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When the BBC ran a poll a few years ago to find the 100 Greatest Britons, the list was filled with a rich (and at times depressingly banal) cast of characters. Everyone from Winston Churchill and Horatio Nelson, to Boy George and Guy Fawkes made the final cut. Even King Arthur made it to number 51, and he probably didn’t even exist! Now, there are many reasons I am sure why the likes of Johnny Rotten, Bono and Dame Julie Andrews made the list; the latter doubtless for her unflagging cheerfulness in the face of Dick Van Dyke’s appalling cockney accent in “Mary Poppins”. But where, I ask myself, was Henry George Blogg?!

maxiI’ll admit, Henry’s is not the first name that comes to mind when most people are asked to compile their list of favourites. He never circumnavigated the globe or captained the 1966 England World Cup winning football team. And to the best of my knowledge he fell someway short of reaching either of the polar ice caps. What Henry did though was save 873 lives, in a selfless career that spanned over five decades.

Henry Blogg was, and indeed remains, the greatest lifeboatman ever to put to sea. The most decorated volunteer in the charity’s history, Henry was awarded three Gold and four Silver medals for bravery, as well as the George Cross and the British Empire Medal. Not bad for a lad who never even learned to swim! Born in Cromer in 1876, he joined the crew in January 1894, aged 18. Over the next 53 years (38 of them as coxswain) Henry was involved in no fewer than 387 rescues, amongst coastal waters that remain, even today, amongst the most dangerous anywhere along the British coast.

The first of his gold medal rescues occurred in 1917, whilst Europe’s youth was entrenched in the mud and mire of Flanders. Over the course of some 14 hours, Henry and the crew of the Cromer lifeboat braved some of the worst weather of one of the worst winters on record to rescue 33 men from two stricken ships. No mean feat by itself, but when you take in the conditions that they had to battle against and the fact that the average age of the crew that night was over 50 years old (two of the crew were nearing 70), the rescue takes on almost Herculean proportions.

They launched their boat four times that day, into gale force winds that exceeded 50 miles an hour and seas that threatened to smash them like eggshells against the north Norfolk coast. All they had to rely on was brute strength, dogged determination and 14 oars as they fought against stinging hail, icy spray and great walls of water that threatened to pitch them into the sea at any moment. It took them three hours of back-breaking effort to reach the small Greek steamer, the Pyrin, but reach it they did and 22 men (and doubtless their countless descendants) were very grateful that they had.

It was, as you can imagine, with some relief that they returned to the safety of the shore. However, the relief was short-lived. No sooner had they swapped sodden oilskins for dry clothes than news came through of a second ship in trouble. The Swedish vessel, Fernebo had struck a mine which had split her in half and the Cromer boat was the only one within reach of her that could be launched into the foaming maelstrom.

This was the dilemma facing Henry Blogg. Both he and his crew were exhausted and the conditions were by now even worse than they had been earlier. But what was the option? He pulled on wet oilskins and cork lifejacket and headed back out into a howling gale. Henry’s career as a coxswain was filled with acts of incredible selflessness, but no rescue better displayed the spirit and loyalty of the Cromer crew than this night. Battered and bruised, but unbowed, these ageing heroes followed Henry out to face down the wild North Sea for the second time in just a few hours.

Mountainous seas drove the lifeboat back against the shore as the crew struggled to row the boat out past the breakers, and their first attempt ended with them being unceremoniously dumped back on the beach. By now the sea was screaming and darkness had fallen as they began their second attempt. For half an hour they struggled to get clear of the surf and into the deeper water, but each time the sea threw them back into the shallows. Finally, to the cheers of those gathered along the shores watching, the Louisa Heartwell broke through the crest of a huge wave. But the sea hadn’t finished with them yet. Just as they thought they had made it a huge wave smashed into them, shattering five of the oars and washing another three overboard.

Defeated the crew had to head back to shore yet again.

Now, it would be at this point in a Hollywood blockbuster that the script would call for some heart-wrenching speech and an implausible plot-line that would probably involve a small child and a dog. Henry however just called for new oars. And so, for the fourth time that day, the boat was launched back into the surf. This time they made it and, as the spectators watched from the shore, the Louisa Heartwell reached the Fernebo and returned triumphantly home, bearing 11 total strangers to safety. It was by now nearly one o’clock in the morning. The crew had battled the weather on and off for nearly 14 hours and Henry Blogg had brought them all back safely.

