Splashing good men: Fleetwood Lifeboats

Fleetwood lifeboat crew pictured in June 1897 after epic rescues. Coxswain David Leadbetter is seated in the middle of the middle row.
Fleetwood lifeboat crew pictured in June 1897 after epic rescues. Coxswain David Leadbetter is seated in the middle of the middle row.

Lifeboats have sailed into the history books all along the Fylde coast.

It doesn’t have the craggy cliffs or rocky shoreline you might associate with a shipwreck. But when a storm blows in from the west, a ship in trouble can be forced into shallow water, run aground on the sands, and get pounded to matchwood by the waves. It has happened many times over the years and has cost the life of many a sailor.

Roy Mitchinson commanded Fleetwood lifeboat from 1969 to 1976 and his picture was used on RNLI publicity material all over the country.

Roy Mitchinson commanded Fleetwood lifeboat from 1969 to 1976 and his picture was used on RNLI publicity material all over the country.

The death toll would be much higher if it wasn’t for the work of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution – although some of the volunteer rescuers have lost their lives too in a bid to help others.

Fleetwood Lifeboat Station has a proud record of service and a new book Heroes of the Waves tells the story of some notable rescue missions and of the different lifeboats which carried them out. It also reveals something of the men who commanded the boats over the years.

Fleetwood was a Victorian new town created by Sir Peter Hesketh Fleetwood, the Squire of Rossall Hall, who spent much of his fortune in the process. Building work began in 1835 and, by 1859, the port and resort had a lifeboat provided by the RNLI which had been formed in 1824.

Like the lifeboatmen of Blackpool, St Annes and Lytham, the Fleetwood crew faced some severe challenges. Their tiny boat was powered by sail and oar and the lifeboatmen spent hours at sea soaked to the skin, cold, wet and hungry.

Today's Fleetwood lifeboat, Kenneth James Pierpoint passing Wyre Light in rough seas. Painting by Ken Frost of Bangor, Northern Ireland.

Today's Fleetwood lifeboat, Kenneth James Pierpoint passing Wyre Light in rough seas. Painting by Ken Frost of Bangor, Northern Ireland.

Despite the odds, they snatched hundreds of men to safety from wrecked ships in appalling conditions.

Often the lifeboats were given a helping hand by steam-powered harbour tugs which towed them out into Morecambe Bay to get the rescue underway. These ships were not designed for the conditions but played their crews played their part and sometimes acted as lifeboats themselves.

Heroes of the Waves shows how the design of the Fleetwood lifeboats gradually changed right through to the present Fleetwood boat, Kenneth James Pierpoint which employs the latest electronic technology and crew facilities.

Personnel have changed too from the traditional crew of local fishermen whose working life gave them their nautical skills to people from many walks of life who receive training at the Lifeboat Station and at RNLI headquarters in Poole. Once a male preserve, the RNLI now welcomes women among its senior crew members.

The tug Wardley towing the lifeboat Child of Hale out to the wreck of the barque Labora in 1890 when all 13 onboard were rescued. Illustration in pen and ink by Fleetwood artist Ron Baxter.

The tug Wardley towing the lifeboat Child of Hale out to the wreck of the barque Labora in 1890 when all 13 onboard were rescued. Illustration in pen and ink by Fleetwood artist Ron Baxter.

One thing that has not changed is the sea itself. It will always be a dangerous place, especially for the unwary and the foolhardy. And the men and women of the RNLI are volunteers just as they were back in Victorian times. Now, they are better equipped for their humanitarian task. The RNLI depends entirely on money from the public.

Joint authors of Heroes of the Waves are Stephen Musgrave and David Pearce. Stephen was involved with the RNLI at Fleetwood for 23 years and was Deputy Coxswain for 12 years.

David, a local journalist and local historian, wrote about the work of Fleetwood Lifeboat Station during a long career. He and his wife Susan were fundraisers there for 25 years.

The authors used personal experiences, newspaper reports and the archives of the RNLI to research the book which has a forward by Captain David Eccles and Captain Peter Woodworth, two stalwarts of Fleetwood RNLI.

They said: “There are tales of daring-do from the records and from people involved and one can only wonder what it takes to produce people of this character and resourcefulness. We sometimes have to remind ourselves that these men and women are just volunteers.”

Proceeds from Heroes of the Waves will be donated to Fleetwood Lifeboat Station.

• Copies are on sale at £7.95 each on Amazon and from the Fleetwood Lifeboat Station shop (restricted opening hours until Easter)