For over twenty years, Tommy Bell had been a coastguard. A large broad shouldered man who had risked his life many times. His knowledge of the Kent and Sussex coastline and of the treacherous Goodwin Sands made him indispensable to the many hundreds of vessels that had floundered in heavy storms. For fifteen years the Duchess had been his obsession, her teak decks provided his feet with a ground as solid as terra firma. Rarely had his crew ever seen him, this man who was born for the sea, lose his balance.
The Duchess, a forty-eight foot Ramsgate lifeboat with a thirteen-foot beam became a legend after her daring rescue of the French trawler Napoleon in the winter of 1929.
Ellen never slept, when he was out in the storms rescuing stricken ships, fearful for his life, wondering if the day would come when the ocean would drink him up in one huge thirsty gulp. The pay was lousy: the work hard and the hours unpredictable. On the night when Ellen had given birth to his first born, Alan Thomas Bell, she had delivered the baby while he battled the Goodwin Sands to rescue a cockle bawley, whose distress flare had been fired at the exact moment Ellen had her first contraction.
Tommy was on call 365 days of the year; every day a working day, if needed and The Duchess and her crew were capable of being out of the harbour in less than twenty minutes.
Boxing Day started out with some low cloud, a few brief glimpses of a watery sun and a biting wind. During the day the weather deteriorated and as evening approached the wind began to blow from the north east, whipping up the water into a turbulent cauldron and jerking branches and limbs from the sturdiest trees.
By nine in the evening, the blow had reached storm force ten. It was time for Tommy to go down to the harbour and check the Duchess’s mooring lines. Pedalling against the wind, he called in to collect Sam who was ready to leave with his skipper in two minutes.
The rain beat down hard and bounced off the road, creating small lakes in the potholes and overflowing from leaf-filled gutters along the way. Fork lightning flashed, in the ink that was sky, sending its tentacles down to the earth and lighting up the countryside around: the ear shattering crash of thunderclaps followed close behind.
Water from deep puddles splashed into their Wellington boots. They pedalled hard against the blow, with heavy monsoon rain limiting their vision – icy cold – slap stinging their eyelids – slowing them down until they were barely moving forward. A hundred yards from the harbour, it was impossible to pedal any further. The whining screeching torrent forced them to dismount. Bracing themselves against the wind, which had grown stronger, they reached the harbour and chained the bikes to a bollard.
Tommy pulled out his binoculars and carefully searched the horizon.
“Hope there’s no poor bastards out in this one,” he said to Sam as they climbed onto the Duchess’s deck.
“Check the stern ropes Sam and I’ll go below to see if she’s taken any water.” His voice was barely audible through the roar of the storm. Sam made certain the ropes were securely tied, but loose enough to allow the boat to move without snapping her lines. Once he was satisfied that she was secure, he went down the pier to check and secure other boats tied up at the jetty.
He reached the New Britannic to find her starboard hull thumping against the pier: one of her stern ropes was whipping over the water with ferocious energy. As Sam was climbing aboard he lost his footing and slipped between the pier and the passenger launch:
he managed to reach out and grasp the top of the rope, hauling himself aboard just before she slammed against the pier. He breathed a sigh of relief – another moment and his legs would have been badly crushed. He secured the Britannic’s ropes, and then went below deck to check her bilge before returning to the Duchess. Tommy had started up the bilge pump and a torrent of water, from the bowels of the lifeboat, splashed over the side and back to its home in the ocean.
The wind had increased to a north-easterly storm force eleven and the sea was breaking over the east pier, swamping the decks and drenching the two men as they worked.
Hoppy, the engineer, and Bertie Pitt arrived as Tommy and Sam finally managed to scramble into the wheelhouse. The two men boarded the Duchess, in the brief moment that the gap between her and the wooden pylons closed.
“What a bloody night!” said Hoppy wiping the rain from his face. “Sam have you checked all the other boats?”
“Already done Hoppy,” said Sam.
“How much water has she taken Tommy?” he asked, noticing that the bilge pump was working flat out.
“By the looks of it, I’d say twenty or thirty gallons.”
“That’s a fair bit – good job you got here when you did,” Bertie shouted above the roar of the wind.
“We’ll stay until this thing blows out! Can’t take any chances in a storm like this!” Tommy Bell’s natural instinct guided his decision to remain.
“Hopefully this’ll blow out soon,” said Hoppy with little confidence in his voice.
“No it wont!” said Tommy lighting a cigarette and passing the packet to Hoppy.
Sam stood with his feet apart, to steady himself, and scoured the dirty body of water as it heaved and tossed on the horizon. He saw a faint glow in the distance that was unmistakable.
“Tommy! Over there to the south west, it looks like a flare.”
Tommy took the binoculars and concentrated his gaze towards the position indicated by Sam’s pointing finger.
“By God it is! There goes another one. Looks like were in business lads.”
He knew that Wally and Porter would arrive within minutes. Stormy nights like these had taught them all to be watchful.
By ten o’clock the crew of the Duchess were assembled on board and standing to attention before the skipper. He checked each man’s gear, making sure lifejackets were tied correctly: ensuring
clothing could not be caught or snagged on dangerous protrusions. Satisfied that his crew were ready to face the elements, he cranked over the engine and was grateful to hear it spring immediately into life.
