Read CHAPTER XII of Heroes of the Goodwin Sands , free online book, by Thomas Stanley Treanor, on


Loud roared the dreadful thunder,
The rain a deluge poured.

There was a gale from the S.W. blowing over the southern part of England, on November 11, 1877. The barometer had been low, but the ‘centre of depression’ was still advancing, and was probably over the Straits of Dover about the middle of the day. Perhaps more is known now than formerly of the path of the storm and the date of its arrival on these coasts, and more is also known of the pleasanter but rarer anti-cyclonic systems. Nevertheless, we are still in the dark as to the cause which originates those two different phenomena, and brings them from the east and the west. The secrets of Nature belong to Him who holds the winds in His fist and the sea in the hollow of His hand. In the seaboard towns of the S.E. coast the houses shook before the blast, and now and then the tiles crashed to the pavement, and the fierce rain squalls swept through the deserted streets, as the gale ‘whistled aloft his tempest tune.’ To read of this makes every fireside seem more comfortable, but somehow it also brings the thought to many a heart ‘God help those at sea to-night!’

In the great roadstead of the Downs, among the pilots and the captains, there were anxious hearts that day. There were hundreds of ships at anchor, of many nations, all outward bound, and taking refuge in the comparative shelter of the Downs. Those vessels had everything made as snug as possible to meet the gale, and were mostly riding to two anchors and plunging bows under. Here and there a vessel was dragging and going into collision with some other vessel right astern of her; or perhaps slipping both her anchors just in time to avoid the crash; or away to the southward could be seen in the rifts of the driving rain squalls, a large ship drifting, with anchors gone and sails blown into ribbons.

Deal beach was alive with the busy crowds of boatmen either launching or beaching their luggers. The smaller boats, the galley punts, which are seven feet beam and about twenty-eight feet in length, found the wind and sea that day too much for them, especially in the afternoon. They had been struggling in the Downs all day with two or three reefs, and in the ‘smokers’ with ‘yardarm taken,’ but in the afternoon the mercury in the barometers began to jump up and

First rise after low
Foretells a stronger blow.

Then the galley punts had to come ashore, and only the luggers and the ‘cats’ were equal to cruising among the storm-tossed shipping, ‘hovelling’ or on the look-out for a job.

Some of the vessels might need a pilot to take them to Margate Roads or northwards, or some might require a spare yard, or men to man the pumps, or an anchor and chain, the vessels in some cases riding to their last remaining anchor or perhaps their windlass had given way or the hawse pipe had split, and in that case their own chain cable would cut them down to the water’s edge in a few hours. To meet these various needs of the vessels, the great luggers were all day being continuously beached and launched, and it was hard to say which of the two operations was most perilous to themselves or most fascinating to the spectator. Once afloat they hovered about, on the wing as it were, among the vessels, and from the beach it could be seen how crowded with men they were, and how admirably they were handled.

The skill of the Deal boatmen is generally supposed to be referred to in the lines:

Where’er in ambush lurk the fatal sands,
They claim the danger, proud of skilful bands;
Fearless they combat every hostile wind,
Wheeling in mazy tracks with course inclined.

The passage has certainly a flavour of the Goodwins but at any rate the sea-bird does not sweep to the raging summit of a wave, or glide more easily from its seething crest down the dark deep blue slope to its windless trough, or more safely than the Deal boatmen in their luggers.

Richard Roberts had been all that day afloat in the Downs in his powerful ‘cat,’ the Early Morn. It was this boat, some of my readers may remember, which picked up, struggling in the water, twenty-four of the passengers of the Strathclyde, when she was run down off Dover by the Franconia, some years ago. But the gale increasing towards evening, Roberts, who had got to leeward too much, could not beat home, and he had to run away before the wind and round the North Foreland to Margate. Thence he took train, and leaving his lugger in safety, reached Deal about nine p.m., just as the flash from the Gull lightship, and then the distant boom of a gun and again another flash, proclaimed there was a ship ashore on the sands. And through the wild rain gusts he saw the flare of a vessel in distress on the Brake Sand God have mercy on them! for well he knew the hard and rocky nature of that deadly spot.

