The two Hayling Island lifeboats and their volunteer crews are now at their busiest. But if it hadn’t been for Trevor Pearce and friends, they might not exist at all.
If it hadn’t been for a wreck uncovered by last winter’s storms, two children might have died this week.
Trevor Pearce is looking at the coverage The News gave this week to the skeletal remains of the Ocean, which were exposed for the first time by the vicious gales earlier this year.
The 100ft, 85-ton schooner was lost on East Winner Bank, off Hayling Island, in a fierce storm in January 1865. Two of her crew of five died, but the other three were rescued.
They owed their lives to the heroic action of Major Worgram Festing from Fort Cumberland, Eastney, and a 12-strong crew of volunteer Hayling fishermen in a 10-oar cutter.
They rowed out through the raging gale to pluck the trio to safety. They had climbed the mast to avoid the waves crashing over the deck and when they were finally brought ashore were described in the Evening News as being ‘more dead than alive’.
‘It was a turning point,’ says Trevor. ‘Three years earlier there had been another rescue, this time from a schooner called The Cygnet which ended up aground on the bar at the entrance to Langstone Harbour with waves breaking over her. The crew were up in the rigging for more than two tides.
‘It was after these two incidents that Major Festing and a group of others started petitioning anyone who would listen for a lifeboat at Hayling Island.
‘The local press and dignitaries rallied round and quickly a lifeboat was donated by Leaf and Company in the City of London and a lifeboat station was built,’ adds Trevor. This station still stands today as the Inn On The Beach.
‘The lifeboat was named Olive Leaf after the daughter of the donor family and we still have a pub of that name on Hayling seafront to this day.’
In those days, when the shout went up for the lifeboat, two butcher’s boys were despatched to run around the island ringing handbells. This summoned the horses, as well as the crew, needed to haul the Olive Leaf into the surf.
Major Festing went on to have a stellar military career and is why we have Festing Road and Festing Grove named after him at Southsea.
There’s little 67-year-old Trevor doesn’t know about the history of the Hayling lifeboat. He now runs the museum alongside the impressive £1.2m Royal National Lifeboat Institution station at Eastoke Point, with its stunning views across Chichester Harbour’s entrance towards East Head and West Wittering beach.
The 35 or so men and women who form red, white and blue watches, all volunteers, are on call 24 hours a day providing cover for the 10,000 boat owners and their crews who are based in Chichester Harbour, to all mariners in the eastern approaches to the Solent and, of course, for those bathing in the sea.
And if it hadn’t been for them, those two children who were swept out to sea at the entrance to the harbour earlier this week might not be alive to see this weekend.
The history of the station is chequered. After the First World War the RNLI closed it. The nature of shipping had changed. Ships were now powered by steam, were bigger and sailed farther out into the English Channel instead of hugging the coastline. ‘There was no need for a rowing lifeboat any more,’ says Trevor.
But in the early 1970s the RNLI realised a station was needed again and one was reopened on the current site in 1974.
Trevor, a former senior helmsman who as a crew member saw the station save 586 lives, was an auxiliary coastguard on Hayling in the early 1960s.
He and a handful of others recognised the folly of leaving the island without cover. Trevor says: ‘Back then Hayling was manic in the summer. We had thousands of people here. The roads on and off the island were constantly jammed and we had no rescue facilities at all.
‘Hayling had a bad reputation for drownings, not just because of the tides, but simply because we couldn’t do anything about it.
‘If we got a call about a swimmer in trouble, unless you dived in yourself, there was little you could do about it quickly.
‘We had to ring the coastguard at Shoreham, and bear in mind that in those days we had no radios and no phone so we had to run to one of the half-dozen or so phone boxes on Hayling seafront.
‘Shoreham would then contact the Selsey lifeboat who would fire their maroons to raise the crew and then they’d come to Hayling.
‘It took about an hour and 10 minutes... for a swimmer in trouble. Ridiculous eh?’
As we chat, Trevor constantly scans the water which is heaving with Moths – the sailing hydrofoil dinghies which fly over the water – preparing for the world championships at Hayling Island Sailing Club which begin this weekend.
‘Eventually we got fed up with it all,’ continues Trevor, ‘so a group of us decided to buy our own lifeboat. We set up a coastguard rescue shoreboat and called ourselves the Hayling Island Sea Rescue and Research Organisation.’
It proved itself time and again, so much so that the RNLI reviewed its organisation and agreed to re-open the Hayling station in 1974, 50 years after it had closed.
Trevor says: ‘We’ve proved our worth on countless occasions. I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved over the years and the hundreds of lives we’ve saved.
‘But if it hadn’t been for the wreck of the Ocean and Major Festing’s heroism we might never have been here at all.’