Eddie Distin – the Salcombe Lifeboat Disaster
7 September 2018
‘There was big Sam Distin the cox and his brother Albert, Peter Foale senior, the second cox, his son Peter the bowman and his other son, William. There was Tom Putt, who had just left his wife in labour with their third child (…) there was James Cove, James Canham, Ashley Cook, Albert Wood, William Johnson and William Lamble. T’was high water that morning, an easy launch, we were away quickly’ (RNLI, 2016)
Eddie Distin was one of two survivors of the Salcombe Lifeboat Disaster which claimed the lives of 13 men in 1916.
Eddie was woken in the early hours of 27th October 1916 to reports of a schooner that had run ashore at Prawle, at the furthest point of the estuary. Later, he would give a full account of the crew that assembled at South Sands, where the lifeboat was housed.
The crew of fifteen battled their way through heavy seas on a starboard tack towards Prawl Point; unbeknownst to them, the passengers and crew of the stranded schooner had safely reached shore before their rescuers had left home, but were unable to send a message as the telephone lines were down. Meanwhile, the lifeboat crew had safely navigated the notorious Salcombe Bar; a spit of sand extending across the mouth of the estuary, especially hazardous in poor weather. Once they had realised that there was nothing to be done for the schooner, the coxswain decided to head for home, watched from the cliffs by crowds of worried friends and family from the nearby cliffs.
‘We had a terrible time trying to get back round Prawle with the sea really burying us down, but we were on our way home. The skipper had just given the order to lower the jib when he shouted, ‘Man your life lines.’ That’s when we met with the disaster. A bloody great sea struck us on the port quarter [and] tipped us end over end. All fifteen of us got back on the bottom [of the upturned lifeboat] and I can remember the skipper saying to Bill Johnson ‘What do you make of it Bill?’ Not much Sam’ Johnson replied. We got washed off two or three times and each time there was less of us who managed to scramble back. It was impossible to swim, you just got rolled over and over and I did not see the boat again’ (RNLI, 2016)
Eddie Distin and Bill Johnson were washed onto rocks on the east side of Salcombe Bay where they ‘hung on like grim death… someone was scrambling down the cliff and shouting to us to hang on. I don’t know what they thought we were doing.’ Battered against the rocks by the relentless sea, the two men were eventually hauled to safety; the rest of the crew were lost. ‘Bill and I were very lucky. We were the only ones to be saved. Some of the bodies were washed ashore the same day, some later and two were never found.’
Eddie was 25 at the time of the disaster. He later became the coxswain of the Sarah Anne Holden, the replacement of the William and Emma, and remained so for a further 29 years until his retirement. He was twice awarded medals for rescues at sea. He died after a short illness, in 1973 at the age of 82. At his funeral, somewhat appropriately, the church was still decorated for the annual Harvest of the Sea which had taken place two days earlier. Large numbers of people attended the service, where the Reverend described Eddie as ‘one of the great stones of Salcombe on which this community has been built.’ (Barratt, 2016) The local museum still houses Eddie’s medals alongside the pocket watch he wore on the day of the disaster, its hands still set to 11.03am.
Barratt, R., 2016. The Salcombe Lifeboat Disaster – 27th October 1916. Salcombe: Salcombe RNLI.
Nottingham Evening Post, 1916. Salcombe Lifeboat Disaster: The King’s Message of Sympathy. Nottingham Evening Post, 30th October. P.3B. Available from: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000321/19161030/043/0003 [Accessed on 30/10/2017]
RNLI Salcombe Lifeboats, 2016. Lifeboat Disaster Centenary [online] Available at: http://salcombelifeboat.co.uk/eddie-distins-account-of-the-lifeboat-disaster/ [Accessed on 07/11/2017]