit of
skill and physical strength to simply keep her head on into the seas.
sight that met the crew must have been nothing short of terrifying – a large
ship being tossed about like a toy boat in a bath, pitching and rolling,
tugging violently on her anchors, all the while exposing her spinning propeller
at her stern. Regardless of the conditions, there was only one thing that
mattered to Dick, and that was that this ship was doomed, and there was a crew
to be saved. Ten times he took the lifeboat alongside, each time battling the
seas and saving his boat from certain capsize before rescuing all the Hindlea’s crew. At this point, both
vessels were a mere 100 yards from the rocks that would soon ravish the Hindlea.
to the station, the coxswain sat, totally exhausted, on the slipway and cried.
These he realised were tears of joy at the knowledge that he and his crew,
despite all the odds, had saved eight men from certain death.
hour after enduring such a punishing rescue, the lifeboat was to be called out
again. This time they were to stand by a drifting tanker off Point Lynas, on
the north-eastern tip of Anglesey. Again they took a battering but eventually
they were able to return to station. Dick sent his crew home but remained at
the boathouse with his mechanic, Evan Owen, where they spent the entire night
trying to repair the lifeboat.
the next day the call came from the coastguard to assist once again with the
tanker from the day before. Upon firing the maroons, Dick was amazed to see the
very same four crewmen arrive at the station. They stood by the tanker until a
tug arrived, before returning once again, beaten, battered and exhausted, but
ultimately still alive to be able to tell the story.
are books available that tell the stories of the rescues carried out by not
only Dick Evans but by all the Moelfre lifeboats in much more detail than I can
fit into these pages. Numerous awards were granted to other crewmembers, and
Dick himself would later be awarded a second gold medal for his role in the
rescue of the crew of the Greek vessel Nafsiporos,
a rescue that would involve three lifeboats and last for 24 hours.
such as the Hindlea rescue are what
fuel the imagination when we think of our coastal rescue services. Times may
have changed, with a shift in balance towards callouts to leisure craft, but big
rescues in adverse conditions have certainly not been consigned to the history
books. The desperation of anyone in peril at sea is something that the majority
of us can only try to imagine, and I think that it is by trying to put
ourselves in such a position that we find it compelling to support these brave
crews, even if all we can do is throw some loose change into the collection
Moelfre Lifeboat Day
pride that each seaside town feels toward its lifeboat is quite overwhelming,
and Moelfre, of course, is no exception. Every year they close off the road and
throw open the doors to visitors from far and wide, all in the spirit of fund-raising
for the RNLI. For those visiting by road, parking is provided outside of the
village. From here you can either cash in some pudgy points and walk down the
hill or take advantage of the free shuttle bus service put on by the local bus
company. This bus literally spends all day driving up and down the main road
into Moelfre carrying visitors to and from the temporary car park.
the village, you are met with street stalls selling all manner of different
foods and gifts, along with the sound of live entertainment filling the air.
When a local samba-reggae drumming group, Batala Banga, strikes up, the place
takes on a carnival atmosphere. Watching this group dancing along the road
enthusiastically beating their drums is actually quite mesmerising!
through to the other side of the village, you find yourself walking along the
headland that leads to the lifeboat station. This is where you will get the
best view of the action, and the landscape of this headland lends itself
perfectly to use as a large tiered sitting area. From here you can admire all
the visiting boats before watching the lifeboat launch for its demonstration.
course, if you want a true front-row seat for the demonstration I can highly
recommend visiting by boat. I always rave about the Anglesey coastline, and
with good reason. With stunning scenery and plenty of wildlife to spot along
the way, it’s a boater’s paradise. Couple this with the numerous locations from
which to launch, and you can choose for yourself whether to have a short hop
round to Moelfre or enjoy a mini cruise from further away and make a day out of
obvious choice for launching is from somewhere along the Menai Straits. Of
course, if you are relatively new to boating, or just new to Anglesey, you may
be tempted to launch at the nearest point. But why not reach out instead to the
local boating community – a friendly bunch, easily found on the usual social
media sites and online forums. This group of intrepid mariners regularly launch
from Caernarfon, and are well used to navigating the treacherous waters of the
Menai Straits. If approached in a friendly manner, they will happily guide you through
places such as the Swellies – the notorious rock-strewn, eddy-filled stretch of
water between the two bridges linking Anglesey with the mainland – before
avoiding the sandbanks on the run out to Puffin Island.
launch from the opposite side of the island at Penrhyn Bay Caravan Park, as it
has its own slipway, but just over the water is Holyhead harbour, where you can
find the free council slipway close to the coastguard station. Launching here
means a long cruise in a clockwise direction, but taking in the Skerries
lighthouse and the old ruined brickworks at Porth Wen reaps its own rewards.
at Moelfre by boat, you are met by what appears to be a free-for-all of boats
and jet skis flying around clamouring for the attention of the watching crowds
on shore. The bay itself is large enough for everyone, and you would be well
advised to find a quiet spot from which to watch the proceedings.
