Tragedy of lifeboat’s sister ship

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On Saturday(November 15) Hastings Old Town will be the setting for a poignant procession.

Recently the Hastings Observer looked back to the finding and restoration of the disintegrating former Eastbourne Lifeboat, Priscilla McBean.

Reference was made to her sister ship, the Rye Harbour Lifeboat, the Mary Stanford, on which all seventeen of her crew died on 15th November 1928. It is inevitable that the triumph of saving and bringing the Priscilla McBean to dry dock at Hastings will carry echoes of this tragedy. On the evening of 14th November 1928, and during the following day, severe weather was experienced along our coasts; driving rain reduced visibility and 80mph south-westerly gales created huge waves. At night the gale worsened. The Latvian ship, The Alice of Riga, was struggling through heavy seas when she collided with a German steamer, south west of Dungeness. The Alice was left crippled and drifting in the violent storm. The Rye Harbour Coastguard station was informed and the lifeboat alerted at 4.05am. Younger members of the crew persuaded their seniors to let them man the boat’s oars; the youngest to step up was only 17 years old; the crew also included a father and his two sons and a man about to be married. The lifeboat house at Rye Harbour was about a mile and a half from the village; running full pelt against rain and gale the crew were drenched and exhausted even before the boat was launched, a process that demanded it be dragged by brute force across fields, fences and shingle; a low tide made the launch even more difficult. At the first and second attempts, and as the weather worsened, the boat was blown back to shore. At 6.45am the third launch was successful, but the crew still had to set the sail and row through high seas. Five minutes later a message arrived at the Rye Coastguard saying that the crew of the stricken Alice had been rescued by the German steamer. Flares were sent up to alert the Mary Stanford but they went unseen in the teeming rain. So the doomed men spent hours searching in vain. It is thought that the boat capsized on the homeward journey at about 10.30am and the crew were thrown into the heavy seas. (A boy walking on the sands at Camber Sands said he saw the lifeboat go under a huge wave.) The Hastings Lifeboat was called but could not be launched as the sea was too rough. One by one the bruised and battered bodies of the lifeboat men were washed ashore; nearly every family in Rye Harbour was touched by the tragedy. In 1929 the Mary Stanford was transported by road to the RNLI store yard at Poplar, East London; because she had capsized on duty she was broken up. The Rye Lifeboat House still stands. Thanks to Alan Harding for colour images. Further reading, “The Mary Stanford Disaster” by Geoff Hutchinson. price £3.50 from the Fishermen’s Museum, Rock-a-Nore Road, Hastings.