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Retired master mariner and Looe resident, Tony White, tells us about wrecks and wrecking and lifeboats and the story of a modern day wreck just to prove that not much changes in Cornwall....

Wrecks & wreckers

In the days of sail, Cornwall had an unenviable reputation for the number of wrecks and the loss of life around it’s coasts. Its people were also renowned as “wreckers”, although the contention that they lured ships ashore is far from proven. The old story that they tied a light to the tail of a donkey and then turned it round and round to simulate a lighthouse, I think can be discounted. Any donkey with a flame up its bum is going to take swift retribution on the person tying it on!! However, the old prayer “dear God if there is to be a wreck, please let it be a good one” was certainly true. Once ashore the locals were experts at stripping a wreck of its cargo and equipment, and some times the hapless seafarers who made it ashore.

Saving lives - lifeboats

Despite the desire for a “good wreck” to sustain the local community, there were numerous acts of bravery performed by others in their efforts to save lives, these were often the Coastguard assisted by local volunteers.

The first lifeboat station was opened at Penzance in 1803, over 20 years before the setting up of what is now the RNLI. Whitsand Bay (between Looe and Rame Head), saw its fair share of wrecks, rescues and loss of life.

Looe had a large fishing fleet, was prominent in the coastal trade and with the prevailing southerly winds, ships making for Plymouth that couldn’t clear Rame Head, often ended up ashore in the bay.

After the loss of the “ Renovatio” with all hands in a fierce storm in late 1865, the residents of Looe petitioned the RNLI to have a lifeboat stationed in the town, which met with their agreement. The first lifeboat, “Oxfordshire” went on station in December 1866. She was replaced in 1882 by the “ Boys Own No 1”, to be followed in 1902 by the “Ryder”. The station was closed in 1930, by which time the three boats had saved 74 lives.

The Guildhall Museum in East Looe contains memorabilia from this period and is worth a visit. In 1995 a group of volunteers returned the old “Ryder” back to Cornwall and in 1998, after restoration to a seaworthy condition, she went on display at the Polperro Heritage Museum, where she can be seen from May to October each year. Members of the group take her to regularly and suitable local maritime events.

With the vast increase in the number of people enjoying the sea for sport these days, the RNLI are called out far more to their rescue than to the commercial sector, so in 1992 the station at Looe was re-opened with a “D” class inshore lifeboat “The Spirit Of the RAOC” on station.

Visitors can now can see the new lifeboat house opened in October 2003 near the sea front in East Looe, at The new boat house accommodates the “D” class inshore boat Regina Mary and the “Atlantic 75“ Alan and Margaret, which has the capability of working out into Whitsand Bay, like the old pulling and sailing boats.

Despite the great advances in commercial shipping design especially in navigational aids, the Cornish coast still has shipwrecks, and some of them are still regarded as “good wrecks”. In 1997 the “Cita” went ashore on the Scillies providing car tyres, computer mice, children’s clothing, trainers, tobacco, hardwood doors and many other items to sustain the local community. A lot of the clothing was washed by the Islanders and sent to Romanian orphanages. There were no lives lost.

The wreck of the "Kodima"

The Kodima wrecked in Whitsand Bay 2001 - photo copyright Tony WhiteThe last wreck in Whitsand Bay, was the “Kodima” in February 2001. She was a Maltese registered cargo ship of 6395 dwt with a Russian crew, on passage from Sweden to Libya with cargo of timber, some of which was stowed on deck.

In the early hours of February 2nd in a heavy South Westerly gale, she lost all power some 21 miles south of Fowey. As she lay beam on to the weather, with heavy seas crashing across her decks, the deck cargo shifted and she developed a heavy port list.

At 0530 the Fowey Trent class lifeboat, “Maurice and Joyce Hardy” was launched to go to her aid, and several other ships in the vicinity diverted to render assistance. Whilst the lifeboat stood by, a helicopter from RNAS Culdrose airlifted off the crew.

The tug “Fair Sky” reached the casualty by late morning but with out any crew aboard the “Kodima” she was unable to pass a tow line.

By late evening she had drifted down to the East and was hard aground near Tregantle Fort on the Rame peninsular.

By morning the base of the cliffs there looked like a vast lumber yard, with thousands of tons of timber washed ashore.

In the best traditions of the old “wreckers” the local population, carrying out their civic duties in cleaning up the environment, arrived at the scene with everything that had wheels ( and some that didn’t) and commenced to remove the offending timber for safe keeping!

The wreck of the Kodima - photo copyright Tony White 2001The local fishermen, who were equally conscious of the danger to the environment, and to other vessels, were coming into port with their “catch”. The local pubs and cafes on the Rame did a brisk trade providing sustenance to the hundreds of sightseers.

Unfortunately the “Official Receiver of Wreck”, a person not steeped in the finer points of “wrecking”, seemed unimpressed with “green credentials” of the locals carrying out all the hard work cleaning up the area before the summer visitors arrived.

Numerous sheds were built, fences made and some enterprising students even made a very habitable beach house up the cliffs, unfortunately they had not got planning consent, so it had to be pulled down.

The “Kodima” had an ice strengthened hull, and where she went ashore was mainly sand, so in time she was salvaged and taken to Falmouth. There was no loss of life, and no oil pollution. All in all she was judged to have been a “good wreck”.

Tony White, Looe, Cornwall - October 2005

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