Whitby remembers greatest sea tragedy

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A hundred years ago, a storm was brewing out at sea but no-one could have predicted how devastating the consequences would be.

Possibly more predictable was the quick-thinking and unwavering resolve of Whitby’s lifeboatmen and the town’s people who risked their own lives to help others when the tragedy began to unfold.

The legacy of that fateful night is still strong in the mind and holds a place in the heart of today’s crew who are still risking their lives a hundred years later to help save others.

They will play a crucial part in remembering the Rohilla which sank off the coast of Whitby on the night of October 30, 1914.

The hospital ship, carrying 229 people, had set sail from Scotland for Belgium to pick up wounded soldiers from the war zone.

But it never made it. The Rohilla ran aground under the cliffs at Saltwick Bay as it was being battered by a north-easterly gale and heavy seas.

The ship quickly broke up into three sections and many of the hospital staff and crew were drowned.

Whitby’s lifeboat crew saved 35 people before that too was lost to the sea.

Six lifeboat crews spent a further three days saving survivors clinging to the wreckage.

Due to the bravery and remarkable life saving work of lifeboatmen and volunteers, 145 lives were saved - but 85 were lost.

To this day the Rohilla rescue remains one of the most dramatic to have ever taken place along the Yorkshire Coast.

And, to mark the centenary and pay tribute, a full weekend of events is being held.

They include a rowing and rescue demonstration, a flotilla and wreath laying ceremony led by today’s lifeboat, the George and Mary Webb and a service of Remembrance.

Pete Thomson, former coxswain and curator at the Lifeboat Museum, said: “This was the greatest rescue ever to have been carried out off Whitby and it is fitting that the centenary is marked in a very special way. “We have put a huge amount of thought and planning into commemorating the anniversary and I hope that, as well as being a solemn remembrance of those who tragically died, we will be able to recognise the amazing feats of endurance and bravery of the RNLI lifeboat crews and people of Whitby who worked for such a long time to rescue the survivors.”

One of which was Mary Roberts who, unbelievably, had survived the sinking of the Titanic two years previously.

She later said the Rohilla experience was much worse than the Titanic.

Her trunk, which was salvaged, is now on display in the lifeboat museum’s special Rohilla exhibition.

There are other previously unseen remnants and accounts loaned by relatives of other people who were on-board the Rohilla that night.

He also told the Gazette that the Rohilla rescue helped to shape the future of the RNLI.

Mr Thomson said: “Significantly, the Rohilla rescue was a turning point for the RNLI because it made lifeboat crews realise the future lay in engine-power instead of rowing boats.

“Four of the lifeboats involved in the rescue were rowing lifeboats but it was only the new motor lifeboat Henry Vernon, stationed at Tynemouth, that was able to reach the remaining 50 survivors.

“People had been suspicious of motor lifeboats until then but this helped convince the crews that they really were the future.”