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The Point of Ayr Lifeboat Tragedy

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;

These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.

For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.

Psalm 107; 24-25

 

They launched into the grey slate of a violent winter storm raging along the north Wales coast. The Point of Ayr lifeboat was crewed by thirteen men, eleven local to Llanasa Parish - miners, labourers, gardeners, shopkeepers, coachmen and sawyers by trade. Two of the crew, Robert Beck and John Sherlock had been brought over from the Hoylake boat as captain and mate respectively, to bring experience to the Point of Ayr lifeboat, for which both were provided lodging and an allowance. All were volunteers, and on the morning of 4th January 1857, all of them took to the raging sea without hesitation - and all were taken by the storm.

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The Point of Ayr Lifeboat - undated, but probably late 19th century.

There is nothing now to show for the presence of the lifeboat station at the Point of Ayr - the sea and salt marsh have reclaimed it all. But it was here. The 6’ Ordnance Survey map of 1898 shows it on the headland, a flag staff a little distance to the west of it. But gone now. The lifeboat station at the Point of Ayr was established in 1826 by the Liverpool Docks Trust in response to the loss of the brig Mary of Whitehaven on the West Hoyle bank on 28 November 1825. It was taken over by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1894, and in its time saved, and continued to save after the tragedy of January 1857, hundreds of lives. It closed in 1923, in light of the coverage afforded by the boats at Rhyl and Hoylake.

 

The storm had raged through the night, and as dawn worked to break through the gloom it was clear there were vessels in trouble. The Point of Ayr lifeboat was hauled to the sea and launched into the weather at 8.30am, to the aid of a ship aground on the West Hoyle Bank, at the mouth of the River Dee. On arrival, they found the crew had been rescued to safety, ironically by the Hoylake boat - crewed by men that would have known Beck and Sherlock well. But disaster was close elsewhere, and they rowed on to a vessel stranded on the Chester Bar, only to find that the ship had managed to free itself and was winning its fight with the storm.

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Possibly this was the site of the Lifeboat Station's flagstaff - possibly.

Fatefully, it was then that the Voel Nant Telegraph Station above Prestatyn signalled that a schooner, the Temperance out of Belfast was aground off Pensarn at Abergele with the crew in the rigging, clinging to safety as best they could. As the Point of Ayr lifeboat passed Rhyl, crucially under fixed sail, it was caught in what was described as especially heavy seas and capsized. On shore, witnesses claimed to have seen two or three of the crew clinging to the overturned keel. Nothing could be done to save them, however, and after twenty desperate minutes, the men became exhausted and were seen to slip into the sea. In the following days and weeks, eight of the lost were recovered from the sea and buried in the graveyard of St Asaph & St Cyndeyrn Church in Llanasa - the resting place of many other victims of the sea.

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The Point of Ayr Lifeboat being hauled down to the sea - undated. Note the urgency.

It seems ridiculous to look for a cause other than the storm, but lessons were learnt. Investigations and witnesses confirmed that the crew of the lifeboat were not wearing their cork lifebelts - doubtless because they were known to seriously restrict movement. Also, it became clear that in order to get to the Temperance as quickly as possible, the lifeboat had been under fixed sail. As a consequence, when struck by the heavy seas, the lifeboat capsized. It was also noted that the Point of Ayr lifeboat, unlike many others, was not of a self righting design and was not ballasted. Subsequently, it was made an offence for a crew not to wear their lifebelts, and a coxswain could find themselves fined or fired if the crew were found not to have put to sea wearing them. It was also made clear that lifeboat sails should not be fixed if at all possible, that a member of the crew was assigned to tend the sail at all times, and that the boat should be rowed to the site of distress if possible. All future boats, including the Point of Ayr lifeboat were designed to be self righting.

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The parish church of Llanasa - St Aspah and St Cyndeyrn's.

Within St Asaph & St Cyndeyrn’s there is a memorial to the crew of the Point of Ayr lifeboat, remembering their selfless acts of bravery on the 4th January 1857. But while we remember their loss, we should also remember the immensity of their achievements in life. As a crew they were recognised in RNLI literature for the saving of hundreds of lives, wrested from the raging seas. These men of Llanasa Parish.

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Robert Beck* 58

John Sherlock 50

Joseph Davies 48

Edward Philips 41

Edward Roberts 34

Thomas Owen 21

John Bleddyn 55

Thomas Roberts 46

David Davies 43

Robert Roberts 38

Robert Williams 28

John Ellis 21

*Robert Beck had been awarded a Silver Medal in 1851 for going out on service 60 times

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