Then rang out wildly above the storm-shriek the summons from the iron throat of the lifeboat bell, ‘Man the lifeboat! Man the lifeboat!’ The night was dark, the ponderous surf thundered on the shingle, and there could be seen the long advancing lines of billows breaking into white masses of foam; and outside that there was only the blackness of sea and sky, and the tossing lights and flares and signals calling for help. ’No lanterns could be kept lit that night, sir! Blowed out they was, and we had to feel our way in the lifeboat.’

And you might hear in the bustle and din of quick preparation the boatmen’s shouts, ’Ease her down, Bill! just to land her bow over the full!’ ’Man that haul-off warp! she’ll never get off against them seas unless you man that haul-off warp! Slack it off!’ And the coxswain shouts, ‘All hands aboard the lifeboat! Cut the lanyard!’

Then the trigger flies loose and the stern chain which holds the lifeboat in her position on the beach smokes through the ‘ruffles,’ or hole in the iron keel through which it runs, as the mighty lifeboat gains speed in her rush down the steep declivity of the beach. As she nears the sea, faster still she slides and shoots over the well-greased skids, urged forwards by her own weight and pulled forwards by the crew, who grasp the haul-off warp moored off shore a long way, and at last, as a warrior to battle, with a final bound she meets the shock of the first great sea. And then she vanishes into the darkness. God speed her on her glorious errand!

Close-reefed mizzen and double-reefed storm foresail was the canvas under which the lifeboat that night struggled with the storm, to reach the vessel on the Brake Sand. ’She did fly along, sir, that night, but we were too late! The flare went out when we were half-way!’ Alas! alas! while the gallant crew were flying on the wings of mercy and of hope to the rescue, the vessel broke up and vanished with all hands in the deep.

The lifeboat cruised round and round in the breakers, but all in vain. The crew gazed and peered into the gloom and listened, and then they shouted all together, but they could hardly hear each other’s voices, and there was no answer; all had perished, and rescue close at hand!

Suddenly there was a lift in the rain, and between them and the land they saw another flare, ’Down with the foresheet! All hands to the foresheet! Now down with the mizzen sheet!’ cried the coxswain, and ten men flew to the sheets. As the lifeboat luffed she lay over to her very bearings, beating famously to windward on her second errand of mercy.

It was about midnight, and there was ‘a terrible nasty sea,’ and a great run under the lifeboat as she neared the land; and the coxswains made out the dim form of a large vessel burning her flare, with masts gone and the sea beating over her.

Once again the lifeboat was put about, and came up into the wind’s eye, the foresail was got down and the other foresail hoisted on the other side and sheeted home, sails, sheets and blocks rattling furiously in the gale, and forwards on the other tack into the spume and sea-drift the lifeboat ‘ratched.’ Between them and the vessel that was burning her signal of distress, the keen eyes of the lifeboatmen discerned an object in the sea, ’not more than fifty fathoms off, as much as ever it was, it was that bitter dark!’ Another wreck! ’Let us save them at any rate!’ said the storm-beaten lifeboatmen, as a feeble cry was heard.

The anchor was dropped. The lifeboat was then veered down on her cable a distance of eighty fathoms, and the object in the sea was found to be a forlorn wreck. Her lee deck bulwarks were deep under water, and even her weather rail was low down to the sea.

The wreck was a French brig, the D’Artagnan, as was afterwards ascertained, and on coming close it was seen her masts were still standing, but leaning over so that her yardarms touched the water. Nothing could live long on her deck, which was half under water and swept by breakers.

In the main rigging were seen small objects, which were found to be the crew, and in answer to the shouts of the lifeboatmen they came down and crawled or clung along the sea-beaten weather rail. Half benumbed with terror and despair and lashed by ceaseless waves, they slowly came along towards the lifeboat, and the state of affairs at that moment was described by one of the lifeboatmen as, ’Yes, bitter dark it were, and rainin’ heavens hard, with hurricane of wind all the time.’