Setting out at half speed the lifeboat cleared the pier and Tommy turned her out towards the harbour entrance. Tossing and pitching headlong into the churning water, he headed east before turning to starboard. Unable to see the starting place of the flare, Tommy confidently headed on a course set by Hoppy. As a navigator, Hoppy was the best, able to calculate the force of the wind: tidal movement and the most likely location of the distressed vessel, in the present conditions.
She pitched and rolled violently, taking on water, drenching the men and swamping the decks. Just after ten thirty, a flash of lightning gave them the opportunity to spot the distressed vessel. She also, must have seen them: she turned her searchlight on and Tommy responded by firing a flare, to let them know they had been sighted. He steered a course towards the guiding light and when they were about a mile within reach Tommy was able to make out the shape of a beam trawler, which had run aground on the Goodwin Sands. The quartering sea made it difficult for them to maintain their course. Bertie Pitt went to the back of the boat,
where he kept a stern watch, so he could advise his skipper when each steep wave appeared. Tommy altered his heading each time Bertie shouted, “Bear away.”
Tommy and Hoppy hurriedly discussed the rescue plan and decided that it would be too risky to try to get the men off the trawler. There was also every chance that the skipper of the vessel would refuse to leave his boat, if he had hauled in a good catch for the day: the greatest danger was if the Duchess stood by, they would risk her running aground. Their only option was to board the stricken vessel: make sure she was operational and pull her off as quickly as possible.
Tommy closed the distance between the two boats and with the help of the trawler’s crew, Porter was able to leap from the lifeboat onto the stranded vessel: unclip his safety rope and toss it back to the deck of the Duchess. They saw him moving around the trawlers’ deck, checking her stays and ropes, and then he disappeared below deck. He came back on deck and after a short conversation with the fishermen, he shouted to the lifeboat crew,
“She’s fine – she’s seaworthy –engines working.” Whether or not they heard him, above the noise, was doubtful but his thumbs up signal confirmed the next course of action.
Tommy gestured with his arms and Porter knew immediately what his skipper wanted to know. Porter pointed to the men and shook his head. As Tommy suspected, the trawler skipper and his brother must have hauled in a good catch and were unwilling to leave the boat. The heaving sea and blinding rain made the task of putting Wally aboard an additional exercise in patience and stamina. Wally waited until the distance between the two boats was reduced to about three feet – he leapt from the deck of the Duchess – a rogue wave made the lifeboat lurch – Wally’s arms and legs thrashed around. He managed to grasp the rail of the boat for a brief moment and Porter frantically attempted to grab his arm, caught hold of him momentarily, lost his grip and Wally plunged down into the crashing waves below.
Sam was quick to respond – throwing down a lifebuoy attached to a rope. After several attempts, Wally grasped it and held on tight as the waves buffeted him continually against the side of the Duchess.
“Christ almighty!” Tommy was looking down as the two boats began to move closer together. One more minute and disaster would strike the man in the water.
“Come on lads! Heave your bloody hearts out – get him up here before he’s crushed to death!”
Sam and Bertie took a firm grip on the rope and with seconds to spare managed to pull Wally back on deck, seconds before the trawler and the Duchess smashed into each other. Wally was shaking and cold but grateful to be alive. He took a few minutes to calm down and catch his breath.
“You stay here Wally – I’ll go,” said Bertie Pitt.”
“No you bloody wont – I’ll finish what I started – I’m fine!”
When the skipper decided it was safe, Wally made his third attempt to reach the trawler. This time, to everyone’s relief, he was successful.
A towline was passed across to her bow and the men began the task of turning ‘Spirit of Folkestone’ so that her bow was heading south. Halfway into the turn the towline snapped and sent the lifeboat pitching violently out of control. A second towline was thrown over and secured successfully and Tommy made a mental note to discipline whichever crew member had last been responsible for checking the equipment. There were no excuses for poor equipment on Tommy’s boat. The work was dangerous and regular inspection of equipment and safety gear was mandatory and thorough.
At last, ‘Spirit of Folkestone’s stern began to clear the sands and Porter started her main engine. With both vessels now headed for
deeper water Tommy allowed himself to relax slightly and lit a Woodbine. When he was satisfied that she was safe, and able to move under her own steam, he disconnected the tow lines.
Visibility was still poor and the lifeboat’s searchlight was turned on to allow the crew of the trawler to follow her back to Ramsgate Harbour.
Choppy short seas made it an uncomfortable trip back to port and the wet dishevelled crew gathered into the wheelhouse for some shelter.
The Duchess entered harbour at three in the morning followed by two grateful fishermen.
A small crowd had gathered to watch them come home. Ellen was waiting with Maggie and Norman; the relief on their faces unmistakable when they spotted Sam get off the boat.
There were words of encouragement and praise from the crowd. Tommy placed his arm around Sam’s shoulder and walked towards Maggie and Ellen.
“Just another day’s work; don’t fuss,” he was heard to mumble as he passed the jubilant spectators.
“Maggie, this lad of yours is as fine a seaman as I’ve ever trained. Don’t you worry about him love – I’ll make damned sure he’s
always returned safe.” She would later come to remember Tommy’s promise.
The harbour had taken a battering from one of the most severe storms in over twenty years. Five boats had broken their moorings and sunk. The New Britannic was listing to port, her stern line had once again broken free and was floating in the water, still attached to a cleat which had been torn from the deck.
Tomorrow would see a frenzy of activity as the owners of the boats arrived at the harbour to begin the clean up and repair the damage done by the storm.