On the Waterfront: ‘Too exposed for rough seas’

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OVER the years, numerous methods have been adopted to meet local circumstances when launching lifeboats to the aid of mariners in distress.  

 This week, we look at the innovative arrangements which were introduced by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) on Wearside during World War One.

Although Sunderland once had several lifeboat stations in simultaneous use, only the North Dock station remained in operation when war broke out. Situated near the entrance to North Dock, the station housed the pulling (oar-propelled) lifeboat, George Woofindin, which was launched into the river from a slipway.

In June, 1912, the Wear’s first motor lifeboat – J McConnel Hussey – had arrived in port, but remained afloat at river moorings.

By July, 1914, however, this boat was withdrawn after being deemed unfit for further service. This left only the pulling lifeboat in service and an urgent need to replace the motor vessel.

The quandary of where to station a motor lifeboat had first arisen before J McConnel entered service. Due to tidal range, it was calculated that a slipway-launched vessel would require a slip of around 200 feet in length.

No such site was available among the congested quays on the south side of the river, while the north side was regarded as being too remote from crew’s homes.

Although space could be found in the outer harbour, any such site would have been too exposed to rough seas.

Plans for a 50-foot floating pontoon alongside the ferry landing jetty at the eastern end of Thornhill Quay were abandoned, as the pontoon would have been aground at low water, thus necessitating expensive dredging operations.

The RNLI therefore decided to construct a boathouse equipped with a platform, upon which the lifeboat could be raised or lowered. This was then a unique design in Britain, being based on a similar system already adopted in Marseilles.

Supported above the river on tall piles, the boathouse contained a complex pulley system by which the lifeboat was launched from a moveable platform.

Initially, the platform was raised and lowered by hand, only two men being required for lowering, but eight for lifting. This method was superseded by use of a petrol engine about 1920.

Work on the new boathouse began in 1915 and was completed in 1916, when George Woofindin was moved from North Dock station, which then closed. In February, 1918, a self-righting motor lifeboat, Henry Vernon, was placed on station after being transferred from Tynemouth.

Before being withdrawn in 1935, Henry Vernon was launched on service on 28 occasions, saving 64 lives. The lifeboat launching platform was demolished in 1931 to make way for the construction of Corporation Quay.