The wreck lay with her head facing the mainland, from which she was about a mile distant, and which bore by compass about W.N.W. The wind and the strong tide were both in the same direction, and if the lifeboat had anchored ahead of the vessel she would have swung helplessly to leeward and been unable to reach the vessel at all. So, also, had she gone under the wreck’s stern to leeward, the same tide would have swept her out of reach, to say nothing of the danger of falling masts. It was impossible to have approached her to windward, as one crash against the vessel’s broadside in such a storm and sea would have perhaps cost the lives of all the crew.

They therefore steered the lifeboat’s head right at the stern of the vessel, as well for the reasons given as also because the cowering figures in the rigging could be got off no other way. They could not be taken to windward nor to leeward, and therefore by the stern was the only alternative.

By managing the cable of the lifeboat and by steering her, or by setting a corner of her foresail, she would sheer up to the stern of the wreck just as the fishing machine called an otter rides abreast of the boat to which it is fast. The lifeboat’s head was, therefore, pointed at the stern of the wreck, which was leaning over hard to starboard, and the lifeboatmen shouted to the crew, some in the rigging and some clutching the weather toprail, to ‘come on and take our line.’ But there was no response; only in the darkness they could see the men in distress slowly working their way towards the stern of the wreck.

The position of the lifeboat was very dangerous. The sea was raging right across her, and it was only the sacred flame of duty and of pity in the hearts of the daring crew of the lifeboat that kept them to their task. The swell of the sea was running landwards, and the ‘send’ of each great rolling wave, just on the point of breaking, would shoot the lifeboat forwards till her stem and iron forefoot would strike the transom and stern of the wreck with tremendous force. The strain and spring of the cable would then draw back the lifeboat two or three boats’ lengths, and then another breaker, its white wrath visible in the pitchy darkness, would again drive the lifeboat forwards and upwards as with a giant’s hand, and then crash! down and right on to the stern and even right up on the deck of the half-submerged vessel. Sometimes even half the length of the lifeboat was driven over the transom and on the sloping deck of the wreck, off which she grated back into the sea to leewards.

What pen can describe the turmoil, the danger, and the appalling grandeur of the scene, now black as Erebus, and again illumined by a blaze of lightning? And what pen can do justice to the stubborn courage that persevered in the work of rescue in spite of the difficulties which at each step sprang up?

It was now found that the crew in distress were French. In their paralysed and perished condition they could not make out what our men wanted them to do, and they did not make fast the lines thrown them. Nor had they any lines to throw, as their tackle and running gear were washed away, nor could they understand the hails of the lifeboatmen. Hence the task of saving them rested with the Deal men alone.

The Frenchmen, when they saw the lifeboat rising up and plunging literally upon their decks with terrific force, held back and hesitated, clinging to the weather rail, where their position was most perilous. A really solid sea would have swept all away, and every two or three minutes a furious breaker flew over them. Something had to be done to get them, and to get them the men in the lifeboat were determined.

Now the fore air-box of the lifeboat has a round roof like a tortoise’s back, and there is a very imperfect hand-hold on it.

Indeed, to venture out on this air-box in ordinary weather is by no means prudent, but on this night, when it was literally raked by weighty seas sufficient in strength to tear a limpet from its grip, the peril of doing so was extreme, but still, out on that fore air-box, determined to do or die, crept Richard Roberts, at that time the second coxswain of the lifeboat, leading the forlorn hope of rescue, and not counting his life dear to him. Up as the lifeboat rose, and down with her into the depths, still Roberts held on with the tenacity of a sailor’s grasp.

As the lifeboat surged forwards on the next sea, held behind by his comrades’ strong arms, out on the very stem he groped his way, and then he shouted, and behind him all hands shouted, ’Come, Johnny! Now’s your time!’ There’s a widespread belief among our sailor friends that the expression ‘Johnny’ is a passport to a Frenchman’s heart. At any rate, seeing Roberts on the very stem and hearing the shouts, the nearly exhausted Frenchmen came picking their dangerous way and clinging to the weather rail one by one till they grasped or rather madly clutched at Roberts’ outstretched arms. ‘Hold on, mates!’ he cried, ‘there’s a sea coming! Don’t let them drag me overboard!’ And then the Frenchmen grasped Roberts’ arms and chest so fiercely that his clothes were torn and he himself marked black and blue. Then rang out as each poor sailor was grasped by Roberts, ’Hurrah! I’ve got him! Pass him along, lads!’ and the poor fellows were rescued and welcomed by English hearts and English hands. ’We never knowed if there was any more, but at any rate we saved five,’ said the lifeboatmen.