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The Cromer station won 14 RNLI medals that day. A gold for Henry, a silver for his second coxswain and bronze medals for 12 of the remaining crew. And that was just the first of Henry’s medals. Over the coming years his courage, seamanship and leadership would inspire generations to come and earn the respect and thanks of many a grateful seaman, as well as a collection of caged birds and a Tyrolean Mountain dog called Monte.

Henry Blogg continued as coxswain of the Cromer boat until he was 74 – 14 years beyond the statutory retirement age. He died in 1954, having outlived his wife, his son and his daughter. He was once asked how he would describe himself, to which he replied “I’m a crab fisherman”.

Now that my friends is a Great Briton!…

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hist_theoldhamBeautiful and terrifying in equal measure, the sea can be an unforgiving mistress. The coastlines around the British Isles are littered with wrecks that have fallen prey to her unpredictable moods and these Islands are no stranger to the power of the sea’s unrelenting fury. The early part of the nineteenth century saw some 1,800 vessels a year being wrecked along our coasts. Death and the sea became an integral part of life amongst coastal communities, who could only watch helplessly as ships foundered in the boiling seas.

In 1824 that all changed…

That was the year that Sir William Hilary founded the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, later changed to the much racier, Royal National Lifeboat institution. This year marks the charity’s 190th anniversary and from its humble beginnings, amongst the treacherous waters off the Isle of Man, the RNLI today has around 1,000 lifeguards and 236 lifeboat stations dotted around the coasts of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Isles, rescuing on average some 22 people a day. In real terms that equates to more than 140,000 lives saved, countless vessels rescued and nearly two centuries of dedicated and selfless service by its volunteer crews.

(c) Manx National Heritage; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThe RNLI today has come a long way since the night of November 19, 1830, when a 60 year old William Hilary took to a lifeboat to rescue the crew of the St George. That night, in the fierce waters of the Irish Sea, the lifeboat lost its rudder and had six of its oars smashed. Its crew were washed overboard on more than one occasion and Hilary himself suffered six broken ribs and a shattered chest bone. But the crew of the St George were saved and the legacy that is the RNLI was born.

The words, ‘With Courage, Nothing is Impossible’, are inscribed on the RNLI memorial in Poole, Dorset. They are testimony to more than 800 lifeboat crew and others who have lost their lives endeavouring to save other at sea…And nearly two centuries on, the sight of the famous orange and blue livery crashing through the waves can still reduce even the most hardy sailor to tears of relief.

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img663After 14 long, painful and contentious years, the last voyage of the Solway Harvester is finally coming to an end. The boat’s sinking, in storm force winds off the Isle of Man on the late afternoon of the 11 January 2000, still remains the worst maritime disaster to ever occur in Manx waters. All seven crew were lost including two brothers and two 17 year old friends. The effect of the tragedy on the small Scottish community of Whithorn was profound, but what set this incident apart was what happened next.

Over the days and weeks that followed, the Isle of Man government went to extraordinary lengths to recover the boat and her crew. In the face of stiff opposition from the British government, the Manx Parliament set in motion a series of events that were to have emotive and far reaching consequences on both sides of the water. For weeks the island lay at the centre of a huge media circus, as a growing army of salvage crews, divers and support craft lay siege to the waters off the coast. Huge lifting cranes were brought in, the Royal Air Force conspired with the Manx government to help bring the families across in secret and a plan of almost military precision was undertaken to implement the job of raising the boat and recovering the crew.

Four years ago, photographer Phil Kneen and myself set out to document in words and pictures the circumstances behind the Solway Harvester’s tragic sinking. Our intention was to pay tribute to the extraordinary efforts that had been made to return the crew to their families and to highlight the human story behind the tragedy. To that end we attempted to tell it from the perspective of those most deeply affected. To let the people who had lived through those few emotive weeks tell the story in their own words.

