In 1838 a privately-owned pilot gig was used to rescue the schooner Rivals which got into difficulty off the coast of St Ives. The bravery of the men who went out in it can only be imagined. The Cornish pilot gig (now used for inshore racing), is a six-oared wooden rowing boat, about thirty feet long, with a beam of four feet ten inches and a top speed of about eight knots. Whilst the sea was as treacherous as ever these early rescuers had none of the equipment and features a modern lifeboat crew would regard as essential.
In 1840 St Ives got its first purpose-built lifeboat, Hope, although she was not much safer than the pilot gigs she replaced. Hope was a rowing boat with no radio, no cabin and no mechanism to prevent her capsizing in the huge seas that the coast around St Ives is regularly subject to. Countless craft have come and gone since Hope. Many wore out after too many years of service. Many more were wrecked, smashed against the rocks and sunk. Today’s lifeboat bears very little resemblance to its original predecessor, aside from the fact that it is still manned by a volunteer crew and managed by a committee of townsfolk. The Mersey class Princess Royal, brought into service in 1990, cost half a million pounds, has a range of one hundred and forty nautical miles and a maximum speed of seventeen knots.
The RNLI took over the running of the St Ives lifeboat in 1860, when the first lifeboat house was built. Inconveniently, it was built at Porthgwidden, from where it had to be towed through the streets before being launched off the Sloop. In 1867 the lifeboat house was rebuilt in Fore Street, and in 1911 it was rebuilt again, at the Quay (now a restaurant). The most recent house was constructed in 1994, across the road from the Quay. Although it has a new, purpose-built slipway, there is still the need for a special launching tractor to tow the lifeboat into deep water when the tide is out.
The first motorised lifeboat, the Caroline Parsons, was introduced to St Ives in 1933, only to be destroyed in a dramatic rescue in January 1938, when it went to the aid of a three thousand seven hundred tonne steamer that had headed into the exposed and dangerous Porthmeor beach by accident, mistaking it for the harbour. The Caroline Parsons managed to get all twenty three of the crew off the ship, before being washed up onto rocks to the north of the beach. All the lifeboat crew survived, although five of the rescued crew were lost, as was the lifeboat.
Less than a year later St Ives lost yet another lifeboat. This time, however, most of the crew did not survive. In January 1939 a large steamer ran into trouble off Cape Cornwall during a force ten gale. The St Ives boat was launched at three in the morning, crewed by eight men, including Coxswain Tommy Cockings. They made it as far as Clodgy Point before capsizing. The boat self-righted, as it was designed to do, but with a failed engine and only four of its crew. The boat drifted towards the island, where the surviving crew managed to drop anchor, but the sea was so rough that the rope broke and the lifeboat drifted out to sea again, where it capsized a second time, losing another man. Only one crew member, William Freeman, managed to survive the third capsizing. He scrambled onshore as the lifeboat was smashed against the rocks at Godrevy. Bronze medals were awarded to all eight crew members for their heroic actions. Over the years there have been two more Tommy Cockings on the crew of the St Ives lifeboat, the son and the grandson of the coxswain lost in 1939.
Every August on Lifeboat Day, St Ives lifeboat station opens its doors to the public for a fun-packed day of stalls, a barbecue and a demonstration with Search and Rescue helicopters from Culdrose.