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lusitania-wanderer

At around 11.00 am, on the morning of May 7, 1915, the British ocean liner, the RMS Lusitania broke through a thick blanket of fog. In the distant lay the indistinct smudge of the Irish coast. The world’s largest passenger liner at the time, the Lusitania had some 2,000 people on board, making the crossing from New York to Liverpool. It was to be her last journey.

At about 14.00 that same afternoon, she was struck by a torpedo from a German U-boat and sank within 18 minutes. Her last message gave her position as 10 miles south of Old Kinsale, off the southeastern coast of Ireland. It would take another two hours before the first steamer could reach the scene.

About three miles to the north east of the Lusitania’s final position was a small Manx fishing boat, the Wanderer. She had been fishing for mackerel in the calm waters of the Irish Sea, when her crew had seen the Lusitania suddenly list in the water. Undeterred by the possible dangers from the lurking U-boat, the Wanderer raced for the stricken vessel, arriving on scene in time to pluck 160 people from the water. The first casualty they took on board was a two month old baby, but hundreds more lay dead around them. Over the next two hours the crew did what they could for the survivors. The boat was filled to overflowing and, in spite of the dangers to themselves, the crew also took two full lifeboats in tow. The skipper of the boat, William Ball, in a letter that he later wrote to the Wanderer’s owner, described the scene with typical Manx pragmatism…

“…We picked up the first boats a quarter of a mile inside of where she sunk, and there we got four boat loads put aboard us, We couldn’t take any more, as we had 160 – men, women, and children. In addition, we had two boats in tow, full of passengers, We were the only boat there for two hours, then the patrol boats came out from Queenstown. We had a busy time making tea for them…and all our milk and tea is gone and a lot of clothes as well…and the bottle of whisky we had leaving home.”

The Wanderer finally managed to hand her pitiful cargo over to the Admiralty tug, Flying Fish, who took the survivors on to Queenstown, in southern Ireland. In total, nearly 1,200 people lost their lives that day, but the sinking went on to have far reaching consequences for Germany. In firing on a non-military ship without warning, she had breached international law (in spite of the fact that it is believed that the British had been flouting the rules by carrying war munitions). The outrage across the Atlantic in America helped to shift public opinion and went on to be instrumental in America’s eventual entry into the war two years later.

As for the Wanderer, well little remains of her role in the events of Friday, May 7. The Manchester Manx Society organised for the men to receive specially struck medals to mark their pivotal role in the events, but the only permanent reminder of what happened is a plaque adorning a wall in their home town of Peel. The boat itself continued to fish the waters of the Irish Sea until the 1930s, eventually ending her days in Ireland, all but forgotten except for a few letters home and a plaque on a wall in a small fishing port on the western coast of the Isle of Man.

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To be wrenched from your sleep at four in the morning is never a good thing. To be wrenched from your sleep at four in the morning by your Lifeboat pager going off though, that injects a foreboding sense of dread into the proceedings.

This is no time to find yourself in trouble on the Irish Sea, even during one of the best summer’s in years.

In the early hours of Saturday 27 July, the Peel Lifeboat launched into the predawn calm of what was promising to be yet another glorious day on the Isle of Man. For the families of two missing fishermen though it was to prove far from glorious. Over the course of the next 15 hours a massive air and sea search was carried out along the western and northern coasts of the island, covering an area of some 930 square kilometres. Throughout the day, four lifeboats, as well as helicopters from RAF Valley and RNAS Prestwick and a fixed wing aircraft belonging to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency combed the area in search of the two men. Their capsized boat was found relatively early on, but it took us until later that afternoon to come across the first of the bodies. We’d known once we found the boat that there was probably little chance of finding the men alive, but we knew that giving up without finding the bodies was not an option. Families just a few miles away were relying on us to bring them home. And we were determined not to let them down. It came with an almost tragic sense of relief therefore when we found the second of the two friends.

Since its foundation in 1824, the RNLI has saved over 140,000 lives in the seas off Britain and Ireland. This, unfortunately, was not to be one of those times. In spite of the tragic conclusion to the day though it did highlight one thing, that selfless sacrifice is not a thing of the past. Since the founding of the RNLI nearly 200 years ago its volunteer crews have never shirked the call to help. What these events proved though was that it isn’t just the crews that race to the call. Throughout that day the members of the Lifeboat committee also stepped up, keeping the boat and shore crews fed and watered during the day, and for that we were eternally grateful. This island has a long and proud connection with the RNLI. Its founder, Sir William Hilary lived here and it was in the storm tossed waters of the Irish Sea that the service first cut its teeth.

After the events of the past weekend, and in spite of the tragic outcome, I don’t think I have ever felt prouder to be a part of it.

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