That was how we found ourselves sat in a pub in Whithorn, on a crisp winter’s day in the late December of 2009. We had come to meet up with some of the families of the lost crew and, frankly, I think it was just sinking in what we had taken on. How do you ask someone about their dead son, or introduce yourself to a woman who was heavily pregnant when her husband drowned, and then look into the face of the nine year old boy who had never even met his father? Our first meeting was with the parents of Davy Lyons, a 17 year old lad who, at the time of his death, hadn’t even been big enough to join the army!

Over the course of that weekend we were to meet up with other families with similar tragic tales to tell. Two of the boys had been just 17, inseparable friends, who had a lifetime of experiences ahead of them. Another had been 22. A combined age of 56, all gone in a matter of minutes. From the time of the last known communication from the boat, to the time that the Solway Harvester’s emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) had been activated, just 18 minutes had passed. Most of the crew hadn’t even had time to get on deck.

It was in the early hours of the 10 January 2000 that the scallop dredger Solway Harvester slipped her moorings and pointed her bow south, heading towards the rich fishing grounds lying off the Isle of Man. Over the next 24 hours the weather in the Irish Sea began to deteriorate, as the water around the boat turned from a dark foreboding mass into a screaming cauldron that threatened to engulf them. With the storm growing worse, the decision was made to haul in the gear and make for the shelter of Ramsey Bay. It was the last journey they would ever make. At 17.47 on 11 January 2000, a polar orbiting satellite picked up the signal from the EPIRB, indicating that the boat had lost its battle with the growing storm and battering waves.

The winds by now had increased to severe gale force 9, gusting to storm force 10, and the search for the missing boat pitted man and machine against the unrelenting fury of the Irish Sea.

The conditions and the heavy rain made it increasingly difficult for the lifeboats, with visibility down to nothing and the heavy seas making life uncomfortable for the crews manning the searchlights. Over the next few hours Mother Nature’s unbridled power held sway, in spite of the best efforts of the Coastguard, the RNLI, the RAF and the Royal Navy. The boat and her seven man crew failed to materialise though and the rescue effort was finally abandoned at dusk on the evening of the 12 January, after the discovery of two unopened life-rafts had shattered any last vestiges of hope that the crew would be found alive.

It took three more days to locate the Solway Harvester and a further three weeks to recover her crew. The bodies were finally brought up on the 4 February 2000 and escorted into Douglas Bay to the haunting lament of a solitary piper. The families were waiting on the quayside that night and, as the bodies were placed on Victoria Pier, the final chords of Ellan Vannin drifted out across the harbour. It took another five months before the Solway Harvester finally made it into Ramsey. There were no pipers that day, just an eerie silence from the thousands who lined the harbour as the shattered wreck entered the bay.

Over the coming days the final chapter of this tragedy will be played out, as the last remnants of the Solway Harvester’s rusting hull is cut up and scrapped. The journey has been a long and painful one, due primarily to a drawn out and bitter legal dispute. Fourteen years ago the Isle of Man went against every previous maritime precedent, overcame countless bureaucratic obstacles and even faced down the British government to raise the Solway Harvester and recover her crew. It is a decision that not everyone agreed with at the time, but for the people of Whithorn and Garlieston it meant they could bury their sons and move on. And for that they will be externally grateful.

John Jolly was the father of Wesley, the youngest member of the Solway Harvester’s crew. I shall let him have the final say…

“If it hadn’t been for Donald Gelling and the Isle of Man we would have been facing a long fight. The British Government wasn’t interested; it wasn’t in their agenda. The Scottish Government as well. They think that’s where a fisherman should lie. In my mind there was only one fisherman on the boat that night and that was Craig, the rest were just there to try and make some money…My son wasn’t a fisherman.”

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To the memory of the crew of the Solway Harvester…Rest in Peace…

Photographs copyright Phil Kneen

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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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With less than two months to go before I head out to Canada with Phil Kneen, I have been casting my mind back to our last collaboration together. The Harvest project occupied our thoughts for some nine months on and off and the finished result is something that I am still immensely proud of. At the time I wrote a piece about the project and, whilst I realise that it is a little out of date now, I still think it worth a second airing, if only to give Canada some idea as to what it is in for!…

We sat in the bar of the Steampacket Inn on the Isle of Whithorn, contemplating death and gazing out across a tranquil harbour bathed in late December sunshine. The scene before us had probably changed little over the past ten years. That same, somnolent setting would have been the last view of home that the crew of the Solway Harvester had seen as they sailed out to meet their fate on that still January night.

