Wales

St Davids RNLI seeks 1910 lifeboat tragedy descendants

The Gem RNLI lifeboat
Image caption Crew and sailors rescued by the Gem had to cling to rocks for 12 hours and three lifeboatmen died

Staff and volunteers at St Davids RNLI lifeboat station are trying to contact descendants of their 1910 crew.

It comes ahead of the 100th anniversary of the worst tragedy in the station's 141-year history.

On 13 October 1910, the Gem, went to rescue three crew stranded in terrible weather aboard Democrat, a ship delivering coal to Ramsey Island.

The rescue was a success, but the sail-assisted rowing boat was driven onto the rocks, and three on the Gem died.

Yet somewhat miraculously given the conditions, 12 lifeboatmen, and the three rescued sailors, survived, after clinging to rocks for over 12 hours.

They were eventually rescued when lifeboatman Will Thomas managed to dry out matches sufficiently enough to set fire to his oil skins, and attract the attention of boats in nearby Porthclais harbour.

In the aftermath of the disaster Sydney Mortimer, skipper of one of the Porthclais boats which rescued 10 of the survivors, received the RNLI's Silver Medal.

Two years later he became the youngest coxswain of the St David's lifeboat, aged 18.

Image caption The survivors of the St Davids lifeboat disaster in October 1910

The incident highlighted the vital role of the RNLI in Pembrokeshire, and when the Gem was replaced, it was with the first petrol motorboat in Wales, and one of only about a dozen then operated by the RNLI around Britain.

The experience also provided valuable lessons in how to improve the cork life jackets of the day, saving many more lives in years to come.

Coxswain of St Davids lifeboat, Dai John, explained how the disaster continues to resonate around the city to this day.

"Being a lifeboatmen runs in families. My own father and grandfather served here, and the same goes for many of the rest of our 26 volunteers and three staff.

"I think the last of the Gem's survivors died in the 60s, but many of our fathers knew them, and we know many of their children."

"We're desperate to try and spread the word about these men, because if their descendants don't know about them, they ought to.

"It can be scary enough putting out in bad weather, when you've got the latest boats and equipment. So the bravery of those men, who went out during gales and high seas, in little more than a wooden rowing boat, is truly astonishing."

They have managed to trace between 50 and 60 descendants of six of the men involved that night, spanning four generations.

But 12 will have no family members at Wednesday's anniversary events.

The day of remembrance will start at 0900 BST, when the current crew will drop a wreath where the Gem sank.

That will be followed by a memorial service at St David's Cathedral and the dedication of a plaque in the city's Memorial Gardens.

RNLI Cymru spokesman Jimmy Phillips said: "As well as the three men we lost aboard the Gem, we'll also be remembering Ieuan Bateman, who was washed overboard in 1956.

"The events which have been organised are primarily in honour of these men's extraordinary bravery, but it's also an opportunity to explain a little bit about what we do.

"In our 141 years, the St Davids lifeboat has deployed over 420 times, saving a minimum of 360 lives."

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