EVERY time the Whitby lifeboat is launched - whether it is to tow in a broken down vessel or to battle through fierce waters in life or death situations - the crew spare a thought for their predecessors who never returned.
On a rough and wild night on 9 February, 1861 - which saw 200 ships wrecked on the east coast - the privately owned Whitby lifeboat was called into action for the sixth time that day.
On what can be described as a glorified rowing boat the 13 strong crew attempted to rescue the sailors on board stricken vessel, the Merchant, but capsized in the stormy seas.
The sole survivor was Henry Freeman, who was on his first lifeboat launch and also the only one wearing a new style cork lifejacket.
In a letter to The Times newspaper the then vicar of Whitby, Rev William Keane wrote: “We have had a fearful storm today. Half a mile of our strand is already strewn with seven wrecks. Our new lifeboat, but launched a few months ago, was manned with the finest picked seamen in Whitby...The men, all exhausted though they were, again pulled out but before they had gone fifty yards a wave capsized the boat. Then was beheld by several thousand persons, within almost a stone’s throw but unable to assist, the fearful agonies of those powerful men buffeted by the fury of the breakers, till one by one twelve of the thirteen sank and only one is saved.”
Freeman was awarded an RNLI Silver Medal for his part in the incident and went on to become Whitby’s most renowned lifeboatman, helping to save more than 300 lives during more than 20 years as Whitby RNLI Coxswain.
The current coxswain Mike Russell said a bust of Freeman now stands on the wall of the lifeboat station to serve as a constant reminder of the potential dangers of what they do.
He said: “The current crew think about him and his colleagues who never made it back every time we launch our lifeboat.”
Speaking at a special service last Wednesday to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the disaster, led by Rev David Smith, Mike added: “The lifeboat men in those days were all fishermen and you still hear those names carried on today.
“The disaster was the start of the RNLI in Whitby. We are just the custodians of the lifeboat station. It will still be going in another 150 years but it will be someone else. We are looking after it for future generations.”
Family members were taken out on board today’s offshore lifeboat the George and Mary Webb and the renovated William Riley and watched as an anchor shaped wreath was cast into the sea followed by a white rose for each of the men while their names were read out.
Peter Leadley’s great great grandfather Robert Leadley and his brother Matthew succumbed to the seas that night.
Peter (64) of Henrietta Street said: “We heard the story as kids from an early age. It is well documented and I read a report on how bad the conditions were - it was horrendous.
“I have brought along my grandson Bailey. He had four ancestors lost on the boat because his mother was a Storr and the other two brothers who died were John and William Storr.
“The disaster is remembered today, everybody still talks about it.”
These days technology and the equipment and methods available have moved on somewhat but the dangers facing the crews are just as pertinent.
Mike added: “We don’t know what we are going to get. We go miles out to see for fires on tankers and medical evacuations from cruise ships. It is a different world but the same job. The lifeboat is part of the history of the town.”