It was in the early hours of the 10 January 2000 when the scallop dredger Solway Harvester slipped her moorings and pointed her bow south, heading out towards the rich fishing grounds lying off the coast of the Isle of Man. There was little to indicate what lay in wait for them out there that night and the crisp winter air foretold nothing of the horrors that lay ahead. For the families of the seven men on board though, it was to be the last time they would ever see them alive.

Over the next 24 hours the weather in the Irish Sea began to deteriorate, as the water around the boat turned from a dark foreboding mass into a screaming cauldron that threatened to engulf them. Eventually conditions became so bad that the boat’s skipper, Craig Mills, decided the time had come to head for shelter and so, on the afternoon of the 11 January, the crew hauled in their gear and the Solway Harvester headed for the safe haven of Ramsey Bay. It was the last journey they would ever make. At 17.47 a polar orbiting satellite picked up the signal from the boat’s emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), confirming that the vessel had finally lost its battle with the growing storm and battering waves.

The ensuing search for the missing boat pitted man and machine against the unrelenting fury of the Irish Sea. Over the next few hours Mother Nature’s unbridled power held sway in spite of the best efforts of the Coastguard, the RNLI, the RAF and the Royal Navy. Douglas, Ramsey, Port St Mary and Peel lifeboats all launched into the foaming maelstrom and even the Isle of Man ferry, the Ben-my-Chree, was diverted from its scheduled sailing to help in the search. All to no avail. In spite of an exhaustive search the boat and her seven man crew failed to materialise and the rescue effort was finally abandoned at dusk on the evening of the 12 January, after the discovery of two unopened life-rafts had shattered any last vestiges of hope that the crew would be found alive.

It took three more days to locate the Solway Harvester, but she was eventually found lying like some slumbering leviathan 11 miles off the coast of Douglas. The Royal Navy minesweeper, HMS Sandown, seconded from operational duties to help in the search for the boat, sent down a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and, as it became evident that they had found the final resting place of the boat, the mood aboard the naval vessel changed dramatically. Her captain, Ben Key, remembers vividly the silence that descended on the Operations Room as the trawler came into view. As the name Solway Harvester emerged from the enveloping gloom they were all struck by how a vessel that had been so alive and animated just a few days before could now be so silent and still. From the time of the last known communication from the boat, to the time that the EPIRB had been activated, just 18 minutes had passed. Most of the crew hadn’t even had time to get on deck.

The idea to do something to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the sinking had begun as a conversation between myself and Phil some four months previously. Sat in another pub, on another isle, the Harvest project had been born; conceived originally as a way of paying tribute not only to the crew of the Solway Harvester, but also to the incredible efforts made by the Isle of Man to find and then raise her. Over the intervening weeks though what had started as a flickering light somewhere in the dark recesses of our minds had grown into an unstoppable juggernaut, one that along the way had slowed only to pick up members of the RNLI, the Manx Government, the Royal Navy and an assortment of police officials, coastguard personnel and church ministers. The response had been incredible.

We were in Whithorn that late December morning to meet up with some of the families of the lost crew, and I think the reality of what we were doing was finally sinking in. How do you ask someone about their dead son? How do you introduce yourself to a woman who was heavily pregnant when her husband drowned, and then look into the face of the 9 year old boy who had never even met his father? Phil and myself had retired to the bar for a ‘planning meeting’. It was a lame excuse and we knew it. We were hoping that an infusion of strong liquor would steady the nerves prior to our first meeting with the parents of Davy Lyons, a 17 year old lad, who at the time of his death hadn’t even been big enough to join the army!

Parents shouldn’t have to bury their children, it goes against the natural order of things, but over the course of that weekend we were to meet with three families who had done just that. Two of the boys had been just 17, inseparable friends, who had a lifetime of experiences ahead of them. The other had been 22. A combined age of 56, all gone in a matter of minutes. Then there was Karen Jolly (nee Mills), whose husband Robin had been the brother of the Solway’s skipper. We sat and listened as she told us about their last Christmas together, her children, Sarah and Robbie watching from the sofa as she described the last days of the father they had barely known. The stories were heartbreaking, but it wasn’t a feeling of senseless waste that we came away from Whithorn with, but rather an indomitable mood of quiet dignity. Whilst the memories were still raw and the anger still palpable, the spirit that remained was undefeated.