Having rescued this crew, all eyes were now turned to the vessel that had for some hours been burning her signals of distress.

It was by this time four o’clock on this winter morning, and the crew of the lifeboat were, to use their own words, ‘nearly done.’ They also noticed that the lifeboat was much lower than usual in the water, but neither danger, nor hardships, nor fatigue can daunt the spirits of the brave, and their courage rose above the terror of the storm, and they forgot the crippled condition of the lifeboat both of her bows being completely stove in by the force of her blows against the deck and the transom of the French brig and they responded gallantly to the coxswain’s orders of ‘Up anchor and set the foresail!’ and they made for the flare of the fresh wreck for which they had been originally heading.

The signals of distress were from a Swedish barque, the Hedvig Sophia. She had parted her anchors in the Downs, and had come ashore in three fathoms of water, which was now angry surf; her masts were gone, but as the rigging was not cut adrift, they were still lying to leeward in wild confusion. She had heeled over to starboard, and her weather rail being well out of the water, afforded some shelter to the crew; but her sloping decks were washed and beaten by the waves that broke over her and it was all but impossible to walk on them.

The lifeboat’s anchor was dropped, and again they veered down, but this time it was possible to get to windward, and by reason of the wreckage it was impossible to get to leeward. There was an English pilot on board, who helped to carry out the directions given from the lifeboat, and lines were quickly passed from the wreck.

It was seen the captain’s wife was on board, for the grey morning was breaking, and as the lifeboat rose on the crest of a wave, after the crew and just before the captain, who came last, the poor lady was passed into the lifeboat.

She only came with great reluctance and after much persuasion, as the deck of the lifeboat was covered with three inches of water and she seemed to be sinking. When the Swedish captain came on board, while the spray was flying sky-high over them, could he truly be said to be taken ‘on board’?

‘Here’s a pretty thing to come in full of water!’ said the captain.

‘Well,’ replied Roberts, ’we’ve been in it all night, and you won’t have to wait long.’

The lifeboatmen then got up anchor, and with twelve Swedes, five Frenchmen, and their own crew of fifteen made for home. Deep plunged the lifeboat, and wearily she rose at each sea, but still she struggled towards Deal, as the wounded stag comes home to die. Her fore and after air-boxes were full of water, for a man could creep into the rent in her bows, and she had lost much of her buoyancy. Still she had a splendid reserve in hand, from the air-boxes ranged along and under her deck, and thus fighting her way with her freight of thirty-two souls, at last she grounded on the sands off Deal, and the lifeboatmen leaped out and carried the rescued foreigners literally into England from the sea, where they were received as formerly another ship-wrecked stranger in another island ‘with no little kindness.’

The next day the storm was over; sea and sky were bathed in sunshine, and the swift-winged breezes just rippled the surface of the deep into the countless dimples of blue and gold.

[Greek] Pontion te kumaton
Anerithmon gelasma

was the exact description, more easily felt than translated; but close to the North Bar buoy, in deep water, and just outside the Brake Sand, there projected from out of the smiling sea the grim stern spectacle of the masts of a barque whose hull lay deep down on its sandy bed. She it was which had been burning flares for help the night before in vain, and she had been beaten off the Brake Sand and sank before the lifeboat came. She was a West India barque, with a Gravesend pilot on board, and his pilot flag was found hoisted in the unusual position of the mizzen topmast head, a fact which was interpreted by the Deal boatmen as a message a last message to his friends, and as much as to say, ‘It’s me that’s gone.’

But the brave men in the lifeboat did their best, and by their extraordinary exertions, although they did not reach this poor lost barque in time, yet by God’s blessing on their skill and daring they did save, Swedes and Frenchmen, seventeen souls that night from a watery grave.