Day is actually a land-based event, having started over 50 years ago as a
village festival promoting local producers, but as the years passed the
lifeboat was included as a worthy cause in need of support. As a land-based
event, the organisers have very little control over the visitors who arrive by
sea, and unfortunately there is always a small number of powerboaters and jet-skiers
who decide to act dangerously. Antics including jet skis using anchored boats
as a slalom course, and powerboats spinning raised propellers, all while
families are seen pottering about in small boats without even basic safety
equipment, are all common sightings. If you do visit, then please bear this in
mind – in a modern world full of litigation, it would only take one fatality as
a result of someone’s foolish actions to put an end to this long-running event.
The organisers have a small number of marshals out on the water, whose job it
is to keep all visiting craft away from the lifeboat during its demonstration.
Please give them the respect they deserve, stay out of the buoyed-off area and
enjoy what is in itself a spectacular event.
course, the display starts with the launch itself, and as the only slipway-launched
lifeboat in North Wales, it’s a spectacle you’d have to travel far for to see
elsewhere. Seeing a lifeboat gliding down a slipway, burying its bow as it hits
the water before heading out to sea, is a sight that has remained largely
unchanged since the very early days of the RNLI. Moelfre’s D-class inshore
lifeboat also launches down the same slipway, but rather than a runaway boat
splashing into the sea, this is lowered to the water on a special carriage
attached to a winch cable.
boats in the water, they waste no time and quickly start to show off their own boat’s
abilities while performing ‘rescues’. The real spectacle, of course, comes in
the form of a Sikorsky S-92 rescue helicopter arriving ‘on scene’ from its
nearby base at Caernarfon airport. This is the point at which the lifeboat
absolutely must have clear water in which to operate, as during the
demonstration, while the helicopter transfers crew using its winch, the
lifeboat and helicopter have to travel on a straight course at a steady speed
in order to maintain stability for both craft. Reports of the odd boat or ski
trying to race the lifeboat, or jumping the wake while performing this
manoeuvre, are also all too common.
Moelfre’s shoreline being extremely rocky, the crew are still able to bring the
lifeboat incredibly close to the shore, and even manage to bring it right into
the beach for the public to get within touching distance – or better still, the
crew get within striking distance of the people on the beach with their fire
hose for a good old-fashioned water fight!
Modern-day lifeboat – Tamar class
dangers presented by the sea are no different now to what they have been for
centuries, but what has changed is the understanding of these dangers, and thus
the development of the boats and equipment used.
clothing is now lightweight and allows the wearer to move about and carry out
their duties while being protected from the elements. Crews are also issued with
slimline life jackets, which will not only turn an unconscious person upright,
so as to lessen the risk of drowning, but also have more than enough buoyancy
to be able to support the weight of a casualty as well.
start to compare the lifeboats themselves. The RNLI are already well on track
with their plan to replace all of their all-weather lifeboats with boats that
are capable of 25 knots – a huge improvement over the early 8-knot boats, and a
significant one compared to the later 18-knot boats.
all-weather lifeboat is a 16m, £2.7 million state-of-the-art Tamar class. The power
for this 31.5-ton beast is provided by two CAT C18 diesel engines, each
emphasis is now placed on crew comfort and safety – after all, a crew that
isn’t battered simply heading out to a casualty is bound to perform far better,
and for longer, than those from yesteryear. Every crewmember has an allocated
seat within the fully enclosed wheelhouse, the seats themselves having spring-loaded
suspension to absorb the shock imposed by crashing through waves. The only
protection on board boats such as the Watkin
Williams came in the form of a simple windscreen.
way these modern boats preserve part of their ancestors’ designs, and that is
the ability to operate the boat from outside the wheelhouse. No amount of
technology can make up for a helmsman having an uninterrupted 360-degree field
of view, especially when coming alongside, or searching for a casualty.
are at their worst, all crew strap into their seats, and control of the boat is
taken from within the wheelhouse. Unusually, you won’t find a steering wheel
inside. Instead, both the helmsman’s and coxswain’s seats are fitted with
throttle levers and a lever that controls the rudders. Modern computer-controlled,
fly-by-wire systems allow control of the boat to be transferred between crew
without anyone having to leave their seats. Each crewmember also has a computer
screen in front of them, which allows all the boat’s systems to be monitored by
all the crew, from any seat – pretty remarkable, I’m sure you would agree. The
simple idea of keeping the crew seated safely as much as possible while
underway has obvious safety advantages.
Passing of a legend
Evans retired as coxswain on his 65th birthday in 1970. He became one of the
best-known lifeboatmen in the country, even appearing on This Is Your Life on television in 1970 as well as Parkinson. He continued to represent the
RNLI through his retirement, and passed away on 13th September 2001 in nearby
coffin was lowered into his grave to the sound of maroons being fired – and I
feel there could be no more fitting tribute to a man, a legend, who devoted his
life, heart and soul to saving those in peril out at sea, the poignancy being
that this last ‘calling’ would be the first to go unanswered by the man