The Men of Whitby

Robert Blatchford

One night in January 1881, during a tremendous storm, a brig struck on the sunken reefs within the southern arm of Robin Hood’s Bay. The crew got out the jolly-boat, and made her fast with a rope to the mast of the wreck. All night long they fought with the waves, the people on shore being entirely ignorant of their calamity.

Early in the morning the quarter-board of the vessel, driven ashore, was seen by the coastguardsmen, who gave the alarm, and it was then discovered that the brig had foundered during the night, and that the crew were still tossing about in their boat exposed to the perils of a furious gale, a blinding snowstorm, and a heavy sea.

Now, at that time, the lifeboat at Robin Hood’s Bay was old and unseaworthy. To put out in her was to incur swift and certain death. Neither could the brig’s boat possibly make shore through the terrible breakers, even had her crew known the lay of the reefs, through which there are but two narrow channels where a boat may pass.

What was to be done? The good people of Robin Hood’s Bay could not let the shipwrecked sailors drown before their eyes, and no ordinary boat could live in such a sea. There was but one chance – the telegraph. They wired to Whitby, requesting that the lifeboat might be sent at once.

The Whitby men received this message after having been out five times during the night. They held a consultation.

The first suggestion was that the lifeboat should be towed round to Robin Hood’s bay, about ten miles, by steam tug; but this was impossible, as no tug could weather such a storm as then was raging.

The next suggestion was to man the lifeboat and pull round. This was put to the vote, and unanimously negatived. With the ebb tide and the furious gale against them, no boat’s crew in the world could have taken the boat to the wreck, even if there had been a hope of living in that tremendous storm. The brave men of Whitby looked at the great cauldron of the sea, where the swirling water and the shrieking spray and flying snow were blent in one great seething hell-broth, and shook their heads despairingly.

And all this time the crew of the foundered ship, cut off from all communication with the shore, were fighting their hopeless battle for life, looking to the land they could not reach, and praying for the aid which could not come. And then – then, when all hope of going to the rescue by way of the sea had been abandoned – out spoke some hero of the Lifeboat Council on the Whitby beach, and said: “We will take her overland.”

They would take the lifeboat overland! Do you realize the magnitude of the task? The heroic audacity of the idea? Between Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay there are six long miles of hilly country. A lifeboat is a huge and ponderous vessel. A terrific storm was raging. There was a hard frost, and the roads were deep with snow.

On the face of it, the project looked like madness. But there was a boat’s crew of sailors hoping against hope amongst the breakers; and British fishermen, having made up their minds to do a thing, bring desperate courage to face desperate emergencies.

The men of Whitby would take their lifeboat overland! The rumour spread. The crowd increased. The enthusiasm began to blaze. Old men, women, and children – the fathers, mothers, wives, daughters, and sons of fishermen – came out into the storm. The coxswain led the way to the boathouse, which was waist-deep in water, and the approach to which was swept every minute by the furious charges of the seas that rushed up the slips and over the pier.

It was a noble sight! The boat was dragged out. Ropes were made fast to it. A hundred, two hundred, three hundred men seized the ropes; a great crowd followed, pushing the carriage or turning the wheels. Through the falling snow and crackling ice, the flying spume and spray, the lifeboat was dragged down the quaint old street and over the narrow and steep bridge. At the turn of the road a couple of horses were yoked on; a few yards up the hill a couple more; a few yards farther a couple more; and so, as the procession went, were men and horses added to win the way against wind and weather.

One mile out a couple of travellers met the party, vowed the enterprise was hopeless; told how the roads were one mass of ice and snow, how they themselves had left their traps and horses half buried in the drifts; to get to the bay, they said, was quite impossible.

Impossible! Whitby was aroused. Whitby had got its blood up, the blood of the Vikings, who feared neither steel, nor storm, nor fire! Impossible! Whitby laughed.

