By far the largest number of shipwrecks occur when ships come into unplanned contact with the shore. In less enlightened days the local population took these events to be an unexpected bonus and opportunity for acquiring wealth. Slaughter of ships crew and passengers was common. The wrecking of the Spanish Armada around the shores of Ireland was a good example, of those who made it safely ashore, very few survived.
Attitudes had improved by the 1800’s. However those ashore frequently had no way of giving aid other than forming human chains to assist people ashore through the surf. Lifeboats powered by oar and sail were often at greater risk and unable to assist.
A rope thrown from the shore was a useful tool, and a pulley system – later known as a ‘breeches buoy’ – could be set up to ferry people to safety. However, a person could only throw a rope a short distance, usually against the wind. By the mid 1800’s a US army engineer developed a gun, known as the “Lyle Gun” which fired a projectile over to the ship in trouble. The projectile was attached to a light line and this was used to haul over a heavier rope to set up contact with shore. The Lyle Gun system saved many lives and versions are still used to this day.
By the end of the century a major improvement was the replacement of the gun with a rocket launcher. This was lighter, easier to transport, and the rocket could haul a line farther. The only problem was that the line which lay coiled on the ground could easily snag. The invention of the ‘faking box’ solved this; it was a clever method for laying out the line to avoid snagging.
The Coastguard 1800-1922 and coast lifesaving service 1923-c1992 maintained rocket rescue apparatus at strategic locations around the coast. They rescued hundreds of sailors over the period of their existence. The last service using rocket apparatus was when the Ranga ran ashore at Slea head in March 1982. The apparatus consisted of a tripod rocket launching apparatus, line carrying rockets and a huge quantity of ropes of various thickness. A light line attached to the rocket would be fired to the ship in distress to become entangled in the rigging. The crew would haul a heavy line and a further light line in to their ship using this first line. Block and tackle, instructions and a breeches buoy where hauled out to the distressed ship. The victims would be hauled ashore one by one sitting in the breeches buoy finally a cutting apparatus would be sent out to the ship end of the line to cut away the rope for recovery and reuse. There were two models of carts a two wheeled one as seen in the National Maritime Museum Dun Laoghaire and a four wheeled version as in the photo.
A series of photos taken by John Messenger on Inisiar shows a successful rescue of the crew of the Plassey in March 1960. Rocket carts are preserved at Valentia, Dún Laoghaire, Donabate and Hook though only the Dún Laoghaire cart has most of its equipment. One of the most dramatic rescues incidents was the rescue of the crew of the Limerick vessel Plassy (click here for our account of this rescue), on Inis Oírr on the Aran Islands. It is unique in that a complete sequence of 20 photographs of the rescue taken by a visitor to the islands, David Messenger, survives. These are on view in the Dún Laoghaire Museum. His wife took colour photos of the event. Áras Éanna on Inis Oírr has a better preserved set.
The Skerries sea pole, recently restored, was used for the Skerries crew to practice firing the rocket and rigging the equipment. In addition to rocket rescues coastguard boats were stationed at their c 90 bases all around the coast and rescued hundred. Over 300 coastguards were awarded RNLI and Royal Humane society medals for their gallantry.
When the shipwrecked sailors reached shore not only might they be injured by trauma or cold but they were destitute. Their contract of employment and pay ceased with the loss of the vessel. And they stood on the shore penniless, without clothing and in a strange place without work. This is where the Shipwrecked mariners Society came to their rescue. The charity was usually administered by the local Lloyds agent who was empowered to provide clothing food and lodging against future reimbursement. A plaque like the one shown (formerly at Scotts of Cobh and now in Cotter’s bar Crosshaven) indicated the office of the Shipwrecked Mariner’s agent in each port. Hostels were apparently maintained in Dublin and cork though this is not certain. The Lloyds agent was best placed to find a ship traveling to the sailor’s home port and its captain would sign on the survivors if he needed spare hands or might carry the men to their home port as passengers. The survivors would even need food for the voyage. If a sailor died in a wreck his widow was destitute and this explains why so few sailors lie in marked graves. They were mostly buried at the expense of the civil parish whose duty was to bury the indigent dead at parish expense.