This article first appeared in the RNLI Lifeboat Magazine Volume L, Number 496, Summer 1986 and is reproduced by kind permission of the RNLI Photo of Gloire à Marie II by Ray Noble
Throughout Thursday December 26, 1985, Boxing Day, the weather on the east Kent coast had been rapidly deteriorating; by late afternoon winds from the north east were reaching strong gale force 9 to storm force 10. Coxswain Ronald Cannon and a lifeboat crew member went down to the harbour at 1830 to check both the lifeboat's mooring and those of other boats including their own.
At 1925, while they were still engaged afloat and keeping a radio watch, they heard a call from a French trawler, the 65ft Gloire à Marie II, to Ramsgate Harbour asking for a pilot to bring her into harbour for shelter.
The watchman on duty at the eastern pierhead, Kenton Evans (a member of Ramsgate lifeboat crew) had difficulty in understanding the French skipper who in turn could not speak English. Coxswain Cannon called the pier to suggest the watchman should call the French ferry in Port Ramsgate for an interpreter so that the fishing boat's master could be told that all pilotage facilities had been suspended because of the weather.
Unfortunately it proved impossible to set up this link and at 1945 the trawler broadcast a garbled MAYDAY message saying that she was aground south of Ramsgate and in need of urgent assistance. The deputy launching authority was immediately contacted and at 2000 maroons were fired.
The wind had now increased to a north-easterly violent storm force 11and Coxswain Cannon decided it was too rough inside the harbour to use the station's boarding skiff. Instead he took his father's 35ft workboat to collect the first three crew members to arrive from the inner jetty and then, once aboard the lifeboat, brought her alongside the east pier steps to allow the other crew members to board. By now seas were breaking over the east pier and moments after the crew had boarded the lifeboat a sea stove in the pier's lookout windows some 30 feet above sea level.
Before the lifeboat cleared the pier, Coxswain Cannon inspected all the crew individually to make sure life-jackets and protective clothing were being properly worn. Dover coastguard had just reported they were recording north-easterly winds of over 65 knots.
The time was 2015 when Ramsgate's 44ft Waveney class lifeboat, Ralph and Joy Swann, set out across the harbour at three-quarter speed towards the entrance. As the watchman on the pier above him sent wave reports, Coxswain Cannon drove the lifeboat through the entrance into violent and short cross seas, made worse by reflection off the west pier. It was some three hours before high water which gave a south westerly stream locally and visibility at sea level was poor in the spray and spume.
The lifeboat headed east to clear the new harbour breakwater, then, when she was about two cables clear of the entrance, the coxswain prepared his crew for a turn to starboard. Using his skill, sound seamanship and good timing Coxswain Cannon safely brought the lifeboat round as she pitched and rolled heavily, taking heavy water overall and set a course of 250°. The trawler was not visible and she did not show up on the radar. Watchman Kenton Evans on the pierhead directed the lifeboat to a position some two miles south west of the harbour entrance. At 2025 parachute flares were fired from the lifeboat and they were answered by the trawler's searchlight. Now she could be seen aground in shoal water off the entrance to the River Stour.
The quartering seas which were irregular both in direction and frequency made the lifeboat very difficult to control. A constant lookout astern was maintained so that the coxswain could be warned of each steep sea as it approached.
Coxswain Cannon discussed with Second Coxswain Derek Pegden what should next be done. To try to take off the crew of seven men was likely to be too dangerous. Even if they could overcome the language barrier they knew that it would he unlikely that the skipper would want to leave his vessel. Standing by the trawler would also he unwise with the risk of grounding.
So, at 2030, Coxswain Cannon steered close to the south of the trawler and then, turning to starboard, brought the lifeboat up to her port quarter. The trawler was lying head west and pounding forward, the stern appearing to be fast aground. As the two vessels closed Crew Member Michael Petts leapt from the lifeboat and, with the help of the trawler's crew, was pulled aboard.
With proper communications now established Petts could confirm that the trawler was still seaworthy with main engines available. Neither her master nor his two sons would consider leaving their ship which was less than a year old. The coxswain held the lifeboat head to sea and eased astern, judging the right moment to make a second approach and to put a second crew member on board. Heavy seas made the first three attempts impossible, but at the fourth Crew Member Nigel Stephens was safely transferred.
The lifeboat crew then passed a 60-fathom towline aboard the trawler which was led to her bow. The coxswain began the very skilful task of turning the trawler's bow to the south, while trying to keep his own vessel's head to sea. There was a serious danger of the tow pulling the lifeboat over on her side and the line had to be watched closely by the crew who were ready to cut it instantly if necessary.
Just as the trawler's bow came on to a south-easterly heading a huge breaking sea, some 20 feet high, lifted the lifeboat's bow and threw her astern, instantly slackening the towline. As her bow fell into the following trough the line brought up, veering it around the towline post and causing severe burning. Coxswain Cannon dropped the lifeboat astern so that the tow could be re-secured clear of the damaged section; he then resumed the towing manoeuvre.
Within minutes another sea caused the same to happen again but this time the end of the towline was lost. The crew managed to retrieve the line from the water and it was re-connected. When towing resumed Crew Member Petts (aboard the trawler) radioed that the main engines were being started and that the Gloire à Marie II's stern was beginning to clear the shallows.
When the two vessels were in deeper water the tow was disconnected; it would have been impossible to tow the trawler into Ramsgate harbour and unnecessary as she now reported having full control and power. Visibility was still poor and with the lifeboat's searchlight trained aft, the coxswain led the trawler towards Ramsgate. The seas were short, confused and breaking heavily, and Coxswain Cannon brought his crew into shelter before making the north-westerly turn for the harbour entrance.
At 2130 the lifeboat and trawler entered harbour and moored in the lee of the east pier. The lifeboat was refuelled and reported ready again for service at 2215. Harbour users could not remember worse weather than on the night of this rescue. Nine boats sank at their moorings inside the harbour and buildings on the east pier suffered structural damage.
Following this service the silver medal was awarded to Coxswain/Mechanic Ronald Cannon. Silver medal service certificates were awarded to Second Coxswain Derek Pegden and Crew Members Ronald Blay. Alan Bray, Michael Petts, Nigel Stephens, Raymond Noble and John Cheesman. A letter of thanks, signed by Rear Admiral W. J. Graham, director, was also sent to the east pier watchman, Kenton Evans, for his assistance to the coxswain during the service.
My thanks go to the RNLI, for allowing me to use this material.
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