Ahoy there! A score of men! Two, three score of men, and quickly, with axes and bars and shovels. We will see about this snow, we men of Whitby; we will go, though the skies should fall.

The men were there – a hundred men with spades and axes; a hundred more with ropes and lanterns. They hewed the ice and cut the snow from the track; they grew more fierce and resolute the sterner grew the obstacles.

At every hamlet, at every farm and cross-road they picked up volunteers. Farmers and carriers met them with their cattle. Soon they had thirty horses, and of men a regiment. They dragged the great boat by main force up the steep hills, and through the ruts and puddles. They hacked their way through drifts and hedges; they pulled up gates and broke down walls, and so, panting, straining, heaving like giants, they hauled the lifeboat into the crowd at the top of the winding and abrupt declivity which leads to the beach of the bay.

Howl, demoniacal winds; rage, hungry waves around the fainting seamen in their broken boat! The Vikings are upon you, the men who brought the lifeboat overland.

The steep road down to the shore is a mass of ice; the horses cannot stand upon it; the seas break fiercely over the wall. The men of Robin Hood’s Bay come forward. They are Vikings too. They lash the hind wheels of the carriage. The seize the ropes, the boat, the wheels, the sides, nine hundred lusty men, and they dash the thing down to the water with one mighty rush.

Then no time is lost. Swiftly the men of the crew are dressed, the boat is launched, and with a lurch and a plunge leaps bodily into the storm.

But all is not yet over. The sea is something tremendous; the coast is a mass of hidden reefs; and in a few minutes the lifeboat is hurled back, beaten, to the shore, with all the oars on one side broken, and half the crew exhausted or disabled.

It is three hours now since the men of Whitby formed their grand and daring resolution. All that time the crew of the sunken vessel have been holding on in hopeless desperation, knowing nothing of the efforts made on their behalf; hearing nothing but the shriek of the tempest and the thunder of the waves; seeing nothing but the vast, dark hillsides of water, the misty loom of the land, and the baffling veil of eddying snowflakes, whirling, whirling.

Eight men of the lifeboat’s crew are out of action; eight volunteers take their places. Eight oars are shattered; eight more are shipped from the damaged boat belonging to the bay. A pilot also, a fisherman of the village, goes aboard, and again the boat is rushed into the billows.

Rescue or death these men will win. The boat must go, shall go; the blood of the Vikings is on fire; they would in their present temper fetch their comrades ashore though hell itself should gape.

Out again into the mirk and fury. Out in the boat they have carried overland. Out under the eyes of all the gallant men and brave women of the village. Out in the teeth of the tempest, into the roaring, rolling black-green valleys of the shadow of death. Now rising on the crest of some huge roller, now hidden from sight in some fearful, hissing pit, now hurled upon its beam ends by the sudden impact of a heavy sea, the Whitby boat fights its way towards the men who shall be rescued.

Not till the lifeboat was close upon them had those desperate, clinging wretches any knowledge of the succour so heroically brought. Fainting with fatigue, perished with cold, still they hold on – stubborn, but hopeless. They cannot see the lifeboat, they cannot see the shore.

And now, now comes the glorious moment. We are upon them; we shall save them. No; they are giving way, they will be lost, and we within a hundred yards of them. The crisis is bitter in its intensity. The coxswain of the Whitby boat, Henry Freeman, turns to his crew, and in his great, deep voice cries: “Now, my lads, give them a rousing cheer”; and over the scream of the gale, and over the roar of the sea, and over the hiss of the brine, goes up the Vikings’ shout, the shout of victory!

Oh, it was a glorious day! a strife of giants! a triumph of heroes! Imagine the delighted enthusiasm, the frantic excitement of the crowd when the shipwrecked crew were landed on that dangerous rocky shore, snatched from the very jaws of death – saved, saved to a man! – saved by the dauntless courage and magnificently heroic devotion of the fishermen of Whitby, who brought their lifeboat overland.

Reproduced from Vanguard, issue 32, December 1980

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