Back on the Isle of Man we began the task of enlisting the support and help of those who had been involved in the recovery of the vessel from Manx waters. I think few people at the time realised what a Herculean effort it was going to be to raise the boat, but having given their word to the families of the crew that they would bring the boys home, the Isle of Man government spared no effort in making good on their promise. The Manx Parliament and the Council of Ministers gave unanimous approval, Chief inspector Dudley Butt was tasked with investigating the sinking and John Foster, who at that time was the government’s Emergency Planning Officer, was given the somewhat daunting responsibility of facilitating the recovery operation.

The determination of the Manx government to bring the Solway Harvester home incurred the furious wrath of the British government, with Whitehall and Tynwald clashing bitterly over the unprecedented decision to raise the boat. Manx fortitude won the day however and over the next few weeks the island lay at the centre of a huge media circus, as a growing army of salvage crews, divers and support craft lay siege to the waters off the coast. Huge lifting cranes were sailed around the Scottish coast, the RAF conspired with the Manx government to help bring the families across in secret and a plan of almost military precision was undertaken to implement the job of raising the boat. It took weeks of planning and organisation and some truly heroic efforts on the part of the dive teams involved in securing the vessel and searching for the crew and, in spite of the best efforts of the Irish Sea to thwart the operation, over the following months the boat and its crew were finally brought up.

The crew were eventually brought into Douglas on a cold February night, to the haunting lament of a solitary piper, but it took another five months before the Solway Harvester finally made it into Ramsey. The irony of the boat’s final journey couldn’t fail to escape many that day and, as the haunting vision of the Solway Harvester sailed into the bay, an eerie silence descended on the crowds that lined the harbour. The journey home had been a long and painful one, but despite the tragedy of the loss it was also one filled with hope. It saw men and women risk their lives in atrocious conditions that fateful January night. It saw politicians stand up for what was right, rather than what was expedient.

And it saw two communities come together in grief and remain together in friendship.

The Isle of Man went against every previous maritime precedent, overcame countless bureaucratic obstacles and even faced down the British government to raise the Solway Harvester and recover her crew. It is a decision that maybe not everyone agreed with at the time, but the people of Whithorn and Garlieston know that it was something their own government wouldn’t have done for them and for that they are eternally thankful. After 10 years maybe the time has come to finally lay the Solway Harvester to rest, but  in these days of greed and corruption, it is inspiring that a story can still be told of the inherent goodness of the human spirit.

All photographs copyright Phil Kneen.

Few of us probably fully appreciate our parents until they are no longer there. Let’s face it, we never really treat them with anything other than passing sufferance most of the time and how often do we ever REALLY talk to them?

This weekend I attended my parents’ Diamond Wedding Anniversary. Sixty years of marriage! That is an incredible achievement in anyone’s book. There are countries out there that haven’t endured that long. Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t all been roses and champagne over the past six decades. I can remember fights and arguments when I was a kid and they bicker constantly, like…well…an old married couple actually. But they are still together and they deserve a little more than my passing sufferance these days.

I spend my life travelling and talking to people about their lives, but I am ashamed to say I have never given my parents the same consideration. That was until last weekend. Between them, my folks have a combined life span of some 170 years and a wealth of memories that would fill a library. They survived the Blitz together. My dad served in Palestine during the first ever Arab-Israeli conflict in 1947. And my mum, apparently, used to watch aerial dogfights in the skies above Birmingham on her way from school. Why had it taken me so long to sit down and listen to this?!

Over the course of the weekend we spent hours talking. I hadn’t seen them this animated in years. I took my mum to visit an old school friend of hers and sat and listened (yes, listened) whilst they spent the afternoon reminiscing about lost loves, dance halls and a late night motorbike ride back home during the blackout?! My mother…on the back of a motorbike…with a man who wasn’t my father?! This was a revelation!

Pablo Picasso once said, ‘It takes a long time to become young’. It would seem that my parents have been getting younger all these years without me even realising it.

…I’m glad I’ve remedied that now.