THE MARY STANFORD LIFEBOAT TRAGEDY
Nearly 90 years ago, on November 15, 1928, the worst disaster occurred in the history of British lifeboats. In those days, lifeboats were powered by oarsmen and sails and not self-righting, as they are today. An old steamship, the Alice of Riga, carrying a load of bricks, was making her way down channel. The wind wind blowing force 10, the seas were mountainous and visibility severely restricted. A larger vessel, The Smyrna, despite having reduced speed due to the conditions, ploughed into the stern of the Alice.
A distress signal was sent out, maroons were fired and the lifeboat crew set off in the early hours to walk the mile and a half to launch the lifeboat. The tide was out so they had to drag the boat across the shingle. It took several attempts to launch her. Meanwhile, the crew of the Alice abandoned ship and took to the lifeboats. Despite the horrendous weather conditions the Riga succeeded in rescuing all 14 crew members. A message was sent to the lifeboat crew but it was too late - they had already set sail.
Later that morning the lifeboat was seen off the harbour mouth, possibly waiting for to enough water to cross the sand bar. She was seen to alter course - the wind was still blowing gale force - then she disappeared in a squall. The next sighting was of her capsizing.
Although searches were made, none of 17 crew members was saved. These were the cream of the men from the village of Rye Harbour - not a single family, in the tight-knit community - was unaffected.
‘Waves may batter men’s bodies, but they cannot touch brave souls. Search Sussex, search England and you could not find braver men, every man was a volunteer.’
What is now known as the old lifeboat house still stands as a sad testament to those who lost their lives in selfless sacrifice.